Solar power systems installed to generate clean, reliable energy for remote communities in the Amazon forest are now playing a key role in helping them combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since 2015, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has supported organizations working to provide solar systems to Amazon communities that lack access to electrical grids. Hundreds of Indigenous communities and traditional communities — which include non-Indigenous peoples and river dwellers — have been equipped with solar panels and associated equipment, as well as the training needed to operate and maintain it.
Solar power generates clean, renewable energy that provides a range of environmental and social benefits. It also is helping isolated communities in the Amazon, which are more vulnerable to new viruses, reduce contact with outsiders from COVID-19 hotspots.
Over the past year, COVID-19 has infected more than 48,000 Indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon and killed about 970, including several tribal leaders, according to APIB, Brazil’s largest Indigenous association. Without solar systems, the toll would be much higher, according to Mott-supported organizations working in the region.
“Solar power has saved lives in the Amazon — that’s not an exaggeration,” said Isidoro Hazbun, public affairs and programs support manager at Amazon Conservation Team. “These solar systems have been really important for communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
ACT is one of several organizations that have received Mott funding to increase access to renewable energy in the Amazon. Mott has provided $7.2 million to date for that work, which is ongoing. The initiative has resulted in solar systems being installed in isolated traditional and Indigenous communities across Brazil, Colombia and Peru.
Solar power provides multiple benefits that help to mitigate the spread and severity of COVID-19 in the Amazon, according to organizations working in the region. Those benefits include:
- Reliable electricity, which has improved medical treatment, enabled some communities to refrigerate vaccines and other medications, and reduced the need for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to travel outside their isolated communities to obtain fuel for antiquated generators, which could put them in contact with outsiders who may have COVID-19.
- Clean, sustainable energy that reduces the need to use diesel-powered generators to produce electricity. Those generators pollute the air and cause lung ailments, which can worsen the effects of COVID-19.
- Increased access to clean water. Solar-powered wells provide water that is often safer than river water, which has enabled Indigenous and traditional communities to improve personal hygiene — one of the most effective tools for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
- Increased access to reliable information about the pandemic and health resources via radios and computers with internet access.
Indigenous communities in the Amazon are more vulnerable to new viruses due to their relative isolation, meager health care services and the tightknit nature of tribes, which allows new viruses to spread rapidly and makes social distancing difficult. Brazil’s Indigenous communities have suffered a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases, according to an article in Oxford University’s Journal of Public Health.
“Modern, clean energy is providing resiliency for forest communities that they wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Traci Romine, an Environment program officer at Mott.
Solar systems installed in Brazil’s Xingu and Panara Indigenous territories by another organization that Mott supports, the Socio-Environmental Institute, became part of the medical infrastructure needed to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in the Amazon. Solar power made it possible to adequately refrigerate vaccines during transport across a remote, forested region that is roughly the size of Massachusetts.
“We’ve been working for 26 years to recognize and value Brazil’s socio-environmental diversity and the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities,” said Biviany Rojas, coordinator of the Xingu project for the Socio-Environmental Institute. “The worsening of the scenario with the COVID-19 pandemic challenged us to advocate for greater health actions to meet the needs of our partners in the territories where we operate.”
The Institute has installed photovoltaic systems in 78 communities in the Xingu Indigenous Territory. ACT has installed 80 systems in Indigenous and traditional communities across some of the most remote and underserved areas of the Colombian Amazon. Other Mott-supported organizations also have installed solar systems in Amazon forest communities.
Collectively, 64,213 people in the Amazon have benefitted from Mott-funded solar systems, according to data provided by the Socio-Environmental Institute, ACT and other organizations the Foundation supports.
In addition to its ongoing support for solar power, Mott responded to the pandemic by providing an additional $180,000 in emergency assistance to its grantees working in the Amazon. Those organizations delivered food and medical supplies to forest communities (sometimes in canoes), maintained access to reputable information about the virus and helped reduce contact with outsiders to the greatest extent possible.
Some Mott-supported organizations expanded the scope of their work in response to the pandemic. The Socio-Environmental Institute, for instance, has added work on strengthening communications, food security, health care and the forest economy.
Another Mott grantee, the Casa Socio-Environmental Fund, pivoted during the pandemic to provide small grants for food and medical supplies to Amazon communities.
“Normally we don’t provide humanitarian support, but we were in a great strategic position to access the Indigenous territories and could not shirk our responsibility because of bureaucratic obstacles,” said Cristina Orpheo, executive director of the organization. “The reaction of families who received the food baskets was hard to describe — a mixture of joy, surprise and relief.”
Orpheo said COVID-19 has exposed glaring inequities in the services and benefits available to Indigenous communities and those enjoyed by “privileged layers of society.” She said many Amazon forest communities will need long-term assistance to recover from the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, in situations of calamity, vulnerable people are always the most affected,” Orpheo said. “We know this impact [from COVID-19] will remain in the life of communities for a long time.”