Eye on the Amazon

Solar Power Lights Up Amazon Communities Fighting Dirty Energy

  • Flying over Sápara territory in Ecuador's remote Amazon. Photo credit: Amazon Watch
  • Solar panels arriving in Jandayaku. Photo credit: Amazon Watch
  • Juan Carlos Ruiz and Felipe Ushigua setting up frames for solar panels in Llanchamacocha. Photo credit: Amazon Watch
  • Installing solar panels at Llancamacocha. Photo credit: Amazon Watch
  • John Parnell and Sápara community members work to setup radio antenna. Photo credit: Amazon Watch
  • Kevin Koenig and Sápara 'tecnicos' assemble solar system in the community Torimbo. Photo credit: Amazon Watch
  • A successful installation! Photo credit: John Parnell
  • Sápara families install solar panels in Torimbo. Photo credit: Amazon Watch
  • Finalizing the install in Torimbo. Photo credit: Amazon Watch
  • Sápara families helping to install solar and radio in Jandayaku. Photo credit: Amazon Watch
  • A successful solar installation completes in Torimbo. Photo credit: Amazon Watch
"The government can't call us hypocrites for opposing oil extraction yet using dirty diesel generators. We've made the first big step towards being fossil fuel-free – the government should learn from us." Juan Carlos Ruiz, Sápara community leader

After loading in steel poles, solar panels, radio gear, food, and water, the Aero Sarayaku planes groaned under the weight. The weather wasn't helping either. It had rained nonstop all night, and now into the morning, and the small Cessnas can't fly in the rain or in bad weather. Our anxiety grew as the rain fell, knowing we were working against the clock and the rainy season to install solar power and radio systems in several indigenous communities deep in Ecuador's Amazon that find themselves on the front lines of government plans open up their territory to oil extraction. We were anxious to get this second of three solar projects in Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil, in partnership with Empowered by Light (EBL), off the ground.

Alternative energy solutions for communities that Keep It In The Ground

We have long worked to advance the rights of indigenous peoples and support their efforts to defend their lives, land, and culture through advocacy. Now, thanks to the partnership with EBL, we are also able to respond to the call from our indigenous community partners for greater independence from fossil fuels, inter-community organizing capacity, ability to communicate with the outside world, and monitoring mechanisms. These tools are key as they endeavor to implement their own forms of sustainable development, community visions, and territorial and cultural defense throughout the Amazon. This is a new, important direction for Amazon Watch and our partners, and one you'll be hearing more about in the future.

On this trip, we were headed to the territory of the Sápara, a small nation of about 700 people with about 361,00 hectares of contiguous pristine rainforest extending to the Peruvian border and which forms part of the headwaters of the Amazon. The Sápara received recognition from UNESCO in 2001 for their "Intangible Cultural Heritage", a category that recognizes unique traditions inherited from their ancestors such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe. Today, only a handful of elders speak the Sápara language, and their culture and lands are at risk.

In 2014, the Ecuadorian government auctioned two oil blocks overlapping Sápara titled territory to Andes Petroleum, a Chinese state-run oil company with major drilling plans. The Sápara are adamantly opposed to oil extraction in their territory, and they have been a key voice for preventing previous drilling projects in the Ecuadorian Amazon. They have also actively worked to build bridges between indigenous movements in the north and south seeking to keep fossil fuels in the ground. But the threat has never been so imminent; in recent months the company and government have repeatedly sought to enter Sápara territory, and a newly-elected government in Ecuador has signaled no change to plans to expand oil drilling into the most remote rainforest of the country's Amazon.

Facing these threats, the Sápara requested a solar-powered communications system that would allow them to communicate with the outside world from inside their remote territory, in their own voice, about their efforts to protect their forests and preserve their culture, and also to monitor, document, and defend against oil company threats. Together with the Sápara federation (Nacionalidad Sápara del Ecuador NASE) and the NGO Terra Mater, our team designed a system. After six months of planning, and purchasing and shipping gear, the project was finally underway.

The installation begins

The skies let up for a moment, so we jumped into the planes to take advantage of that small window. Our team, comprised of myself, Tripp Hyde from Hyde Engineering Services, and long-time radio geek to the environmental and rights movement John Parnell, finally departed the Shell airport (the town's name a reminder of previous oil company efforts to drill dating back to the 1940s when the namesake company unsuccessfully sought to open up Ecuador's Amazon to drilling).

It's roughly a 40-minute flight to Sápara territory. We fly over the forest heading northeast, going farther and farther, as roads give way to rivers and degraded forest transforms into contiguous canopy. The secret to Ecuador's biodiverse forests becomes apparent: the nooks and crannies. Sápara territory, like the whole of Ecuador's Amazon, is mountainous, which creates pockets of micro-climates and temperate zones that allow endemic species to flourish and some to even survive the Pleistocene ice age, resulting in modern-day biodiversity levels that are some of the highest on the planet.

Of course, that very ecosystem has made this project more complicated. With no easily navigable rivers, all the gear has to enter by plane, measured out meticulously pound by pound. An advance team, including our Amazon Watch field coordinator Carlos Mazabanda, had already divided up much of the gear and sent it out to the communities of Llanchamacocha, Torimbo, and Jandayaku.

Though the rain clouds made for a turbulent flight, it was magical. Somewhere mid flight, as the skies began to clear, leaving mist clinging to the mountain tops, you could see it – the living Amazon, breathing as one ecosystem, collectively inhaling and exhaling. I was witnessing the lungs of the planet at work, its cycles on full display: photosynthesis and respiration absorbing and storing C02 while releasing oxygen, transpiration and the water cycle at work producing one-fifth of the world's fresh flowing water.

After five attempts to land on a foggy, muddy airstrip, we finally arrived at Llanchamacocha. The community gathered and picked a location to site the radio and panels. In each community, we would be installing four, 300-watt solar panels, along with several solar-powered radio kits, and ultimately satellite internet.

Tripp, whose name doesn't lend itself to Spanish pronunciation or translation, became known as "Chico Tres", and John, the radio tecnico, simply became "Walkie Talkie". By default, I became "Chico Uno". Nicknames in place, the work could begin.

Over the next day and a half, the Sápara worked with the team to construct the systems, which required clearing land, building a 25-foot antenna, and installing and learning to operate and maintain the system. Other than breaks for the fermented drink chicha and tobacco, the team worked at breakneck pace.

Putting community values into practice

In a community meeting on the project and gear, community leader Juan Carlos Ruiz explained, "This will not only give us a renewable energy source, it will allow us to better protect our forest and defend Sápara culture. We can monitor our territory from the mountain tops, better organize among our communities down river, and let the world know what is happening to us so we can enlist their support. And now, the government can't call us hypocrites for opposing oil extraction yet using dirty diesel generators. We've made the first big step towards being fossil fuel-free – the government should learn from us."

The next morning, with radio antenna up and solar panels in, connected, and grounded, the system was turned on. It functioned! The Sápara divided up the handheld radios and portable solar chargers, loaded them in backpacks, and set off to test distance and reception.

As the sun started to peer over the mountain, a plane could be heard in the distance, approaching to take us on to Torimbo and Jandayaku. Over the next five days we installed similar systems in both communities, laid the groundwork for the satellite internet installation, and continued capacity-building and system maintenance training with the newly-minted Sápara technicians.

In the weeks and months ahead, we hope to bring solar power, strategic communications systems and training to other indigenous communities threatened by resource extraction and on the front lines of climate change. These tangible, scalable projects are the strategic complement to advocacy campaigns for communities that want to engage the outside world in their fight to keep the oil in the ground. They are also a key part of the long-term vision of our indigenous partners – and we already have a long list of communities that are asking for support.

Join us in helping to grow this program, bringing light and building communications capacity throughout the the Amazon!

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