For Indigenous people to remain resilient stewards of ecosystems and culture in the face of anticipated threats like climate change and territorial exploitation, as well as unanticipated threats like the COVID-19 pandemic that induced present self-imposed Indigenous isolation around the world, they need access to reliable and affordable sources of decentralized “off-grid” clean energy.
The specific autonomously determined needs and ambitions of each Indigenous community are different and evolving, but the benefits of connecting off-grid Indigenous communities to reliable clean sources of energy are profound and empowering.
Energy can help ensure access to quality education and information through cross-community radio communication and external communication through cell phones and internet. Through coordination and knowledge sharing this connectivity also helps in the protection of territories from often violent outside encroachment.
Reliable energy access also helps ensure food and clean water security, as well as access to public health resources. Depending on the ambitions of individual communities or associations of contiguous communities, energy can also increase productivity and access to markets for alternative income generating opportunities.
These and other potential benefits of reliable access to “modern” energy sources, are all internationally recognized pillars for improving quality of life.
The main geographic focus of this article is the Colombian Amazon, due to its high proportion and diversity of Indigenous communities, its difficulty of access and distance from the national grid system, its lack of basic health and education services, and the regional and global environmental importance of the Amazon Biome. Off-grid Indigenous Amazonian communities in other countries and traditional communities in diverse and dynamic ecosystems around the world are also pertinent to this analysis. In “megadiverse” Colombia this includes off-grid communities of the Choco Rainforest on Colombia’s Pacific Coast, Caribbean island communities off Colombia’s Atlantic Coast, isolated Indigenous communities in the Andes and Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountain Ranges, and the Wayuu ethnic group in the northeastern desert of La Guajira.
A Slow and Neglectful Off-Grid Energy Transition in Colombia
In Colombia, as in many other parts of the world, the “renewable energy transition” is a prominent topic at the national level. While the Law 1715 of 2014 incentivizes and provides some potential infrastructure for the investment in “non-conventional” renewable energies － which does not include pervasive and damaging large hydroelectric dams － the renewable energy transition in “post-conflict” Colombia so far has focused mostly on macro-projects. Attention has been placed particularly on the vast wind and solar potential of the La Guajira desert region in the northeast of Colombia, where extending the national grid to help diversify the energy sources of industry and growing urban centers like Bogotá and Medellín makes a lot of practical and economic sense. Some other isolated medium-large scale wind, solar, and biomass initiatives have also been explored in other parts of the country.
Off-grid communities remain an often forgotten and neglected part of these and other national development plans. According to my colleague, professor Omar Prias, who works at the National University of Colombia and consults for various government entities in the energy sector, “The government entity IPSE, which is affiliated to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, is responsible for rural electrification and coordinating off-grid energy projects. The weak political and financial structure behind IPSE, however, has made support and analysis of the kinds of participatory, integrated, sustainable and renewable off-grid energy projects that build capacities and benefit off-grid communities, severely lacking to this point.”
While more than 90% of Colombians are part of the “National Interconnected System” (the “grid”), 66% of Colombian national territory is off-grid, with the largest “Non-Interconnected Zone” being most of the Colombian Amazon.
Within the bioculturally diverse Colombian Amazon are 56 recognized Indigenous ethnic groups, almost all of which are “energy impoverished” and live off-grid within their territories. For these and many other off-grid communities around the world, costly, noisy and polluting diesel generators with limited hours of operation, as well as kerosene for lighting and cooking, are the only semi-practical energy sources beyond the traditional burning of local biomass.
Diesel for energy generation in non-interconnected areas, where its price is four-five times more expensive than in connected urban areas, is actually subsidized by public funds to the tune of around 12 million dollars annually, which is nearly half of Colombia’s present public off-grid energy “budget.” In reality though, even with these subsidies, diesel still has a much higher “levelized cost of energy” (LCOE) － lifetime costs divided by energy production － for communities than many cleaner energy alternatives, including biodigesters and other forms of efficient bioenergy and local biomass use.
Some Off-Grid Renewable Energy Examples in the Amazon
There have been a number of innovative small-scale and pilot renewable energy initiatives of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), researchers and entrepreneurs in the Amazon that have shown promise － especially in Brazil and Ecuador, but also in Colombia, Peru and other Amazonian countries. Many of these initiatives are based around stand-alone photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, but there are also pico-hydroelectric designs and hybrid microgrids that combine intermittent solar with diesel or micro-hydroelectric energy generators.
For example, Amazon Conservation Team has installed hundreds of stand-alone pico-PV systems within Indigenous communities along Colombia’s Caqueta River Basin. This “Base of the Pyramid”(BoP) approach is considered “culturally appropriate” and provides solar lamps and charging stations for mobile phones and radio communication devices. The “Imagine Light” project, developed by Love for Life and supported by Amazon Frontlines, has moved up the pyramid － also referred to as the “Energy Ladder” － in the Ecuadorian Amazon, with a more robust “solar system” with battery storage and an inverter that allows for the powering of higher voltage (120 V/ 220 V) alternating current (AC) appliances like computers and refrigerators. Also in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Kara Solar has built an innovative “solar canoe” for the Achuar peoples. Plug the Sun has developed a range of solar-based solutions in Peru and Argentina, from stand-alone photovoltaics to solar-storage mini-grids.
Back in Colombia a German company called Smart Hydro Power has set up several pilot projects around the country, including within an Indigenous community of the Muina Murui (“Huitoto”) ethnic group of the Colombian Amazon. Smart Hydro combines their hydrokinetic “in-stream” river turbine, which provides base-load power, with intermittent PV panels, along with a backup diesel generator, to create their “SMART Hybrid System.” This design is very adaptable and holds a lot of promise for isolated Indigenous communities in the Amazon that need reliable 24-hour energy to power schools, health clinics, cooling equipment, water pumps, food processors and to increase productivity and income generation.
Abandoned off-grid solar energy initiative within a Tikuna Indigenous community. Amazonas, Colombia. Photo by D.H. Rasolt.
On the other hand, many off-grid energy projects in Colombia have neglected culturally-appropriate knowledge exchange, self-determination and participatory integrated planning, as well as the sufficient training of community members for the appropriation, maintenance and operation of the implemented technologies. These kinds of projects also rarely have plans for long-term investment or technical support once the systems are installed. “In the case of Colombia, several initiatives have failed due to technical problems and lack of training for the community to manipulate, operate or carry out simple repairing tasks,” wrote Professor Maximiliano Bueno Lopez of Cauca University and co-authors in a paper for the 2019 IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference.
COVID-19 Reinforces the Need for Reliable Energy Access in Indigenous Territories
Indigenous communities are currently self-isolating in a necessary attempt to block COVID-19 from entering into their vulnerable territories, where it would have disastrous consequences. The lack of access to reliable clean energy sources will make this isolation difficult and potentially dangerous for many communities, as their supply of diesel and gasoline － for those that have diesel generators and motorized boats － could easily be cut off, or the machines could require repairs. This in turn will cut their access to electricity-dependent communication and cooling appliances, medical equipment, water purification systems, cross-community trade, and much more.
Unsanitary communal conditions, contaminated water supplies and the need for certain community members to break isolation in order to search for alimentation, medicine and fuel for transport and electricity generation, will further put entire communities at risk of becoming infected. With no electricity and communication with the outside world, the latest information and advice about COVID-19 will not find its way into many communities, leaving them literally and figuratively in the dark to a rapidly evolving and poorly understood pandemic.
In the event that COVID-19 does enter into some of these isolated Indigenous communities, the lack of access to reliable electricity will greatly exacerbate the situation. The means to inform authorities will be limited, and the ability to test and to treat severe cases at local health posts or evacuate inflicted patients to the nearest urban health center will be nearly impossible. Furthermore, while all indigenous people are at high risk to developing complications from this zoonotic disease, Indigenous elders － who are vital to the socio-cultural fabric of Indigenous communities － are the most vulnerable to dying from COVID-19 (and other respiratory ailments), so a truly devastating tragedy could unfold for many isolated communities.
In a rare bout of general good news for the poor people of Colombia, Colombian engineers successfully built a cheap ventilator with a Raspberry Pi computer, that will hopefully be produced and distributed to impoverished urban and rural areas, but of course their functionality depends on a continuous source of electricity. Most Indigenous communities in non-interconnected areas will be unable to benefit from this potentially life-saving technology.
An Integrated Way Forward
Long-term clean energy solutions for off-grid Indigenous communities must take an integrated systems approach. Simply determining present needs and building capacity within the communities will not be enough. Socio-cultural structures, interdependence, traditional knowledge, future ambitions, and preparedness to appropriate new technologies, must always be considered. Leaving space for future innovation in the sector is also key to long-term planning and success.
The focus should be placed on an adaptable complex framework and the evolving culturally-appropriate ambitions and long-term resilience of each community, while not pushing any individual technology or productive capacity as a one-size-fits-all long-term solution to “rural electrification.” Different distributed energy technologies can be presented, selected and tried based on an integrated multidisciplinary and intercultural analysis at a particular reference point in time and geography, but these technologies should be able to be maintained, improved, adapted and/or switched out for superior technologies that better meet future needs.
For example, user-centric microgrids powered by hybrid solar and micro-hydroelectric systems, based upon community participation － including training, operating, maintaining, repairing and managing the system － may be the best option as determined by many Indigenous communities in the Amazon today, but for future generations these systems may need to give way to, or be integrated with, technologies that are presently undeveloped, too costly, or impractical. Examples of advanced technologies in development that may revolutionize the decentralized energy sector and benefit off-grid communities in the future include thermal storage with molten salts and a range of other materials, concentrated solar power and solar cookers, solid-state and flow batteries, super-efficient off-grid appliances, and “plug-and-play” nuclear microreactors with passive safety features. Unanticipated scientific and engineering breakthroughs may trigger a whole range of other exciting innovations over the coming years and decades.
Muina Murui Indigenous leader Jorge Furagaro, whose community lies off-grid along the Caqueta River, is a recognized presence in negotiations between Indigenous people of the Colombian Amazon and the Colombian government. He has also worked as a regional representative for Indigenous Amazonians on the international stage, through COICA and OPIAC. Furagaro had this to say to me when we spoke recently about the need for reliable clean energy for off-grid Indigenous communities like his own:
“We have a right to our territories and to self-determination. Any just and sustainable planning for us as Indigenous people in the Amazon depends on access to quality health and education, security, transport, communication and culturally-appropriate income. For this we need energy. We need energy that helps us autonomously bring ourselves out of poverty and repression, so that we can continue to live and thrive and protect our sacred forests.”
The present mass voluntary isolation of Indigenous communities due to COVID-19 should lead those working with Indigenous communities to reevaluate and reprioritize. Once myself and others are able to safely get back to work on integrated, multidisciplinary, intercultural, community-based projects with traditional Indigenous people, an essential goal should be to help them construct and/or fortify adaptable complex socio-ecological structures for long-term autonomous development and to remain resilient in the face of future threats. Reliable access to clean and renewable energy will be fundamental to this process, to the future quality of life for off-grid Indigenous people, and to the future of the ecosystems that they protect and we all depend upon.
Banner Image: “Energy Transitions” – Vannessa Circe – Oil on Canvas – 30″ x 40″ – April 2020