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Cool Change 3 — Get energized

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Radical changes are already here

In both the North and the South, communities are converting to more locally-based, sustainable lives. Lucia Ortiz – from Friends of the Earth in Brazil – reports on a cooperative of 6,000 families who already produce half of their energy without a bill in sight. With similar examples from the United States, Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, explains the indigenous knowledge that can help us make this transition. (17’40”)

To listen to this episode of Cool Change, simply click on the play button in the audio player just above.

The full transcript with Lucia Ortiz and Tom Goldtooth follows:


Cool Change -- an audio adventure to discover how combating climate change can create a fairer world. Progressive people from Europe, Asia, Latin America, North America and Australia offer us successful strategies to confront climate change as well as some radical changes that are already taking place around the world.


Chris Richards:  Hello and welcome to Cool Change – progressive perspectives about climate change.  I’m Chris Richards and if you've been listening to other Cool Change interviews in these series you’ll have heard some exciting predictions already… how combating climate change can actually build more sustainable communities and start closing that canyon between the incomes of the rich and the poor.  Sounds great doesn’t it?  But how does it work in practice?  Well, let’s find out. Lucia Ortiz is a geologist who’s been working on biofuel issues with Friends of the Earth in Brazil.  And Tom Goldtooth is Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, a coalition of environmentalists from more that 250 Native American communities in the United States.  Tom, what examples are inspiring you at the moment?

Tom Goldtooth:  Well, we’ve been working on climate solutions for the past seven years, making a much-needed transition away from a fossil-fuel economy to a clean energy system.  What we’ve done as indigenous people is start to look at what we could do utilizing our traditional knowledge, our youth, our communities and our families to start addressing this issue of cutting back our use of energy and also pursuing clean energy development. One of the things that we are promoting is the right and ability of our indigenous tribes in North America to develop utility scale wind turbines in the prairie lands of the United States.  There are 300 to 600 gigawatts of wind power that is available and in these areas many of our indigenous tribes are located. So intertribal council on utility policy – who we call Intertribal Coup – has been able to work with the Rosebud Sioux Lakota Reservation in South Dakota to build the first utility scale Native American 750-kilowatt wind turbine.  This was in 2003 and they started this initiative in 1995.  The power from this 750-kilowatt turbine does have enough electricity to serve about 300 to 350 houses and is expected to produce more than 2 million kilowatt hours per year for this indigenous tribe in a very rural and remote area. 

In addition to that, we’ve been also working on small scale, off-the-grid systems where there’s remote indigenous homes that in some areas don’t have connections to the utility grids, and don’t have electricity.  But through solar panels and small wind turbines we’ve been able to get some homes retrofitted to be able to have some electricity.

Chris Richards:  Let me bring Lucia Ortiz into our conversation now.  Lucia you’ve got a great example of a community that’s lifted itself up through building energy connections like Tom’s been talking about.  Tell us about that.

Lucia Ortiz:  Well in Friends of the Earth when we are talking about energy transition we always consider these examples within a political framework of energy sovereignty.  That means the sovereignty of the people living on their territories to decide on models of energy and local sources of energy and participatory and social management of these resources. So in the rural areas we have here in the south of Brazil a very, very nice example that is based in the Uruguay River Basin.  That is the river that makes the border with Uruguay and Argentina.  So in the south of Brazil it’s a river full of dams already built and being planned, and also with some conflicts between Argentina and Uruguay, and more conflicts involving Brazil also, related to pulp and paper industry. In the upper part of this river basin, the majority are small farmers.  And these farmers were depending on rural electrification cooperatives to have access to electricity since the 60’s and the 70’s.  But these kind of cooperatives were working just like any other private company.  So around the middle of the 90’s this associated members of this cooperative, the great majority of them being small farmers… they got organized through the trade union of rural workers and demanded social control.  They got appropriated of the cooperative because of their own mobilization.  It was a time that the privatization of energy service was starting in Brazil. So in the end, they saw that they could try to manage the cooperative and the energy services and they would get to know much more about electricity, technology, energy markets and so on.  They took up the challenge.  They decided not to sell and not to go for the privatization of the cooperatives.  And some years later, they decided that instead of buying energy that they could also produce their own renewable energy using the local resources they had. So now, they have two mini hydro-dams in the region and they can provide more than a half of electricity for the small farmers there.  And they are also researching how to produce biogas and electricity from waste in the region. And finally, with this big fever of agrofuels and large scale monocultures for energy in Brazil, they started to fear that this region could also be dominated by large scale monocultures.  So they decided to make an alternative and to produce themselves their fuel.  20 years ago, they were cultivating sugar cane to feed the animals during the winter.  So they started to use the same small sugar cane plantations that they had in a diversified way of agriculture to produce ethanol in micro-distilleries for their own use and for the use of the associated members of the cooperative. Now they can produce their own energy for electricity supply and they can also produce their own fuel to distribute the products and the foods that they produce in the region.  And they are now very much empowered political actor and also discussing energy policies at the national level.  And it’s a very, very inspiring example that we have.

Chris Richards:  Wow!  That’s a great story you’ve just told.  I’m wondering how many farmers are we talking about here?  How many people involved?

Lucia Ortiz:  The associated members are 6,000 families. Ninety per cent of them are small farmers.  And a few members are living in urban areas of very small towns that recently got electrification.  And also they have three communities of indigenous people, Guaranis and Cainguangues, that are tribes here.

Tom Goldtooth:  You know, world leaders are starting to look at indigenous people for guidance on how to make it through this convergence of a crisis related to climate – the peak of oil and depletion of natural resources.  There’s been such a race to exploit natural resources we’re starting to find that mother earth does have limits.  It’s indigenous people that through thousands and thousands of years that have developed a way of life, a philosophy, a lifestyle and values of how to survive on this mother earth.  And I believe that what we have to offer is a value system of respect. There’s a saying that my elders told me – in the work that I do within the Indigenous Environmental Network, I have to remind human beings to re-evaluate what their relationship is to the sacredness of mother earth.  Because somewhere in the past people that have been born and reborn within what we call an industrialized mind-set and they have forgotten their identification; they have forgotten their face as far as the relationship to the sacred. So if people don’t have that understanding of what their relationship is to mother earth, then they will start to disrespect that relationship.  They won’t have a sense of community or even family and they will end up exploiting the sacredness of mother earth. 

What we call indigenous knowledge is that here in the United States as well as throughout the world, we’re starting to tell people that we have to look at sustainable alternative economic models that’s based upon indigenous knowledge and agricultural societies that maintain our people since time immemorial. 

So this definitely challenges a commodity-oriented economic system that promotes consumerism.  One of the challenges that we have is to really evaluate these rapid economic growth systems and this quest for corporate and individual: to re-evaluate the waste that we generate.  The challenge is to look at green energy, green chemistry, clean production, and these are all overlaid when we talk about climate change, because it’s really requiring is to re-evaluate who we are as a society.

Chris Richards:  Yes.  It’s an interesting prism that’s you’ve just given us and one that isn’t being discussed enough on the global stage.  I’m wondering, Tom, one of the principles if you like of this new economic democracy that Susan George and Walden Bello were talking to us about, involves bottom-up change.  In other words, the people taking control of the situation themselves and doing it.  Do you see that in the projects that are inspiring you at the moment?

Tom Goldtooth:  Definitely.  You know the focus will be on providing integrated systems in societies whether it’s urban, suburban or rural systems in both the North and South: to look at methods and values that build upon self-sufficiency, equity, local and regional control even in governance structures.  So it’s going to challenge the way that governance has been developed over time.

Chris Richards:  Lucia, you said that that was one of the foundation stones of successful projects within Brazil at the moment… of communities making this transition.  Can you tell us how that works on a practical level, because it is difficult to get 6,000 families to agree on a direction?

Lucia Ortiz:  Yes, they told us that before this transition to social control of the cooperative, the general assembly of the cooperative used to be six people deciding on something. But when they got back the social control of the cooperatives, more than 1,000 came for the general assembly.  But before that they have these meetings between their communities. They go to the communities one by one – more than 30 different municipalities – and talk to the people there.  And they consult them about the priorities on how to use the income generated in that year with each kind of project. And everybody has a say about that. And they bring this to the general assembly.

So they also make a very participatory and democratic way of decision-making and this makes the community much more involved.  And also they have this practice that they don’t charge people from the energy bill.  They ask for each community to say what they are consuming of energy, so each one in the community has his or her own word about what is being consumed.  So it’s also based on trust.  So they don’t spend a lot of money like in a fiscalization, or a policy of the meters of kilowatts spent.  They really share this with the community and also this trust. I can see that they feel very much empowered and they also tell us about improvements in the production of food because of the access of electricity. And also the improvement in the quality of supply of electricity that is much more dependable and then they can also run small agro-industries in the regions, improving the income of the people.  And one thing that they really made up is to appropriate the issue of energy because they knew how to produce food, how to deal with local markets of food.  And suddenly, they were very much involved on energy policies, not only in the local level but also in the national level.

Chris Richards:  And have they succeeded in moving government policy in a national level?

Lucia Ortiz:  Yes because in the S outh, we have other cooperatives and they started to follow their example to produce their own energy with local resources.  Also in this process of making cooperative of consumption and production, they’ve shorten the distances between the production and consumption.  And it’s also a way to localize economies.  And you know that when you’re consumption is based on local production, you know who are getting the benefits.

Chris Richards:  Local production is going to become a real issue in urban environments where before they were relying on oil and gas through transportation to get all their goods into their cities.  And we’re seeing shifts in that now where people are talking about growing their own stuff close to the perimeters of their cities.  What examples do you have for us about that urban transition?

Lucia Ortiz:  Well, we think that the whole issue of peak oil can be a blessing in a way.  That can be very, very difficult for people in the city to know how to live.  We have big, big cities and more than 80% of people are living in towns.  And we have the example of São Paulo, the biggest city in South America is surrounded by monocultures and needs a lot of food and products that have to come from abroad, from miles and miles away.  This is going to be a problem for this city when the energy and the special oil that makes all this logistic available is going to be more and more expensive.

So in Porto Alegre – the city where I live in the south of Brazil – we are living in a movement that we call How to live in the city in times of climate chaos and peak oil.  We are very much inspired by other in the international initiatives like the Transition Towns movement and we work a lot with permaculturist and also with bio-architecture. The way that people get organized in the city, when they rethink about where all the things that they need comes from food especially, but also mobilization of people in the city… how they move from the places that they work to the places they live and how they can do it in a collective way without using any fuels, like using bicycles.  So these people in the movement that we call How to live in the city – we get together once a month to discuss and also to exchange knowledge about urban agriculture that is something that few of us know about because we are very urban people without this knowledge.

Chris Richards:  Yes, yes!

Lucia Ortiz:  So we try to share with people living in the rural area of the city and we also are very lucky because we have several settlements even from the Landless Movement in Brazil.  We have around the city of Porto Alegre many settlements with people already doing a lot in terms of agro-ecology and producing a lot of food that provides food for people living in the city.  And with this exchange and with these dialogues among people in the city and in the rural areas, it’s a process where everybody is learning more and rethinking the way that we can be organized in the city to be less energy demanding.

Chris Richards:  That was Lucia Ortiz, a geologist who’s been working on biofuel issues with Friends of the Earth in Brazil.  And before her, Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. 

You’ve been listening to Cool Change produced by me, Chris Richards, for New Internationalist Publications.  The music that’s just coming up now as I’m waving goodbye, comes from that wonderful CD Dig Dig performed by Bob Brozman and René Lacaille from the World of Music Network’s wonderful collection of music from around the world.  Check it out at www.worldmusic.net …. and talk with you soon.

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