New Internationalist

Homegrown energy

Issue 419

Having rejected electricity privatization, 6,000 families in the south of Brazil now generate all their own renewable energy – and don’t charge a cent. Lucia Ortiz tells their inspiring story, and explains why peak oil could be a blessing.

They live on the river that forms the border with Uruguay and Argentina – a river in Brazil full of dams already built and being planned, where conflicts over pulp and paper industries are common. The majority living in the upper part of this Uruguay River Basin are small farmers. Since the 1960s these farmers have depended on rural electrification co-operatives for access to electricity. But these co-operatives worked just like any other private company…

So around the middle of the 1990s (when the privatization of energy services was starting in Brazil) the members of this co-operative known as CRERAL – 6,000 families in all – got organized through the trade union of rural workers and demanded control. They appropriated the co-operative and took up the challenge of controlling their own electricity supply – a group of farmers managing energy technology and markets! Some years later, they decided that instead of buying energy they could produce their own, renewably, using the local resources they had. So now they have two mini hydro-dams, which provide more than half the electricity for the small farmers living there.

They told me that before this transition, the general assembly of the co-operative used to be just six people making the decisions. But when they took over, more than 1,000 members started coming. Now, before a general assembly they go to the communities one by one – more than 30 different municipalities – and talk to the people there about their priorities on how to use the income generated during that year. Everybody has a say. And they bring the outcomes of these discussions to the general assembly.

The co-operative doesn’t charge people by sending them an energy bill. Instead, it asks each community to say what they have consumed in energy, and each person in the community gives his or her own word. So it’s based on trust – sharing the trust. This means they don’t spend a lot of money metering the kilowatts used.

I can see that the members feel much more empowered as a result. They also tell us about improvements in both the production of food (because of the better access to electricity), and the quality of supply of electricity (which is much more dependable). As a result, members of the co-operative can now run small agro-industries in the regions, improving the income of the people. Their members already knew how to produce food, and deal with local food markets. Now – as empowered political actors – they are also involved in energy policies, not only locally but at a national level.

Today, the co-operative is researching how to produce biogas and electricity from waste in their area. In addition, because of Brazil’s big fever of agrofuel production and the growth of large-scale monocultures for energy, the farmers started to fear that their region could become dominated by monocultures. So they decided to produce their own fuel. Twenty years ago they were cultivating sugar cane to feed the animals during winter. They started to use those same small sugar cane plantations to produce ethanol in micro-distilleries for their own use and for the use of the associated members of the co-operative, whilst continuing to use cane by-products to feed the animals. 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.

Other co-operatives in the south of Brazil have started to follow their example and produce their own energy with local resources. These local co-operatives shorten the distances between production and consumption. It’s a way to localize economies. And when your consumption is based on local production, you know who is benefiting!

Urban areas can benefit as well. More than 80 per cent of Brazil’s people are living in towns and cities – big, big cities. For instance, São Paulo – the biggest city in South America – is now surrounded by monocultures so that a lot of food and products have to come from abroad, or from miles and miles away. The energy and oil that makes all this logistically possible is getting more and more expensive. It’s going to be difficult for city people to know how to live.

But I personally think that the whole issue of peak oil could be a blessing. In Porto Alegre – the city where I live in the south of Brazil – we have started a movement that we call ‘How to live in the city in times of climate chaos and peak oil’. It’s a way for people to get organized, and rethink where each of the things that we need come from. Food especially, but also mobility: how people can move from the places where they work to the places where they live in a collective way without using any fuels… like using bicycles. We get together once a month to exchange knowledge about urban agriculture and we try to share ideas with people living in the rural area of the city. Around the city of Porto Alegre we have many settlements of people, including the landless movement, who are already doing a lot of agro-ecology and food production. With this exchange between people in the city and in the rural areas, everybody is learning more, and rethinking the way that we can be organized to be less energy demanding.

Lucia Ortiz is a geologist, working on biofuels with Friends of the Earth in Brazil.

Lucia and Tom were talking to NI co-editor Chris Richards. Hear their fuller discussions in Cool Change – a series of interviews at www.newint.org

Power in the wind

Tom Goldtooth describes how indigenous knowledge is helping supply electricity to homes which previously had none.

World leaders are starting to look to indigenous people for guidance on how to make it through this convergence of crises related to climate – the peak of oil and depletion of natural resources. It’s indigenous people who through thousands and thousands of years have developed a way of life, a philosophy, a lifestyle and values for how to survive on this Mother Earth. If people don’t understand their relationship to Mother Earth, then they will start to exploit it. A renewed respect for the earth will challenge a commodity-oriented economic system that promotes consumerism, rapid economic growth and the waste that we generate.

For the past seven years we’ve been making a much-needed transition away from a fossil-fuel economy to clean energy. One of the things that we are promoting is the right and ability of our indigenous tribes in North America to develop wind turbines in the prairie lands of the United States. There are 300 to 600 gigawatts of wind power available in areas where many of our indigenous tribes are located. So the inter-tribal council on utility policy has been able to work with the Rosebud Sioux Lakota Reservation in South Dakota to build the first Native American 750-kilowatt wind turbine. The power from this turbine has 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, we’ve also been working on small-scale, off-the-grid systems where there are remote indigenous homes that in some areas don’t have electricity. Through solar panels and small wind turbines some homes have been retrofitted to be able to have some electricity.

Whether it’s urban, suburban or rural, the focus of the future will be on providing integrated systems in societies in both the North and South: to look at methods and values that build upon self-sufficiency, equity, local and regional control. It’s about bottom-up change.

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.

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