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Archive for July, 2009

Jocelyn Maxine Kluger, a current intern with AsoFénix in Nicaragua, through the ESW Summer Engineering Experience in Development (SEED) Volunteer Program, writes about biodigestor installations & farming practices in Bramadero as well as cultural experiences she has encountered while in Nicaragua.

Since begining its involvment with the Bramadero community three years ago, AsoFénix has installed biodigestors behind three different houses. The biodigestor at the Gonzalez family´s house is a thick green plastic bag commercially produced in Mexico. AsoFénix installed this biodigestor in March of 2009, and the family has built a fence around it that prevents the community´s many free-roaming farm animals from puncturing the plastic. During my first week in Bramadero, AsoFénix spent a couple days doubling the capacity of the concrete cylindrical biodigestor behind Pedro´s house. Working alongside community members Tilo and Pedrito, Pedro´s son, we constructed a second concrete cylinder beside the first one. Later, the two cylinders were turned on their sides and sealed together. Additionally, a new biodigestor was constructed by Chica´s house. This new biodigestor is a concrete rectangular prism with a plastic top. The new biodigestors must receive the cow-manure-and-water mixture for two weeks before they will begin producing fuel for cooking.

During the next week, Karina and I introduced ourselves to the three families with biodigestors and began to learn about the community´s farming practices. One day, I accompanied my host father, Feliciano, to a corn field to remove weeds with machetes. Then, we began testing soil samples from land used to grow beans and corn. Many of the farmers in the community exhaust their land by growing the same crops year after year. Now, they have become very reliant on comercial chemical fertilizers. Working with Feliciano during my second week in Bramadero, I planted several hundred corn and bean plants. Once they grew to be about six inches tall, I applied chemical fertilizer to one-third of the plants, organic fertilizer from the biodigestors to another third, and left the remaining plants untreated. AsoFénix hopes that the results of this experiment will prove that the biodigestor fertilizer works well and encourage the local farmers to use it.

When not working on the projects, I spend a lot of time with my host family. Often, I chat with the adults on the porch and help the kids learn to solve a Rubik´s Cube I gave them. On some mornings, I help one of the daughters pound out dough into a circle and cook it over the open fire to make a tortilla. Once, I accompanied several women on the mile-long trek through the fields and up the steep hills to collect firewood for cooking. Last week, I went with a few family members on a two hour horse ride through the hills to a birthday party. It has been an excellent experience getting to know them.

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Brett Boissevain, a current intern with AsoFénix in Nicaragua through the ESW Summer Engineering Experience in Development (SEED) Volunteer Program, shares his first experiences of living in Nicaragua.

 Brett Boissevain in Nicaragua

Brett Boissevain in Nicaragua

I´m back in civilization again, but ever so briefly. I´ve spent the last week in the middle of a nicaraguan forest, living with a family (in a home that has electricity and a shower – more or less) and completely out of my element. The only way to get in touch with the rest of thew world is to hike for 45 minutes to the top of a peak to capture a glimmer of cell service (even then it costs an arm and a leg because I´m so far out).

View from House

View from House

The family I´m living with is incredible, but the adjustment has been a little tough for me. They talk a mile a minute, with a very different accent than my americanized spanish education (which was in high school, mind you) prepared me for. To the majority of questions, I can only respond “¿que?” (what?). After asking that two or three times, I usually just surrender and say “si” (yes), not knowing if it´s an appropriate answer or not.

The head of the household is named Pablo. He´s fairly young (I would guess in his mid 30´s) and really friendly. His wife is Irma and his oldest son is named Juan Pablo, or Pablito, and is 14 years old. He´s seems more mature than a lot of friends I had at GU, but then again most college kids are pretty immature anyways. The next oldest is Marlon, who is 7. He and I have been attached at the hip for the last week, romping through the hills and forest together every day. He´s old enough to know more spanish than me, but young enough to have the patience to help me learn what he´s saying. The youngest is Lionel, and is only 2. He´s extremely boisterous and rarely listens to his mother or brothers (maybe thats why I like him so much).

The part of the country I´m in is incredible. I´m in central Boaco (a state in Nicaragua) in the mountains and forests of central Nicaragua. It rains almost everyday, which means most of my days are speant sloshing along muddy trails wearing my newly acquired rubber boots (which cost me about $7). There are several streams through the area, and one is big enough to have a few swimming holes. I haven´t seen them all yet, but the most recent one I´ve been shown is 10-15 feet deep (I´ll save the stupidity of cliff jumping for when I´m closer to my departure). Fruit trees are everywhere, and sugar cane is easy to come by. The machete that I carry with me everywhere comes in pretty handy for a simple snack on the go! Every meal I have consist of rice, beans and tortillas. Luckily I´m not sick of it yet. Actually, it´s a nice change of pace from the college life style of waking up and asking myself “what did I eat yesterday?”

Brett's New Friend - the Machete

Brett's New Acquaintance - the Machete

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Junzi Shi is a Chemistry and Global Health student at Northwestern University.  As a team member of her school’s Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) chapter, she traveled to Nicaragua in March of 2009 to install household sized biogas digesters with Green Empowerment, AsoFénix, and families in two rural communities.  In May 2009, Junzi traveled to Peru with Green Empowerment to participate in a Design Exchange on Small-scale Biogas Digesters in Latin America.  In June 2010, Junzi will lead her own ESW team on a ram pump project in the Philippines with Green Empowerment and the Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation.

Design Exchange Conference Attendents Showing Off Part of a Completed Biogas Digester

Design Exchange Conference Attendees Showing Off Part of a Completed Biogas Digester

As we descended in the small plane towards Cajamarca, Peru, the thick white clouds seemed to cling to the earth, hugging its surface and nestling in the ridges of the mountainous terrain. The passengers saw lush green pastures and hillsides crowded with crops, and they felt the frugality of the farmers as well as their close relationship with the land.  It was my first time in South America and as we stepped off the plane, the northern highlands of Peru gave me a beautiful impression of the country. Peru, a nation with 7.5 million people living in rural provinces and 72.1% of those living in poverty (source: Rural Poverty Portal, Peru), has been on the forefront of environmental sustainability in order to improve the way of life and also hold responsible practices.

The Biogas Design Exchange was held at the Center for Demonstration and Training of Appropriate Technologies (CEDECAP) located in the outer periphery of Cajamarca. It was the first conference of its kind, a wonderful chance to share knowledge and experiences with 33 individuals from 10 different countries. The first two days were filled with presentations that revealed how practices involving the same technology could differ in many ways. For example, the source of fecal matter for biodigesters can come from pigs, cattle, humans, or unusual livestock such as guinea pigs. The design of the digester also varies in shape, size, and building material depending on the use of the final products.  Many farmers in Bolivia, Mexico and Peru – such as Juan Morocho – use methane for cooking and the liquid/solid products as fertilizer. During my stay in Bramadero, Nicaragua, the families reported an increase in crop growth after applying the fertilizer, having recently introduced more vegetables and protein in their diet. This is a great way to use all the products of the biodigester system. However, in highly commercial enterprises, I found it surprising that methane gas is simply burned when it could be put into electricity, heat and other domestic or commercial uses.

Constructing a Sausage-Style Model of a Digesters at the National Institute of Agricultural Investigation

Constructing a Sausage-Style Model of a Digesters at the National Institute of Agricultural Investigation

The next two days were spent installing two different sausage-style models of digesters at the National Institute of Agricultural Investigation. The long and narrow PVC model was placed parallel and adjacent to a high density polypropylene model in order to test several factors. Although the former may generate gas faster because it has greater overall volume and above-ground surface area, the latter is expected to have a longer lifetime due to the more resilient material. In Nicaragua, we installed four Indian-style digesters made of ferro-cement and one sausage-style model made of polypropylene. Although cement can crack over time, ferro-cement was advantageous because it was internally reinforced with chicken wire, and the locals had had previous experience with the material. Polypropylene digesters are advantageous due to their long lifetimes of up to 20 years, but the material is not readily available in many countries.

The last day of the conference was spent in round table discussions regarding management, technology, selection of families, and future research. Although it is important to consider a family’s living conditions and the farm layout, it is also essential to consider the community at large. In Nicaragua, our team worked with GE in villages where previous water, wind, and solar technology had been established. Also, the biodigester could be supported by a committee of community members who were invested and worked to maintain the installations. My experiences in Nicaragua and Peru have taught me that biogas digesters involve a great deal of “the human factor” in addition to engineering calculations, sometimes more so. For instance, after the installations were completed and started generating gas, some Nicaraguan families would not use the improved gas stove because they preferred the wood-smoke flavor that comes from traditional cooking with wood-burning stoves. Cultural factors such as this can really prove to be a challenge to the successful adaptation of technology.

The Design Exchange established a precedent that, I hope, will be the start of many conversations amongst leaders of biogas around the world. As my friend Juan says, there are many good people in the world, but sometimes they don’t know about each other. It is essential to make these connections and share our knowledge with others so that we can achieve our common goals all the better. Each man can build his own house, but many men can build a city. After my experiences in Nicaragua and Peru, I have gained more respect for the work of fearless individuals and NGOs who rise over countless obstacles to achieve their vision.

Finished Sausage-Style Biogas Digester

Finished Sausage-Style Biogas Digester

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The 2009 Energy Globe Awards, which recognizes renewable energy projects worldwide, were held this past spring in Prague.  Green Empowerment’s Solar Mobile Clinic project in Burma was selected as the winner in the “Fire” category.  The project, implemented by Thai partner Border Green Energy Team (BGET), was also voted overall Grand Prize Winner by the audience at a televised gala during a meeting of the European Union environment ministers in Prague. Green Empowerment was also singled out as one of the top three organizations in the “Water” category for its solar water pumping and community empowerment projects in Nicaragua, specifically in Bramadero.

The award ceremony has been posted online and can be seen in its entirety at the following link:  ENERGY GLOBE World Award Gala 2009.

The full video is 52 minutes long. The ‘Water’ category, which recognizes Green Empowerment in Bramadero Nicaragua, can be found at the 17 minute mark; the ‘Fire’ category, which recognizes Green Empowerment’s & BGET’s  solar clinic & hospital project in Burma, can be found at the 32 minute mark; and the Grand Award voting and result can be found at the 46 minute mark.

Enjoy!

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