The article below was featured in the May/June 2009 edition of Common Place Magazine and highlights some of the work done by Asofenix in Nicaragua. The article was written by Emily Will and photographed by Melissa Engle.
For her 17 years of married life, Marbellyz Ortíz Espinoza has dreaded one part of each day — rising between 4 and 5 every morning. It’s not just the wind that howls and gusts indoors through the gaps between her home’s sheet-metal roof and adobe walls or leaving the comfort of bed to start another rigorous day as a farmer’s wife in the isolated mountains of central Nicaragua.
It’s the darkness. Espinoza finds it spooky and has nothing to ward it off but a flickering wick sticking out the opening of a soup-size can of kerosene. The candil, as it’s called, spews as much thick smoke as it does light, and the 35-year-old mother knows its fumes are not healthy. The “lamp” is also hazardous, quick to erupt in flames when kerosene leaks around the wick. So, when a switch was flipped and three solar-powered compact fluorescent bulbs illuminated the home as dusk settled one January evening, smiles brightened the faces of Espinoza, her husband Pánfilo Enrique Guzmán and their sons, ages 15 and 5. The house, filled with the family, MCC workers and partners and several young community technicians trained to install the solar systems, reverberated with expressions of joy, awe and congratulations. The gift of solar power is coming to rural Nicaraguan villages, such as Espinoza’s community of Corozo, with the help of a young MCC partner organization called Asociación Fenix, Asofenix for short. MCC workers Sarah and Seth Hays, of Lakewood, Colo., work alongside communities in solar projects and on other renewable energy projects, such as biodigestors, microhydroturbines and wind turbines.
Entire communities, notes Seth Hays, are entering an age of electricity without relying on the fossil fuels that most Canadian and U.S. residents take for granted. “Environmentally friendly energy sources will allow rural Nicaraguans to develop and improve their livelihood for many years to come in a manner that will not be threatened by international markets and trends,” Hays says. “Nicaragua has great potential for supplying a large percent of its energy needs through renewable energy.” Asofenix founder and director Jaime Muñoz, reared in an impoverished family in rural Nicaragua, views the development of renewable energy sources as an initial move to help isolated communities deal with the challenges of surviving on near-barren land. A large project such as installing solar panels is often Asofenix’s first step. “We are committed to working alongside a community for 10 years. The large projects are what bring us into the community, but that is just the start of our work,” Hays says, describing how Asofenix forms committees to encourage residents to work together to make their communities stronger. “Our dream is that they, in the future, will find the problems in the community and work on ways to solve them for themselves,” Hays says. The challenges are great. Like many other Central American and Caribbean countries, Nicaragua’s forests and mineral resources have been nearly picked clean. Its land and water have been depleted and polluted to produce exports such as cotton, coffee and beef. Foreign enterprises and the country’s elite continue to profit while many residents struggle to simply get by. Rural areas often lack infrastructure and basic services. The families in the communities in which Asofenix works combine various survival tactics.
During the rainy season, those with access to land cultivate basic food crops, such as corn and beans.
Then some or all family members may migrate to Costa Rica to pick coffee during the three-month harvest. Others move to Managua for either short- or long-term employment in maquilas — foreign-owned assembly plants. Nicaragua now ranks as the Western Hemisphere’s second poorest nation. And, as in Haiti, the hemisphere’s most impoverished, deforestation is creating conditions in which erosion, nutrient runoff and the drying of water sources combine into a downward spiral of failing crops, barren land and worsening poverty. Asofenix director Muñoz, though, chooses to hone in on what rural Nicaragua does have — plentiful sunshine that can be tapped for renewable energy and the people themselves, driven by a fierce desire to improve their lives and to do whatever it takes to get their children out of poverty. Asofenix focuses on solar power for three major uses — to pump water to families’ homes, to pump water for drip irrigation to small plots of land and to provide limited electricity to homes. The capacity to light a few fluorescent bulbs can give families their first opportunity to bring activities, such as sewing and homework, into the evening hours, as well as the opportunity to run items such as a radio or television. José Felix Salazar, 56, who lives in the community of Bramadero, about an hour’s walk from Corozo, shares his delight that solar-powered drip irrigation is allowing him, for the first time, to grow a crop during dry months when community of Candelaria, one of Asofenix’s first. Impressed, Salazar went to see Muñoz about the possibility of a similar project in Bramadero. He was soon helping to organize his community’s 45 families to install solar panels to pump water from a well to faucets at individual homes, some as much as a kilometer away. Each family agreed to contribute 10 days of labor, to plant trees to protect the water source and to improve sanitation by constructing home latrines. That was in 2007. Since then, the piped water has eased families’ bare-boned budgets and never-ending toil. “Before, we went to fetch water every morning after breakfast, and we had to carry it home on our heads,” says Salazar’s wife, Flor de María Gonzales. She and her 12-year-old daughter, Anielka, hauled the water over a rocky road a 15-minute walk away. Occasionally when they weren’t able to fetch water, they had to buy it. Now they merely step out their back door and open a tap — a service that is costing them a mere 10 Nicaraguan cents per pail, 60 times less than they paid to buy a pail of water before. They and the community’s other 44 families deposit their water payments into a common fund for the system’s upkeep and maintenance. In this region, Seth Hays says, about 30 percent of heads of household migrate to Costa Rica during its his land would normally sit idle.
His small plot — about 0.8 of an acre of emerging tomato and watermelon plants — offers rows of green among the brown fields that mark this land in dry season. And it’s drawing attention. “Many have come to see it, and they all say the plot is beautiful,” he says. Salazar was instrumental in bringing solar power to this area. A few years ago, a man who came to buy a pig from him mentioned a solar water project going up in the coffee harvest, and in some communities, almost 80 percent of the men go. About 5 percent of the area’s residents live and work there throughout the year. Solar power and drip irrigation may provide an alternative. “Our hope is that it will give people a source of income so that they don’t have to migrate to Costa Rica,” Hays says. Salazar’s dream is that solar-powered pumps will eventually allow him to irrigate enough of his land to bring home some family members. Salazar says his eldest son Fredy, 27, moved to Costa Rica to work in construction, work that is increasingly harder to find and paying less. Daughter Mary Luz, 24, wouldn’t mind giving up her job in a Managua maquila, which requires working as quickly as possible, doing the same task, such as sewing a collar on a shirt, over and over again for 10 or more hours a day.
His oldest daughter and her husband, who live nearby, have already expressed interest in farming with Salazar. And he hopes to provide more opportunity for his 18-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter who still live at home. “This project is the best one to have come here, better than the road, electricity and the school,” Salazar says. Muñoz is glad people are dreaming of brighter futures but, with 26 years of grassroots experience in this region, he’s also aware of the perils in imported and high-tech solutions to the problems of impoverished rural areas. He’s designing Asofenix projects to be as grounded in the community as possible. In Corozo, for example, Asofenix has trained six people, including two teenage women, to install and maintain solar-powered generating systems. Guzmán, Espinoza’s husband, is part of the team, and the technicians’ first “real-life” test of their skills was wiring Guzmán and Espinoza’s home.
The young workers glowed with satisfaction when the bulbs brightened the darkness that January evening. Guzmán, who was voted president of the project committee, says, “We’ve never before had a successful project here. We are a very, very poor community and, till now, we’ve been a very, very ignored community without hope. Now, people are happier.” Their house was the eighth of 24 local homes to be connected to a solar panel. Guzmán remained in Corozo this year, rather than migrating to Costa Rica, to give local leadership to the effort. But neither he nor Espinoza are complaining about forgoing the coffee harvest earnings.
They are being repaid by witnessing not only the power of the sun that now lights their home, but also by the personal and community power sparked in working together with neighbors. And while Espinoza may still have to rise with the roosters, she’s looking forward to doing it without fear of the dark — or a smoky, potentially explosive candil.