Archive for the ‘social justice’ Category

The Q´ero Nation, a community of people who live in the remote Andes of Peru, are currently facing large problems as they are lacking basic services like like clean drinking water, electricity, education, sanitary facilities and access to health care. Infant mortality between the ages of 0 and 5 is high at 47 percent and easily treatable respitory illnesses can quickly become fatal during the winter months when the area experiences below-freezing temperatures.

Green Empowerment has partnered with The Q’ero Development Assistance on a project to bring education and electrity to the Q’ero Nation. To learn more about the project and the community that it will serve please visit the Q’ero Development Assistance.

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The article below was featured in the May/June 2009 edition of Common Place Magazine and profiles Jaime Muñoz, the founder of Asofenix. The article was written by Emily Will  and photographed by Melissa Engle.

Jaime Muñoz

Jaime Muñoz

From the first time I had heard about solar energy as a child, it intrigued me. When I was in school, I wanted a career that was different, out of the ordinary. Now, at 41 years old, I’m able to spend my days seeing families in rural villages like the one where I grew up meet some of their most basic needs through solar power. As the director of Asofenix, I see firsthand how solar energy can be made available to even the poorest of families and families that live in mountainous areas very far from cities. MCC helps support our efforts to install solar power systems in isolated communities that never had access to electricity before. I love the hands-on work of developing and installing these systems. We also work in other areas of renewable energy such as microhydroturbines (that use the force of water to create energy), biodigesters (that produce cooking fuel from cow manure) and wind turbines (that use the force of wind to make energy).

Some communities call me ingeniero, the engineer. I’m always quick to explain that I’m not an engineer — in fact, my family didn’t have the money for me to continue my education beyond secondary school. My best “university” has been to work with people with a lot of experience in the field of renewable energy. It’s true that my educational level is low, but I’ve gained a lot of knowledge through people, through reading and through hands-on experimentation.

I was the oldest of six children. We lived in Esquipulas, a community of about 15,000 in the rural province of Matagalpa, in central Nicaragua. When I was 14, the Sandinistas imprisoned my father in Managua, the capital, and he remained there for four years. During these years, I traveled to Managua to try to get my father released. I knew nothing of the city and very little of the world, and I was on my own in a highly charged political environment. Finally, a political group helped me get him out. By then, I had gotten my first taste of community work through a literacy campaign when I was 15. I’ve been at it throughout the 26 years since, the one continual thread in the many ups and downs of my life.

I began teaching when I was still a student in secondary school, working with vocational classes in metal and woodworking. It may seem incredible that they would hire someone so young and inexperienced, but I was very motivated, and the directors noticed that I was gifted in mechanical, hands-on work. I spent three months in the shops learning how to handle the machines and equipment and reading the manuals and instructions. I’ve always been the type of person who wants to figure out how to do things, even if I’ve only read about doing them. When I was drafted into military service in 1984, my map-making ability kept me out of combat, for which I was grateful. Still, I was glad when I finished the year and a half of service and dismayed when the Sandinista government, just a few months after my release, ordered me to work with them in a civilian position or join the Army Reserves. So at 22 years old, I found myself the director of the Sandinista Youth in the town of San José de los Remates.

Over the next decade or so, I worked with a range of organizations, from international reforestation brigades to a first-time government program to provide national identification cards. What I liked in all my positions was working with people and forming relationships. In 1997, I lost my job due to federal budget cuts. I went to Managua and opened a pulpería, a little grocery shop. It was a huge change. I had never had my own business. But now I’m very appreciative that I was able to learn another way of living and working. I earned enough to support myself and to do some studies, so I looked into studying solar energy.

In the 1970s my father had taken an auto mechanics correspondence course from Hemphill Schools, which is based in California but offers courses taken by students throughout Central America. When I talked to the school’s representative in Managua, I was surprised and delighted to learn they had a course in photovoltaics, or solar-cell technology. I also attended solar power trainings and seminars offered by the engineering university in Managua, including a course taught by Dr. Richard Komp, a U.S. solar tech expert. I built a solar oven during that course and afterward I experimented with building other solar cookers, as well as water heaters, solar dryers and other equipment.

The university saw my interest and invited me to join Grupo Fenix, a new group working on solar power. I volunteered for three years with Grupo Fenix, even helping Dr. Komp teach workshops and courses. I came to realize that my passion lies not in research as much as in hands on work with solar projects in communities like the one in which I had grown up. Through Grupo Fenix, I got to know a foreign visitor, who offered to financially support such community-based work. In 2001, I began Asofenix.

It started small, but in 2007, I received a major 10-year grant from a Dutch humanitarian organization. Today, I live in a house in Managua, the capital, and my office is there, but I am devoted to being out in the rural communities where Asofenix is working. I travel outside the city several days each week to help install renewable energy systems, meet with communities and train young technicians. Seeing rural families meet some of their most basic needs through renewable sources of energy is rewarding. And I am happiest traveling out to villages, spending time with people, sleeping in a hammock at their homes. This work, which draws on my technical know-how and also allows me to relate to people, deeply fulfills me.

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The interview below was conducted by Nan Mooney, an editor at a new philanthropic website called igivingworld, a project that aspires to greater impact, efficiency and solutions for the world from the philanthropic sector. Gordy Molitor, the interviewee, is Green Empowerment’s Executive Director, and has a deep commitment to the eradication of poverty.

How did Green Empowerment come about? What need was it hoping to fill?

Green Empowerment was born in 1997 from several interrelated communities in Portland, Oregon.  They were all friends — social justice activists, environmentalists, and internationalists.  These roots led naturally to the mission of Green Empowerment: To partner with rural communities in the developing world to implement renewable energy and water systems that alleviate poverty and preserve the environment. With the ideals of justice and sustainability as the basis for a development model, Green Empowerment’s first major project was funding the continuation of micro-hydro projects in Nicaragua that had been started by Ben Linder, a young engineer from Portland who had been killed, during the Nicaraguan civil war by the Contras. Green Empowerment continues to work with this Nicaragua NGO, and now at least eight other partners in six countries.

Why did you opt to focus specifically on developing renewable energy and water systems?

Because renewable energy and water are basic to development and the eradication of poverty.

Over 1.6 billion people worldwide live in the dark. Not only is this unjust; it means that they will not live healthy and productive lives and will remain on the sidelines of the modern economy.  Without electricity, they will not have health clinics with refrigeration for vaccines or essential medical instruments.  Without electrical light in their homes, they will suffer respiratory and eye problems from indoor air pollution, and not be able to study or work after dark.  Without electricity to run small motors, they will not be able to power mills, lathes, or lights in their small businesses. And without electricity they will not have cell phones or computers that are so essential to participating in today’s economy.

Water is, of course, essential.  The lack of potable water is the number one cause of preventable death in the developing world.  Two million people die every year, due to diarrheal diseases, most are children less than five years of age.

Green Empowerment started with a focus on renewable energy and added water, after listening to the priority needs of the communities in which we work.

What is most innovative about Green Empowerment’s approach?

I believe that Green Empowerment’s sustainability and development models set us apart from most foundations and western NGOs and make our investments highly leveraged and sustainable.

Our projects are environmentally, technically, socially and economically sustainable.  By considering and balancing all four of these factors in the design and implementation of our projects, they will continue to help eliminate poverty for years to come.

Our development model is based on the working relationship between local communities benefiting from the project, national host-country technical NGOs, and Green Empowerment.  It is very much like a three-legged stool.  Each leg of the stool has it respective and important role that complements, harmonizes and supports the others and leads to the ultimate success and sustainability of the renewable energy and water projects.  The community is not simply the beneficiary of the renewable energy or water system.  It is the critical actor in the design, financing, implementation, maintenance and evaluation of the system.  Host-country technical NGOs link the community, Green Empowerment, local regional and national governments donors and others.  They know the local language and culture and have a long-term commitment to the rural communities in which we work.

We are also developing an international Service Learning program, where we partner with universities to integrate sustainability issues into their curriculum and take students and faculty overseas for hands-on experience on in the developing world.  We have university partnerships with Cal Poly Pomona, the University of Michigan, Northwestern University, Presidio School of Management, Virginia Tech, and Portland State University.   We also place interns with our partners, in a relationship where the interns strengthen the capacity of our partners and learn a great deal in the process.

How do you select Green Empowerment projects? Are you typically part of a project from the start or are you more likely to invest in existing ventures?

Our host-country technical partners lead in selecting projects, by deciding which technologies we will work with and in identifying and organizing communities in which we will work.  Our projects, therefore, depend on technical capacities of our partners.  For example, we have several partners that work almost exclusively on micro hydro projects.  One is internationally recognized for its work with Green Empowerment on solar health clinics in a war zone, another has won awards for its work with ram pumps, and another is a leader in developing small wind power.  We are developing a coalition of NGOs working on biogas digesters in Latin America.  Where these projects are implements is usually a joint decision between our partner, local government, Green Empowerment and, of course, the community in which it will be installed.

How do you involve the local community in your work?

The local communities are involved in all phase of our projects.  They contribute to the design of a project by helping to locate and size the system.  For example, the community will identify the water source; and the women will be involved in the location of water distribution points.  The community will assist with the financing of the system, by donating land, local materials, and the hard labor of laying water pipes or elevating solar panels.  Finally, the community is responsible for the ongoing management of the system, in establishing a committee or small corporation to operate the system and to collect tariffs to finance ongoing operation and maintenance.

Your work involves partnering with NGOs in the developing world. How do you ensure these collaborations go smoothly?

The most important factor in the success of our projects is that Green Empowerment establishes long-term, open and constructive working relationships with our partners, based on mutual respect and trust.  Because they are all technically competent in their fields and because we work with them, over a period of years, on projects of priority to the communities that they work with and of importance to their institutional development, we are valued partners.   We are in frequent e-mail and phone contact with them, visit nearly all of them at least annually, have interns working in many of their offices, and have a staff person working from our partner’s office in Peru.

In addition to this constructive relationship, Green Empowerment undertakes a number of due diligence steps with all of our projects.  We review them technically, financially and programmatically, against our sustainability criteria.  We sign sub-grant agreements for each project, require written progress reports and financial reports, and make on-site visits to nearly all of the projects that we fund.

What has been one of your most notable successes so far?

In Peru, in collaboration with our partner, Soluciones Practicas, we are developing a viable model for decentralized renewable energy electrification.  Currently developing countries use the traditional model for electrification of centralized power generation and extensive national grids.  This traditional model is not viable for isolated rural areas, because of their low population density, distance from sources of power generation and the high cost of extending the grid up mountainsides and into rain forests.

We completed a plan for electrification of a municipality that had some of the lowest electrical coverage in the country.  The plan identified the potential for 11 micro hydro systems, 9 wind systems, and 26 village solar systems.  Since the plan was completed in 2008, we have funded 1 of the micro hydro systems, 2 of the wind systems and are working with the municipality and the local utility to fund the implementation of the village solar systems.

This planning methodology is being replicated in another part of Peru and could be adapted for use in other countries, as a way of using decentralized power generation to electrify isolated areas.

Have there been any mistakes or missteps along the way? What have you learned from them?

Of course, we have made mistakes.  And we have learned a lot, over the past 12 years.  Green Empowerment’s first projects relied on engineering and funding from the United States.

We learned that nearly all of the engineering necessary for renewable energy projects already exists in the countries where we work, and that it is most effective — in terms of designing an appropriate system, sustainability, and follow-up on the installed system — to build upon that local competency.

We also learned that our local partners are very effective in finding resources for renewable energy and water projects.  In fact, most village-level projects that we help to finance are largely financed by our partners through donations from local government, the communities, and other funding sources, which Green Empowerment could not access.

What are Green Empowerment’s most pressing short-term goals?

As I write this response, we were organizing the final details of Sun, Wind and Gears, a 35-mile, bike-borne renewable energy fundraising event sponsored by SolarWorld, the largest solar cell manufacturer in the Americas. The Green Empowerment event coincides and integrates with SolarWorld’s first anniversary in Oregon and the topping out of their second solar-cell factory.  We hope that this will develop into a signature event for the renewable energy community in the Portland-area and for Green Empowerment.

What do you envision for the organization over the longer term?

Green Empowerment will remain committed to its roots in social justice and environmentalism and to working toward a more just and sustainable world.  We will continue to deepen and expand our programming with our existing partners and will expand into other Latin American, Asian, and, hopefully, African countries.  We will continue to work with micro hydro and solar technologies and expand our capacity to work with biogas, wind and in-stream turbines. We will also continue to develop our model for regional planning for renewable energy electrification.

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When the trenches were half dug, sides were taken. The water lines were ready be laid when the old woman who owns the land with the water spring said that she didn’t want to give one drop of water to the school or the 12 other households who were supposed to drink from that source. Why the change of heart? It turns out that someone had produced an old document signed in the community that stated that they bought the spring for 3000soles (about $1000) over 10 years ago to be used for communal drinking water. There are hand-written receipts for that amount, but her son only remembers seeing 500soles pass hands to his father. The problem is that the father has since passed away and there were no other witnesses. Now, the woman feels that her family had been tricked and she wants no part of a new water deal.

After much negotiation, she finally said that she would allow water to go to just the school. But then her other sons who now live in coastal cities came back to this small community in the mountains, Suro Antivo. When one son agreed that the water should go to the school, his brothers jumped on him. They felt that the respect of the family was being challenged. At this point, it seemed best to seek another solution…

The ITDG sociologist, the community leader (Teniente Gobernador), Homero, and I went to talk to the owner of the other spring in the village, where the new water system is being built. First, we thanked Emilda for her honorable gift to the community…and asked if more water could be drawn from the spring to supply the school…and maybe a few more neighbors. Homero is a skilled diplomat and handled the conversation with great care. After some discussion, and a mention that her generosity would be “recognized” by the community, she agreed.

The water meetingThe next morning, about 40 people gathered together in front of the school, including the district mayor, the school teacher (who wrote up notes in the formal Act book), the municipal registrars, and Emilda in her big straw hat. The meeting started about an hour late, but I think the informal milling around is where the real communication took place. At last, the Teniente convened the meeting and explained the situation of how they reached the deadend with the other spring. The community leaders asked the mayor that the budget stay in the community. The mayor agreed, and said that the materials could be used to extend Emilda’s water source to the school and where the system didn’t reach, families could build individual spring boxes and pipes to their homes, under direction of the municipal engineer. Everyone applauded. We shared strawberry soda and moonshine. Soon we’ll be sharing water.

Meanwhile, we had arranged for the top water specialist in Cajamarca to come to Suro Antivo and evaluate the water site near the cemetery. He works for the department of Environmental Health and has a laboratory in the regional hospital. He reviewed the topography and geology of the site and said with confidence that the surface water from the cemetery flows away from the spring used for drinking water. The spring emerges from several hundred meters deep. He gave some recommendations, such as digging a drainage gully to divert any overflow water, and lining the new graves with lime. (He also said the human body is 60% water and the rest of us decomposes completely in 2 years, so old bones are no threat…who knew?) He tested for pH, which is in the normal range, and for Nitrates in the hospital lab. The text confirms that there is zero contamination from the cemetery. Whew.

Kids in Suro AntivoAll things seem simpler at a distance. It sounds simple enough: bring spring water to homes. But in reality, the complexity of community dynamics cannot be underestimated and spring water can be contaminated by “holy water”. Now that there is an alternative water spring and we know that the water sources are pure, we’re ready to start building…again.

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