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More Light for the Amazon

In Brazil there are still 1 million people who are not connected to the electricity grid. For them, the federal government has launched the 'Mais Luz para a Amazonia' (More Light for the Amazon), a program that seeks to provide electric power to residents of isolated areas in the states that constitute the Amazon region - Acre, Amapa, Amazonas, Maranhao, Mato Grosso, Para, Rondonia, Roraima and Tocantins. Their energy is to come from clean sources which, due to difficult logistics, is mainly mainly solar.

One of the first places targeted by this program was Marajo Island, located at the mouth of the Amazon River. Most people here are riverside dwellers which makes for challenging work due to the wide dispersion of local communities and the fact that most local travel is done by boat, along riverways.

Although there are villages and some cities, it is common to find individual houses scattered over a wide area along the rivers and streams. These riverside dwellers of Marajo are among the poorest communities in the country, and the municipality of Melgaco has the lowest HDI (Human Development Index) in Brazil.

The main economic activities of this region are fishing and collecting the fruit of the acai palm. It is hoped that new sources of solar energy will contribute to an increase in the income of these communities as it will enable people to store their catch and produce in times of plenty without the need to sell everything before is spoils.

Local peoples' hopes of what they will be able to do with their new source of power are very modest – from running a refrigerator to preserve their fish and acai to watching a soap opera or a football match on TV and lighting up the darkness with a light bulb. For many, it's as simple as looking forward to being able to drink a glass of ice cold water.

The Xingu Indigenous Territory, the first indigenous land demarcated in Brazil, is not connected to the national grid. Until now, a large part of the supply has depended on diesel generators which only operat for a few hours at night due to the high cost of fuel. But that has been changing in recent years.

Currently, all 120 villages in the indigenous territory have some form of photovoltaic generation system, with solar panels and batteries, which guarantee supply during the day and a good part of the night, especially during the dry and sunny winter months in this part of Mato Grosso state.

While most communities rely on shared solar energy systems, some families have been able to acquire their own solar panels installed on their dwellings. The equipment installed in so called 'polos' (or community spaces), often near schools or health centres, tend to be the most robust and productive.

Across the world, solar energy is now seen as a clean, affordable alternative and an integral part of the transition to a more sustainable future, reducing the dependence on fossil fuels. In Brazil, solar has become profitable and grew by around 40% over the past year. In the Xingu Indigenous Territory the benefits are two fold. 'In the Xingu Indigenous Territory, in addition to being an ally in preserving the environment, solar energy is seen as a way of maintaining our ancestral culture' says Ianukula Kaiabi Suiá, 44, president of ATIX (Indigenous Land Association of the Xingu).

He explains that energy from hydroelectric dams is clean, but the infrastructure needed for this type of generation leads to the deforestation of large areas. The long battle against the Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River, ultimately unsuccessful, is still fresh in the memory of the region's inhabitants.

Joining the national energy grid would involve the installation of transmission lines in indigenous lands, opening the way for outsiders. 'We want energy in the villages, but not just any energy," Ianukula explains.

The catalyst for the recent boom in solar energy projects in indigenous areas was the Covid pandemic. With villages closed, information exchange, purchasing of supplies and even indigenous leadership assemblies shifted to digital platforms, requiring enhanced internet access. Increased power use put a strain on ageing diesel generator systems and fuel costs drained savings.

A number of NGOs were instrumental in bringing clean energy to the Xingu. The first experiments were carried out in the 1990s by Unifesp (Federal University of Sao Paulo), but installation was scaled up recently with the help of the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA).

As there weren't enough funds to serve all the households, certain infrastructure such as health centres, schools and community centres were prioritised with generators maintained as backup supply. The number of communities served has been rising steadily and the latest government project – Mais Luz para a Amazonia (More Light for the Amazon) – is expected to allow all families in the indigenous communities to have access to solar energy. Power companies will be responsible for the installation of the photovoltaic cells and their maintenance.

One of the challenges of this project has been to explain to local communities why they have to pay for their energy if it comes from the sun.

The new source of cheap power has transformed lives in remote riverside communities and in indigenous lands. While riverside dwellers are able to keep their fish and produce from spoiling, Xingu people have taken to the increased availability of the internet.

For women, being able to use electric kitchen appliances has freed up time spent manually preparing beiju, a starch cake made from cassava, and other staples.

Lalo de Almeida visited a number of communities in the Amazon to witness how the arrival of cheap, reliable solar energy is transforming lives.
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