Harnessing the Sun to Protect Indigenous Communities in the Amazon

By Peyton Fleming, Lead Writer, Sustainable Energy for All

Deep in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest, the indigenous Xingu people have no energy options beyond kerosene lamps and diesel-powered generators, which are costly and harmful for their health. They’re also facing growing outside pressure as loggers, farmers and developers systematically clear vast tracks of rainforest for soybean farms, cattle ranches and hydroelectric power.

True to their mythological origins, the Xingu are turning to Taugi – the sun – to protect and bolster their traditional ways that extend back to the 13th century. But with a modern-day twist – sun power.

In partnership with the Brazil-based Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), these indigenous tribes scattered across 8 million hectares in central Brazil have launched an ambitious initiative to use photovoltaic solar power to transform their energy and economic future.

It’s a race against time – both for the independence of 6,000 Xingu people and for slowing deforestation, a key contributor to global warming. The Brazilian Amazon lost an area the size of France to deforestation in 2016 alone, much of it in close proximity to the Xingu.

“We need a new model to develop energy and economic activities without losing the forest,” said Marcelo Salazar, who runs one of the ISA’s eight Xingu program offices along the Xingu River and was visiting New York City last month as part of Climate Week NYC. “This is the moment we’re in right now.”

Salazar’s group has three core aims in Xingu Indigenous Park, a protected area roughly the size of Massachusetts: connect the villages to the markets; protect the land from outside encroachment; and improve energy access and public health access.

Solar energy is a linchpin of all three goals and, with a $1 million grant from the Mott Foundation, Xingu villages like Piyulaga are seeing first-ever electricity from a mini grid powered by a series of solar panels. The clean energy is powering the village school, a medical and dental clinic, communal hits and a well for drinking water.

It’s also powering cooling equipment and radios, key cogs for getting Brazilian nuts and other farm crops to markets more profitably. “If we want to improve production facilities, we need energy,” Salazar said matter-of-factly.

Now that 100 Xingu men have been trained to install and maintain the solar equipment, more villages should be coming on line soon. Over the next three years, the project is expected to provide electricity for 82 villages, 55 schools, 22 health centers and 10 health posts.

With solar costs plummeting and hydropower’s deleterious impacts coming under sharper scrutiny, Salazar sees only one future for the Xingu. “The old model in Brazil is based on hydro. The future is decentralized energy,” he said.

Photo credit: Traci Romine