The long journey to light in the tropical rainforests

An article by Rose Alvarez from LOVE FOR LIFE 

Words

Rose Alvarez

This article by Rose Alvarez was featured in The Beam #10 – Local Heroes of the Energy Transition. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


 

“Every day is a different experience and an extraordinary adventure” Jeffry Onil

When we talk about working with those who are the hardest to reach, very few people would be able to do what these two young men undertake to bring light and electricity to remote indigenous communities in their home country. 28-year-old Luis Muñoz and 24-year-old Jeffry Onil are two local heroes of the energy transition in Central and South America, and the solar leading technician team from LOVE FOR LIFE’s solar initiative, Imagine Light.

Luis lives in Lago Agrio, in the Sucumbios province located in the northeastern Amazon rainforest of Ecuador. After the first implementation of Imagine Light in the country in 2015, Luis became the leading technician of the initiative. His extraordinary abilities to build crafts and handmade devices pay close attention to detail and his kind and genuine character have made him an authentic soul-driven leader. Last year, Luis travelled from the Amazon Basin to the rainforest mountains of Costa Rica, in Talamanca, to train a new solar lead technician and a team of community technicians as we prepared for the implementation of the project there. Although very different, Ecuador and Costa Rica face the same challenges with regards to creating energy access for the most vulnerable and hardest to reach people. 

One year later, Jeffry, the new solar lead technician from Costa Rica, along with Luis, are working hand-in-hand towards technical solutions and the coordination of the solar energy project. Their enthusiasm and passion for the work are their major propellers in their leading roles. Together, they have learned not only about electrical components, system configuration, data collection and project logistics and management, but also about their own and other indigenous cultures and ancestral knowledge.

Jeffry, from the Cabécar Indigenous Nation, lives in Sibujú, a rainforest community deep in the Talamanca rainforest in southeastern Costa Rica. After a year of training with LOVE FOR LIFE, he became the general coordinator of the solar energy program KAWÖ’OROI (‘heat from the sun’ as it translates into Cabécar) of our local indigenous partner in Costa Rica, Asociación de Desarrollo Integral de Talamanca Cabécar (ADITICA).

Both young men go through extreme challenges to reach the families in the remote rainforest communities we work with. Sometimes it involves eight to 10 hours in a canoe ride or a multiple-day walk to reach the families who live far deep in the jungle mountains. Luis and Jeffry have to walk through the density of the forests carrying materials, tools and food to create sustainable and clean energy access. A deep-rooted commitment to serve and passion for life drives their inner strength to keep going even when the outside forces try to stop them. Both know the might of the forest and the forces of nature, and part of their work is to respect this power and its wisdom. But of course, they are not alone. Together with them is always a group of indigenous solar community technicians who they have trained, as well as cooks and translators from the communities who translate into the five different tribal languages and who join them on their journey to light.

© Frida Edlund, LOVE FOR LIFE / Luis lives in Lago Agrio, in the Sucumbios province located in the northeastern Amazon rainforest of Ecuador. © Frida Edlund, LOVE FOR LIFE / Luis lives in Lago Agrio, in the Sucumbios province located in the northeastern Amazon rainforest of Ecuador.

“My body got tired of walking for hours through the thick jungle and I lost sight looking at the mountains, the river or the sky. But then I thought about my ancestors and how they must have walked through the forests themselves, without fear of anything, only enjoying and honouring everything around them,” explains Luis. He continues: “I remember one day we visited a community in Talamanca rainforest, Costa Rica, and it rained as I had never seen before on our way back. Rivers of water went down the mountain, and there I was, walking with firm steps and then running between the trees. Many times we have to walk for hours just to get to a family home with several kilos of installation tools on our backs. We follow jungle trails that wind through the mountains to reach these remote families. Once we get there we start working,  sometimes under the heat of the sun and other times in the pouring rain. These situations are extremely difficult on the body. Everything becomes a mix of emotions that can lead to frustration and even anger. But all those feelings, later on, disappear like magic when we turn on the light for the first time in the house and we see the joy and amazement of the families. I love looking at their faces when they have light for the very first time in their life. After that, the journey back starts, but before that, we enjoy a couple of glasses of chicha (traditional hand brew drink) with the locals, which revives us and gives us enough energy for our return.” 

The technicians do not only visit the remote houses for the installation of the solar home systems. They had already visited all families beforehand to do an energy need assessment and collect baseline data since most families have never been officially registered and no data exists. After the installations, they will repeat the journey again for project evaluation and system check-ups. During the implementation phase, they take the time to talk to each family to build trust in the team and the project. In many cases, this involves sitting down with the family to drink chicha or coffee. This step cannot be rushed since it is a time to share and get to know the families, their real needs and life situation. Most indigenous families live very far apart from each other, requiring the solar team to walk up and downhill for hours to reach the next house.

“Many times we have to walk for hours just to get to a family home with several kilos of installation tools on our backs. We follow jungle trails that wind through the mountains to reach these remote families.” Luis Muñoz

“Every day is a different experience and an extraordinary adventure,” explains Jeffry. “I learn a lot, it sensitises me, it makes me think about the need and the difficulties that the families have to go through every day to look for their food and to fulfil their basic needs. Every day the families walk for many hours, out of necessity to provide for their life (…) To visit them we embark on long hour journeys, we cross dangerous rivers, slopes and trails full of mud. We walk through the territory of dangerous animals such as jaguars or mountain tigers. We undergo long hours of walking under heavy rain. Then when you least expect it, the rain stops and the sky opens up to create space for the sun to shine and bring unbearable heat deep in the dense jungle mountains. Sometimes, it is the other way around, we start walking in the burning sun and heat, we sweat a lot, and suddenly the sky turns dark and the rain hits very hard. Climbs, descents, hill after hill: each step we take is an immense effort. When we reach the other side of a deep valley, we feel good and accomplished. At the end after the tiredness, mud and all the obstacles that we have to go through become an incredible satisfaction when we finally reach our destination. The best moment is when we see all smiling and happy faces of the families when they are able to see because of the light illuminating the dark night.”

As the solar energy initiative grows, so do our solar families and leading technicians who are ready for their next mission to continue to actively work together to empower indigenous Nations through creating sustainable access to renewable energy. Thanks to the work of people like Luis and Jeffry, tropical forests which absorb more than half of the world’s carbon dioxide are being protected and guarded by indigenous people who are empowered to continue to live in harmony with and protect their ancestral homeland. The survival of us all depends on that.

© Nicole León, LOVE FOR LIFE / Jeffry, during solar home system installation in the Cabécar community Orochico, Talamanca, Costa Rica. © Nicole León, LOVE FOR LIFE / Jeffry, during solar home system installation in the Cabécar community Orochico, Talamanca, Costa Rica.

Rose Alvarez is passionate about working directly with people in the field and supporting local empowerment processes. She believes in putting love into action, which she lives up to in her role as International Project Coordinator at the non-profit organisation LOVE FOR LIFE.