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Q&A: Clean Energy and Cultural Survival in Nicaragua

Julio Godoy interviews ANNE-CÉCILE MAILFERT, of blueEnergy France* - Tierramérica

PARIS, Aug 1 2010 (IPS) - For the past six years, French and U.S. engineers have been installing solar panels and wind turbines in the southeastern Nicaraguan town of Bluefields, promoting clean energy and development among the region’s Rama indigenous peoples.

A girl in the village of Kahkabila, Nicaragua, now has electricity. Credit: Courtesy of blueEnergy 2010

A girl in the village of Kahkabila, Nicaragua, now has electricity. Credit: Courtesy of blueEnergy 2010

In 2004, French engineer Lâl Marandin and the Franco-U.S. brothers Guillaume and Mathias Craig founded blueEnergy, a non-governmental organisation with resources and donations from companies and foundations in France and the United States.

Today, the non-profit entity employs some 20 technicians from the two countries, as well as from Nicaragua.

The Craig brothers spent their childhood in Bluefields, as their mother Colette Craig, a U.S. linguist and anthropologist, worked in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Twenty years later, they returned, Mathias as an engineer and Guillaume as an administrator, to continue their mother’s work in cultural conservation, complemented by environmental development, Anne-Cécile Mailfert, director of blueEnergy’s French affiliate, explained to Tierramérica.

In its six years of operations, blueEnergy has installed solar panels and small wind turbines that produce 12 kilowatts per hour. The group also distributed more than 50 filtering systems that provide potable water to 12 communities — totalling about 3,000 people.

The non-profit entity has provided refrigerators for collective use by fishers and has overseen the construction and outfitting of small eco-hotels as a way to foment tourism.

These are not just in Bluefields, capital of Nicaragua’s South Atlantic Autonomous Region, but also in more isolated communities, like Monkey Point, some 50 kilometres to the south and accessible only by boat. That village now has electricity from wind turbines, and potable water, thanks to the filters that run on the new source of electricity.

Cultural survival is important to blueEnergy. The language of the Ramas comes from a family of languages known as Chibcha from the central zone of what is now Colombia, and could be a key to understanding pre-Colombian migrations. But the language is in danger of extinction — today very few people speak it.

Tierramérica sat down with Anne-Cécile Mailfert in Paris to discuss some of these issues.

Q: Beyond family ties, what other motivations did the Craig brothers and Marandin have for working in Bluefields? A: They knew about the region’s economic difficulties and the deficiencies in electrical infrastructure. Bluefields is very isolated, practically without connection to the Nicaraguan electrical matrix. Furthermore, the currents of the local rivers are very weak, so hydroelectric generation is not an option.

But blueEnergy turned that problem into a virtue, by utilising the sun and the wind. Furthermore, we are considering the use of biomass as an additional energy source. In this way two objectives are met: providing electricity to a region in need, and avoiding pollution.

Q: But blueEnergy does not just supply clean energy. A: Another essential goal is to make the instruments of development and of preservation of culture and language available to the Rama indigenous peoples. To do that we are cooperating with the population in educational programmes and providing equipment, like the refrigerators for the fishers.

Our equipment is simple because the idea is for the Ramas to acquire and develop competence in areas of economic and cultural life that are crucial for their survival. Because access to Bluefields is very difficult, it costs a lot to transport people or equipment there.

We have installed potable water systems in several communities, we are helping to create trade associations among Rama women, we are conducting economic feasibility studies for microprojects and we are advising the indigenous peoples on financial matters, such as obtaining microcredits.

Clean energy is just one way to foment local economic development and conservation of the Rama culture.

Q: How have Nicaraguan entities reacted to these initiatives? A: We have cooperation programmes with the government’s National Technological Institute, which supervises the technical and professional training across the country, and with the National Electrical Industry Development Fund. We are also working with the “eco-oven” project of Proleña, a non-governmental organisation whose goal is the more efficient, modern and sustainable use of biomass in the domestic and industrial sectors, both urban and rural.

Q: In the international sphere, who is partnering with blueEnergy? A: Kiva, a microcredit organisation based in San Francisco (U.S.) supports the microcredits office in Bluefields. We are also working with Good Energies, an international company that invests in clean energy, with Trojan, which makes batteries, and with several engineering and electro-technology companies.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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