Maria: mother, farmer and energy producer
15 September 2020
CAFOD is supporting the local church to help poor rural communities access sustainable energy in Piauí, north-eastern Brazil.
Maria lives on the outskirts of a small town in north-eastern Brazil. As a single mother, she has often struggled to make ends meet. Several years ago, along with 12 other women from her community, Maria turned a small patch of disused dumping ground into a profitable vegetable garden. The women saw a need and worked hard to fulfil that need. Nevertheless, growing crops year-round proved more challenging than they first expected.
Climate change has hit the region hard. Temperatures have risen continuously and summers are now longer and hotter. In such an environment, crops need to be watered consistently, but rainfall is scarce and unpredictable.
Struggling to pay the bills
In order to water her crops, Maria needs to pump water from the well. In order to pump water, Maria needs electricity. Unfortunately, electricity in Brazil is very expensive. Because of the high price, Maria and her neighbours often struggled to pay their electricity bills and, as a result, their power was regularly cut off.
Sadly, the price of electricity continued to rise. It became unfeasible for Maria to continue growing crops. Frustration grew in the community. The women left the plots of land they worked so hard to cultivate. The land returned to disuse – overgrown and untended. Maria worked odd jobs in town, but she struggled to support her family.
Despite having one of the largest economies in the world, inequality in Brazil is vast. Economic inequality is exacerbated by unequal access to energy. In recent years, in order to meet increasing energy demands, Brazil has invested in ‘mega-projects’, like the Belo Monte Dam in the Amazon region. This has had devastating social and environmental consequences. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced. Indigenous communities and their ways of life have been completely destroyed. Sensitive eco-systems have been forever altered.
This energy model might work well for the six richest men in Brazil – they own the same wealth as the poorest half of the entire population – but it clearly isn’t working for everyone. The state of Piauí, Maria’s home state, is one of the poorest regions in the country. Roughly 45 per cent of its population live in extreme poverty. Piauí is also very, very sunny. This means the state has massive potential for solar energy production (Piauí is already home to one of the largest solar power generators in the country). However, because of the high costs involved, communities such as Maria’s have limited access to this energy.
Sustainable energy for poor communities
We are working with Caritas Brazil who believe there is an alternative way forward – a new energy system that will ensure energy stability for poorer communities that doesn’t harm the environment. The radical idea involves turning local energy consumers into solar energy producers. It demonstrates that small-scale community generation may be a viable alternative to large-scale ‘mega-projects’.
Over the last two years we have worked with Caritas Brazil and the New Energy Policy for Brazil Coalition to install solar panels in six communities. The project now supports 186 families who generate energy for their daily needs. One of these communities is Maria’s.
Living with dignity
Since the solar panel was installed, Maria’s life has changed. Maria and her neighbours have returned to the disused land as they can now afford to water their crops. They have also been fully trained in how to use and maintain the solar energy system. Other nearby communities in which solar panels have been installed are making use of a ‘credit’ system. This means that during particularly sunny months, when communities generate more energy than they consume, they can sell excess energy to state companies. This earns them ‘credits’. These ‘credits’ can then be used at times when energy needs are greater, or when it’s not as sunny, ensuring that energy supply is steady and financially viable.
The potential of schemes like this cannot be understated. They give communities control over their own energy generation and use. They give local communities and people like Maria autonomy and dignity. Alongside the drastic decrease in Maria’s energy bills, she now has a steady stream of income from selling her produce at the local market, as well as for school lunches. Maria's community now have a group savings fund to help in emergency situations - even if individual savings are small, Maria’s community can use this pot to deal with unforeseen circumstances.
Improved harvest and nutrition
The projects have also helped the community adapt to the negative effects of climate change. It has allowed them to produce more food and to improve their nutrition – all their food is organically grown and pesticide free. As well as being able to support her family, the boost in Maria’s self-esteem is enormous. Before the solar panel was installed, she said her community felt forgotten. With tears in her eyes, she stressed how important this opportunity had been for them.
Maria and her neighbours are proof that environmentally friendly alternatives to large-scale energy generation can work – that anyone can be an energy producer and small communities could play a far more significant role in energy production in years to come.
Responding to coronavirus
Brazil has been hit extremely hard by coronavirus. To respond to the crisis, we are supporting the local Church to provide emergency food and hygiene kits for vulnerable families in Piauí. CAFOD has supported over 450 vulnerable families in two communities in Piauí with food baskets with basic provisions like rice, beans, flour and tinned goods. Families have also received hygiene kits with soap, hand sanitizer, toothbrushes, toothpaste and other sanitary items.