Planting Sunflower Seeds

What size is a solar panel and how much energy can it provide?

Would it be possible to build one solar panel that could support the entire community?

What are the maintenance costs for a solar panel?

Where was the first place you installed a solar panel?

Are there any politicians in favor of solar energy?

Is your group in favor or against the construction of the hydroelectric dam in Marabá?

These inquiries, among many others, were pitched at Luis earlier this week during the solar energy meetings we hosted in Cabelo Seco. Starting with the community meeting on Monday night, I was very impressed by the amount of people that showed up and the dialogue that ensued. We had university professors and students, MST leaders, individuals from the municipal education department, radio station employees, local musicians and even the mayor’s mother in attendance! Several people from the community were present at multiple meetings. If time was not a restraint, I think the conversations could have certainly continued longer. Our publicizing efforts definitely paid off in terms of attendance. The morning of the community meeting Mano and I went door to door handing out paper invitations throughout Cabelo Seco. I watched people’s expressions as Mano explained that the meeting would discuss solar energy and its potential here in Marabá. What are you thinking? I wondered, wishing I could read their minds as we lingered in doorways. Do they know what solar energy is? Are they curious?

It appeared there was much more curiosity than I expected. We started the meetings by projecting a short movie clip I produced onto the white wall of the Barracão (the cultural center located down the street). Using some footage from my travels throughout the Amazon River Basin last year, the movie calls into question the idea of large hydroelectric dams as a form of sustainable energy. It urges debate over fundamental questions about energy production in Brazil: energy for what, for whom and how? Transitioning into photos I took during my visit to GEDAE’s office in Belém, the movie proposes solar energy as an alternative pathway. We showed it at the beginning of the meetings as a way sparking thoughts and planting a few questions in people’s heads. The only downside was that people came and left the meeting in waves, so showing the movie at the start meant that latecomers missed it. With a little provocation from Dan, the floodgates opened and I was ecstatic to hear the questions that emerged. One boy fired off five consecutive questions and had more in store for the next meeting!! (I strongly encouraged him to sign up for the workshop) It was really great to have Professor Blasques there to offer direct and truthful information to a community that is generally used to receiving the opposite. In the young people meeting, these discussions shed light on the fact that there is no conversation about energy alternatives in institutional structures like schools. At one point in the meeting Dan asked the group whether these topics were ever discussed in the classroom. Everyone said no. “Are people shutting their eyes or are their eyes being shut for them?” he probed. The first answer was that people’s eyes are being shut for them. Then everyone determined it was a little bit of both.

Here I am presenting a fun solar energy quiz I designed for the young people meeting.

The question about costs was one that came up frequently. A man in the municipal meeting asked about the cost of a system for a residence, adding that his greatest worry was that the technology was inaccessible for the poor. He had a valid concern, and later that night Luis admitted that questions about costs are always complex ones. On one end, you don’t want to tell people there are extremely high costs associated with solar energy because it dissuades them from imagining solar as a viable alternative. On the other, you don’t want to give people false hope by stating a price that is unrealistically low, he explained. The reality is that the costs vary depending on the electricity consumption rates of the household.

There were around 60 people in total that participated in the meetings we held. This represents a chunk of individuals who, in Dan’s words, are not content with accepting the future as a fact. The dialogue circles offered the opportunity for people to speak about alternatives and a different reality. We are starting to create a dialogue about solar energy in Marabá that should have been initiated years ago in Brazil. I got the impression that people were not just content with creating a greater consciousness about solar energy; they wanted mobilization. We have some deep conversations ahead of us about the next steps to take. Throughout these past few weeks I’ve realized that Rios de Encontro is in many ways a voice for the people of Marabá. Being the only project in the region that refuses to accept funding from any multinational, it stands as the sole force that seriously questions Marabá’s future. The project has secured a section in two local newspapers (one owned by Vale, the other by the mayor) and we are told there are people who buy them just to read about our events. When Luis was here, Dan organized interviews with him on radio and tv stations. The fact that the project is so widely supported by people in Marabá suggests that it is a pathway for individuals to express their fears, frustrations and dissatisfaction when they are unable to declare opposition themselves.

In terms of the actual installation of solar panels in Cabelo Seco, Luis’s visit made it clear that we have some considerable challenges to think about. I anticipated the need to know exactly where the panels would be installed early on in the project, but there were many uncertain circumstances. For example, Dan and Mano were denied the possibility to purchase the house they have been renting for the past several years. The other option was to install the panel on the roof of the Barracão but again, they don’t own the property. The owner donated the space to the community and it has been utilized for dance classes, workshops and meetings. Additionally, Luis pointed out that the Barracão uses such a small amount of electricity at the moment that a solar panel would end up sending a majority of the electricity it generates back into the electrical grid. We would be generating electricity from a renewable resource, but sending it all back into a centralized, overpriced provider, who would then tax the consumers using it. In this case, one option would be to increase the energy consumption of the building by installing an air conditioning system or more lighting. Another option, we believed, would be to distribute the energy provided by that panel to multiple residences, to increase the consumption. However, Luis clarified that one system cannot be utilized in more than one house because we are not certified as an electricity distributor. To use the electricity generated from a solar panel, each house has to have its own meter, which calculates how much electricity is being generated from the panel and how much is being consumed by the household. A final possibility we considered was whether the installation could happen on the elementary school building in Cabelo Seco, but we were advised against installing on a public building. An installation on a public building would require collaboration with the municipal government and afford them a high degree of control over the project. Given these obstacles and restrictions, the practical aspect of this project will require much attention over the next few weeks. While I feel slightly pessimistic about the installation, the progress we made with the solar energy meetings is a great motivation. The day after the municipal meeting, Dan said he had strangers come up to him in the street and congratulate him on its success. This means we need a big conversation about the next steps of mobilization!


Municipal meeting (Professor Luis Blasques is on the right in green)


Zequinha closing the meeting with a song


3 thoughts on “Planting Sunflower Seeds

  1. Jessica:
    Keep plugging away on this. I understand the difficult obstacles you face, but this is a really good experience in learning how to deal with bureaucratic inertia.


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