Eu Sou Amazônia

“Em que parte do Brasil estamos?” “We are in what part of Brazil?” Dan chorused to the circle of 3rd grade students sitting in the auditorium of the José Mendonça Vergolino elementary school.

“O norte!” “The north!” offered one student.

“O estado do Pará!” “The state of Pará!” screamed another.

We were in the middle of one of 24 workshops Rios de Encontro was invited to give in the elementary school, centered on theatre, dance, music and story-telling. Over the past two months, these workshops incorporated all 500 students into a process of re-integrating regional arts and popular culture into education. The process is representative of the urgent need to construct a new pedagogy within educational institutions that integrates artistic languages and is capable of responding to the contemporary challenges facing the region.

“Marabá fica na Amazônia?” “Is Marabá located in the Amazon?” Dan probed again.

“NÃO!” came the unanimous answer from the crowd, some children shaking their heads and wagging an index finger in their air. Then it was Mano’s turn to pose a question.

“Onde fica a Amazônia?” “Where is the Amazon?”

“São Paulo!”

“Manaus!”

“Onde tem floresta.” “Where there is forest.”

“No outro lado do rio!” On the other side of the river!”

“Paris?”

The affirmation that the Amazon is a faraway place or somewhere on the other side of the river was a common theme in every class we met with. The few teachers who participated in the workshops or even sat watching (many took advantage of the opportunity to escape their unruly students and left in search of a coffee or a nap) were also complicit in this assertion. Neither their house, their neighborhood, or the city of Marabá are located in the Amazon. To see how widespread this belief was in both children and adults, and in a school for that matter, was pretty shocking. It reminded me of the way my friends and family in the United States reacted when I mentioned I would be working in the Brazilian Amazon. Even here, there is the overwhelming notion that the Amazon only exists where there is dense jungle, exotic animals and indigenous tribes. This is a serious challenge for the preservation of the Brazilian Amazon. If people living here cannot identify themselves as part of the Amazon, what reason would they have to defend it? If the Amazon is a distant place that doesn’t affect them, why should people be worried about its destruction?

Last Saturday, Rios de Encontro’s sixth bicicletada intended to cultivate and celebrate this Amazonian identity. The bicicletada was called “Eu Sou Amazônia” “I am the Amazon”.

Bicicletada 'Eu Sou Amazonia' cultiva lacos solidarios, cuidado, sensibilidade ambiental, identidade amazonica e comunidade ecosocial

Vibrant, exhilarating and incredibly sweaty are among some of the words I would use to describe the bike ride. We had an early start, with all the students, parents, teachers, police and other various participants meeting at the school at 7:30am. As Dan and Mano welcomed everyone over the loudspeaker, I zigzagged through the mass of bicycles, handing out strips of colored ribbon that people could use to decorate their bikes, their hair and their bodies. The day before we expended a lot of energy ripping the fabric into strips and tying them into small bunches that could be attached to handlebars. Still hoping to incorporate an element of solar energy into the bicicletada after our timeframe to record a song for the bike radio became limited, we thought of using the yellow, orange and red ribbons to create a sort of moving sculpture. Blowing in the wind, the ribbons created a fire-like effect and the entire bicicletada became a river of solar energy that surged through the streets of the city. When we cycled through neighborhood streets people came out and stood in their doorways to watch the procession. We made a pit stop for water in Santa Rosa and then biked down the boardwalk to Cabelo Seco, where the Latinhas de Quintal preformed one of their songs in the plaza. It was the biggest bicicletada Rios de Encontro has held so far. It also marked a very significant advancement in the involvement of the military police. This year, the commander himself participated and led the colorful swarm of bicycles throughout the city, followed by 12 handpicked officers in his unit on bikes and motorcycles. Their presence was a strong symbol of their support for the project and an indication of their desire to see a more sustainable future for Marabá.

Bicicletada 'Eu Sou Amazonia' cultiva cooperacao ecosocial atraves de parcerias comunitarias e transformadoras entre jovens excluidos do projeto Rios de Encontro, a escola municipal Jose Mendonca Vergolino e a Policia Militar de Maraba

Coronel Eduardo Pimentel (in red) leads the way as we pass through the neighborhood of Santa Rosa

I was strangely energized post bicicletada despite my sleep deprived state and role as an emergency help vehicle for all the little people struggling to untangle taut ribbons from their wheels and gears during the ride (the only downside to the river of solar energy idea). I initially attributed it to the much-needed coffee I gulped down in the morning, but Dan explained how the bicicletada has a tendency to give people a huge adrenaline rush. I realized he was right; the bicicletada was much more than a bike ride around the city. It also made me recognize that the name they have devised for the second bicicletada is just as relevant and meaningful as the first. In two weeks we will host the second bicicletada for Cabelo Seco, named “Energias de Vida” “Energies of Life”.

Teachers of José Mendonça Vergolino

Teachers of José Mendonça Vergolino

Maes, paes, alunos, professores, arte educadores e policia militar prontos para lancar a Bicicletada 'Eu Sou Amazonia'

3rd Solar Energy Workshop

On Sunday afternoon we held the third solar energy workshop in the Barracão. The main objective of the workshop was to brainstorm ways to sensitize Cabelo Seco and Marabá about solar energy during next week’s bike ride and the end of the year festival.

To give you a little background, the bike ride is a highly anticipated and widely enjoyed semi-annual event coordinated by Rios de Encontro. Known as the “bicicletada”, the event usually commences in Cabelo Seco and pauses for intervals in different neighborhoods throughout the city for refueling snacks and seven-minute workshops or presentations. Since the number of participants has been growing every year, the event requires a lot of careful planning. There are municipal and state policemen involved, firemen, local businesses and members from the secretariat of the environment. The presence of the police forces is as much for safety precautions as a way to involve the entire city in a healthy, sustainable activity. This year we will have two bicicletadas, one in partnership with a local elementary school and then another longer one in December that will be more focused on Cabelo Seco and the festival. Next Saturday’s bicicletada with the school celebrates the conclusion of various workshops Dan and Mano were invited to give to students and teachers as part of the national program “Mais Cultura nas Escolas” More Culture in Schools. Since this bicicletada will incorporate a much greater percentage of little people, it will be shorter than past bike rides and concentrated in Velha Marabá. The young coordinators of Rios de Encontro will play vital roles in synchronizing the departure from the elementary school, the workshops and the snacks. From the video clips I’ve seen and the number of children who have already stopped by the window of our house to confirm its date, I can sense the significance of the bicicletada throughout the community. Below is an awesome video made by the Rabetas Videos group about last year’s bicicletada.

Manoela and percussionists Elisa (18) and Carol (13) giving a workshop to teachers at the José Mendonça Vergolino elementary school

Manoela and percussionists Elisa (17) and Carol (13) giving a workshop to teachers at the José Mendonça Vergolino elementary school

2013 Bicicletada

2013 Bicicletada

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In addition to the bicicletada, the Beleza Amazonica Festival will provide a platform to present our conversations and work on solar energy. This year’s Festival will celebrate the culmination of the sixth year of community solidarity and the Rios de Encontro project. Each micro-project holding workshops throughout the year will showcase their work in some way over the three-day celebration. Partners of Rios de Encontro and local musicians, artists and students are also invited to participate in giving presentations or mini-workshops. We are currently in the process of designing the Festival so I won’t give any more away, but hopefully this offers a better idea of what we needed to prepare for in the workshop.

Returning to that point, the aim of Sunday’s discussion was to determine what kinds of actions can be incorporated into the bicicletada and the festival to promote dialogue about solar energy. At the beginning of the workshop, I presented some pictures about solar energy innovations taking place around the world (including the events I mentioned in my last post). The topics ranged from innovations like the Solar Impulse plane, to solar powered kiosks that charge phones in Africa, to the solar panels installed at my university, to illiterate women trained in solar power engineering at the Barefoot College in India. This quick glance into the many different advancements taking place around the world was intended to give participants a base of current, up-to-date information that they can use to advocate. With the understanding that innovations using the energy of the sun are blossoming in many different countries, the conversation transitioned into a dialogue about what is possible here. We divided the workshop up into groups to better facilitate conversation and create a space for those who don’t have the confidence to speak in front of a larger audience. Some of the adolescents are very shy and will opt to remain silent even when they have valuable comments or questions to contribute. We presented the question to the groups: Using any type of artistic resource, music, film, dance, photography, how can we pitch solar energy to the public?

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Bike radio

Once reunited as a larger group, Dan grabbed his camera and took on the role of an interviewer, directing the camera lens at different people with animated provocations. I’ve learned from their workshops that the camera is an incredible pedagogical tool. Once the camera is turned on, people become shy, embarrassed and start to giggle, but they are willing to contribute to the creation of a film. The feedback from the circle was really good. Last week Mano came up with the idea of creating a community bike radio powered by solar energy. I know that probably sounds confusing for people who are not from here. A bike radio is basically a bike that has a speaker system mounted on its front. Similar to the way cars drive around promoting political candidates during the elections, there are also people who ride these bike radios around blasting advertisements. The bikes often have a small roof or canopy situated over the biker to protect him/her from the glaring sun. Mano proposed placing a solar panel on the roof, which would power the speaker system for the community radio project we plan on starting (we consulted Luis about this idea and he said it would definitely be possible- we are currently in the process of finding the right speakers). Having shared this proposal with the members of the workshop, many suggested that a song would be an effective way of grabbing the attention of the general public. We could borrow the tactics used by politicians and substitute the lyrics of a popular song with phrases about solar energy to create something really catchy. People will be singing about solar energy without even realizing it. The song idea has great potential given the various musical talents of the people involved in the workshop. Other ideas for the bicicletada included creating posters with face cutouts that the children could pose with or designing some sort of stencil that could be painted onto hands, faces or t-shirts. We scheduled a time to reconnect on Thursday afternoon to put our ideas into action and everyone left with plans to experiment with potential lyrics.

Worldwide Solar Energy Movements

In an effort to provide some lighter, more optimistic reading, I’ve compiled some inspiring updates on recent solar energy developments around the world. The most noteworthy advancement with respect to our project is the Brazilian government’s move to invest around $1 billion into the solar energy industry on October 31st (they were undoubtedly under pressure to respond to the valuable debate and demands that arose from our solar energy meetings…). However aside from this news, countries around the world are exhibiting greater efforts to solarize. Every innovation put into practice, every investment or policy that is made, represents important steps forward for the clean energy sector.

To start, in March 2015, two Swiss pilots will take turns piloting a single-manned, solar powered plane around the world. The first prototype of this plane, named Solar Impulse, can fly day and night without a drop of fuel! It has more than 17,000 solar cells located on its wings and weighs about as much as a family car. Solar Impulse broke 8 world records when it became the first solar powered airplane to fly through the night, between two continents, and across the United States. Last year’s journey from San Francisco to New York sparked a global initiative to engage people to advocate for greater investment in green technology. Lessons learned from the prototype will be used in the construction of Solar Impulse 2, the plane that will fly around the world next year. Swiss pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg formed Solar Impulse in 2004 with the goal to create a revolution in people’s minds about clean technology. Their goal is to demonstrate the importance and potential of technologies that are already available to us. They assert that although clean technologies exist, they will not be fully utilized or appear on the market until government establish a legal framework. Learn more about this impressive project here.

Solar Impulse, the world’s first solar powered plane. Source: http://www.solarimpulse.com/timeline/view/7473#.VGOrQfTF_Lg

Speaking of government initiative, Brazil’s national energy regulator (ANEEL) held its first exclusive solar power auction on October 31st, with the objective of developing the solar energy industry in Brazil. This initiative is driven by the reality that Brazil is undergoing one of its worst droughts in eight decades, severely reducing output from important hydroelectric dams. Finally, the government is making an effort to diversify its energy sources. It was clear from this extremely competitive auction that developers are more than ready to jump on this opportunity. The auction awarded contracts for the construction of 31 solar parks throughout the country. There were 400 solar projects registered in total, indicating that there exists a large number of projects with the necessary conditions to enter in future auctions. Companies were awarded 20-year contracts to sell power to ANEEL for projects that must go into operation by October 2017. In Brazil’s power auctions, the government sets a ceiling price for solar power, in this case $109/MWh, and developers bid down the rate at which they are willing to sell power. Whichever company offers the lowest price wins the 20-year contract to sell electricity. The incredible outcome of the auction was that it attracted bids among the lowest unsubsidized solar prices in the world, at $87/MWh! That the clearing price fell so low means that developers feel they can drive down the costs of their projects well below today’s levels in the next 2 ¾ years (before the Oct. 2017 deadline). It also indicates that the developers are willing to accept low returns, maybe for the status of being the first solar parks in the country. Already the costs are relatively low for some of the contracted projects because they will be constructed on wind farms, where transmission lines already exist and the land does not need to be developed.

The high price of solar panels has limited the development of this industry in Brazil and is often used as an argument against its expansion. The upfront costs of solar are higher in Brazil than any other part of the world, owing to high import taxes and regulations that require a portion of the project’s equipment to be manufactured domestically. However, this financial argument disappears with the results of the auction, given that the average price of electricity from solar is now lower than that of nuclear and fossil fuels. If the price continues to plummet as projected, it will be competitive with hydroelectricity. And this doesn’t even account a monetary value for the externalities these energy sources create. The auction is a historical milestone for Brazil, not just because it marks the entrance of solar power into Brazil’s energy sector, but because it clearly illustrates a strong desire and potential among Brazilians to move the country in a cleaner direction. Legal frameworks are the only thing missing.

Moving back to the European landscape, today Holland opened the world’s first solar-paneled road. Stretching 70 meters long (230 ft), SolaRoad is a public bike path that connects two suburbs in Amsterdam. The path is built out of massive solar panel modules embedded in concrete under a layer of tempered glass. On top of the glass is a translucent, skid resistant plastic coating, durable enough to withstand the thousands of Dutch cyclists that will utilize it each day. The panels generate about 30% less energy than solar panels found on roofs because they cannot be adjusted at an angle to the changing position of the sun. Regardless, the length of the bike path is considerably larger than any rooftop installation could withstand. Each square meter of the road generates between 50-70 kWh of energy per year. This is currently enough electricity to power two houses and will be enough to power three when the road is expanded in 2016. While solar roads are extremely costly and may seem inconvenient at the moment, developers appear confident that successive projects will be profitable within a decade.

If you have any other news regarding solar energy advancements, please feel free to share!

Assim não Vale

I step out into the cool night air to think. The full moon illuminates my path, providing light in place of the unlit streetlights that run along the portion of boardwalk entering Cabelo Seco. I’m surprised by how much light the moon provides. All of the canoes and boats sitting on the riverbank below are visible and I can trace the outline of the beach and trees on the other side of the river. As I reach the portion of the boardwalk where streetlights apparently matter, I can hear music pulsating from the Manduquinha.

The Manduquinha is the Vale-financed and refurbished bar I have referenced in previous posts. It refers to the plaza and a section of the boardwalk that surround the bar as well, since the events hosted there draw large crowds of people to the space. I’m interested in seeing what events are taking place tonight, but not because I plan on participating. Although the Mandoquinha has claimed the loyalty of a significant portion of Marabá’s population, we prefer not join in on the festivities it hosts. In 2011, Rios de Encontro’s young coordinators made the collective decision not to preform on any stage or accept any award financed by Vale. Our refusal to participate in the events they sponsor or accept their propaganda serves as a form of denunciation. This past Wednesday was Dia Nacional da Cultura (National Culture Day). To mark the holiday, Marabá’s city council, in partnership with Vale, has organized a week of “cultural” events. Beginning on Tuesday, the week is full of demonstrations of various artistic expressions, including dance, Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art), theatre, arts and crafts, literature and music. There are workshops and seminars held during the day, open to the public.

Earlier this week I passed by the plaza and saw men setting up large white tents and stages in preparation for the festivities. This usually happens every weekend as part of the Secretary of Culture’s Cultura Faz Bem project. Yet this week’s setup is different because Vale’s logo appears explicitly on the tents and backdrops of the stages. In the past, Vale has maintained a silent presence, financing concerts and performances in conjunction with local politicians but not openly publicizing their contributions. This week’s infrastructure makes their involvement very visible. Even newspaper articles advertising the cultural events plainly state that the city council is working in partnership with Vale to promote a week of culture. I am interested to know how the people of Marabá interpret this relationship.


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Anyway, the scene I am witnessing is quite unbelievable. I wind through small groups of people gathered on the boardwalk, drinking beers and talking. For the elaborate setup and publicity efforts, the attendance is pretty weak. I’m curious as to how much money was spent on this event. And don’t make fun of me, but I might have wondered how many solar panels could have been purchased instead. Aside from what appears to be the main stage, there are various smaller tents displaying paintings and musical instruments. One tent has a bunch of cloth dolls hanging from the ceiling, which looks creepy but piques my curiosity. Nevertheless, I don’t stray from the boardwalk and slow my pace to see if there is anyone I recognize among the groups of people. I see families, friends, lovers and groups of teenagers enjoying themselves in the midst of a serious crisis. Does anyone realize they are being bought? I walk by some of the most progressive and critical professors in UFPA. I walk by leaders of the MST. I smile and hide the judgment. How can they not recognize this contradiction?

The scene is sickening in its blatant deception. Vale’s immense economic and political power gives it the ability to manipulate local governments into disseminating its propaganda. A miniscule amount of its vast wealth can be injected into publicity and marketing as a means of gaining the consent of the population and eliminating the threat of opposition. By planning social events that please the public, Vale deals with the troublesome social and environmental responsibility it must uphold as a corporation. Not that it does this very successfully…In the 2012 World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Vale was presented with an award for being the worst corporation in the world. I turn around and walk home. What I really want to do is go back and take photos, record this moment so that in 10 years, whatever the landscape may look like, there is documentation of this exploitation. However, given our boycott of Vale’s entire development project, this action would be sensitive. I stand out and people know my association with the project. We don’t want to accuse or judge, and we don’t want to be misunderstood as doing so. The photos included in this post are ones Dan took in the morning when the stages were being assembled. As for the night scene, I save mental images in my head.

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Would you like your steak cooked rare, medium or solarized?

As if to make a point, the sweltering sun beat down on me as I prepared for our first solar energy workshop in the Barracão on Sunday. The workshop didn’t have a big turn out in comparison to the amount of people that signed up for the course, but it actually ended up working out well with smaller group. Our objectives for this workshop were to 1.) sensitize people about the energy potential of the sun in the Amazon, 2.) stimulate debate and collective action to inform others and advocate solar energy, and 3.) initiate conversations about how and where to install a solar energy panel in Cabelo Seco.

The main activity of the workshop was based on an idea I came up with a few weeks ago. I wanted the first workshop to incorporate an activity that was somewhat interactive. Since last week was filled with conversations and the dissemination of pamphlets and reading materials, I thought it would be useful to do something with our hands. It needed to be a simple activity able to demonstrate the power of the sun here in the Amazon. After toying with the possibility of constructing a plastic water bottle structure to heat/purify water, I landed on the idea of a solar oven. It was perfect. The solar oven incorporates all three dimensions of the Gira-Sol project: solar energy, healthy alimentation and artistic performance. Solar energy is used to cook the food inside the oven and illustrates the power of the sun in Marabá. The foods are cooked in a simple manner without oil or additives and recipe options generally revolve around dried fruits or vegetables. Please don’t be misled by the title of this post and try to cook meat in a solar oven. Finally, cooking is a form of artistic expression. Given this perfect alignment of themes, I spent last week gathering supplies so I could construct an experimental oven before the workshop. The solar oven would be simple, constructed out of cardboard boxes, aluminum foil and saran wrap. Collecting the supplies was an experience within itself. I needed two cardboard boxes per solar oven as one would be placed inside of the other. This meant that I needed to run around the city gathering cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes to find sets of two that would fit well together. I was also on a mission to find old newspaper or Styrofoam, which would be used to fill the space between the two boxes and act as insulation. Basically, I ended up rooting through piles of cardboard boxes dumped outside of stores and grocery markets. At one point I found myself competing with a man who came along to join me in his own search for sturdy boxes (just kidding, I obviously let him take the good ones).

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Balancing my solar oven experiment on a bike for optimal sun exposure

I experimented for two days before the workshop by attempting to make manioc (a type of potato), banana and plantain chips in my oven. It took a lot of babysitting- every hour I was outside rotating the oven and moving the reflector panel to make sure I had optimal sunlight entrance into the box. The temperature inside the oven was pretty high when I stuck my hand in to check on the food. If I had another day or two I definitely could’ve opened a business. The greatest part about this experiment period was the amount of publicity it received in the community just by sitting out in the street. People were very curious as to why I was using a wooden skewer to prop open the aluminum foil covered flap of a cardboard box. When I taped a sign reading “Energia Solar” onto the front of the box, they were even more inquisitive. Everyone would just stand at a distance with an expression on their faces similar to that of the people who watched me dig through garbage piles. So I invited them over to take a look inside and explained my intentions.

In the workshop everyone divided into groups to construct the boxes, which they brought home to experiment with throughout the week. Given my experience with the community during my own experimentation period, this activity promotes a kind of advocacy. Everyone who brings home a solar oven will, at some point, have to inform their family, friends or strangers about this way of utilizing solar energy. In addition to the box constructions, we presented information about solar energy developments that are taking place on a local/national and international level. I think the idea of incorporating current events surrounding solar energy is an essential element to the workshops. It will give people the ability to localize solar energy on a grander scale and offer them significant information they can pass on to others. At the end of the workshop, we opened the discussion to a period of reflection and assigned a question for each group to research for the following meeting. I was pleased with how this first workshop went. It was a lot of work to organize the activity but a valuable experience- for me and those who attended the workshop. Now I’m off to see if people have actually been experimenting over the last few days…