Did I really publish the last post only six days ago?? It feels like weeks have gone by with the amount that has happened since then. I’ve had various people reach out to me asking how the bici-radio installation went and I apologize for the delay in posting photos. With hectic preparations for the festival and then final reflections on the first phase of my artistic residence, I’ve barely had a moment to take a deep breath. Rios de Encontro’s third Beleza Amazônica Festival involved four days of artistic presentations, discussion circles, the launch of the solar powered bici-radio and a slightly improvised bicicletada that followed a morning of rain. I’ll try my best to relay all that happened!
When Renato arrived from Belém last Friday morning, we immediately went over to Fabiano the mechanic’s house to pick up the metal structure for the bike radio. We brought it to a bike shop, where Dan’s bike was receiving some much needed refurbishing, and had everything mounted. It was quite a lot of work to get the metal structure secured tightly on the bike and it will likely have to remain there even though we originally wanted it to be removable and adaptable to other bikes. Then Renato and I embarked on what would be a long drawn out process of purchasing the rest of the materials for the workshop. These last few important steps in the bike radio installation were frustrating and threw various cultural challenges at me as a coordinator. It seemed like innumerable obstacles arose with every small step taken forward. Under pressure to prepare all the different presentations and events for the festival, our time was limited. Dan, Mano and I were constantly running in different directions around the city. And given the fact that our main form of transportation is by bicycle and one bike was under construction, I was quite literally running everywhere. Some of the challenges I ran into, cultural and logistical, were as follows:
The inverter that arrived at our house was different than the one included in Luis’s outline and the one ordered, something that Pablo recognized when we first opened the boxes and thankfully Renato was able to adapt.
The process of purchasing other needed materials such as a multitester and bolts was extremely slow because at every store we had to wait for a fiscal receipt (for final budgeting purposes with the grant), which meant that Renato and I had little time on Friday to prepare the methodology for the workshop.
Later that night two of the four young people in the solar energy workshop told me they wouldn’t be able to make it because of work and school obligations. In the end, one of them was able to adjust his schedule, but I was extremely disappointed that they didn’t advise me sooner so I could change the timing of the workshop. Attendance/participation was a challenge I dealt with throughout this process and am planning to detail further in my final report.
Upon arriving home with the newly repaired bike, I realized the tire was flat for some reason and used all my remaining energy to pedal the heavy thing all the way back to the bike store.
These unexpected delays left us with little time to spray paint the metal structure and I ended up doing a rushed and terrible job the next morning before the workshop. To my frustration, we had to install the final system when it was still a little wet.
I felt like there was insufficient publicity done about the solar energy workshop as a whole. This was largely due to the many other activities and events that were being organized throughout the weekend as part of the festival.
I don’t intend to throw a blanket of negativity over the experience or provide excuses for the aspects of the project that didn’t turn out as expected. I’m hoping to represent this experience as truthfully and transparently as it happened and illuminate the challenges and mistakes we made along the way. I’m not going to lie; it was a lot of work on my part as a coordinator. I struggled to mediate between a specialist well versed in the language of formal institutions and technical engineering language, and three young people with whom that language does not serve. I had to ensure that the workshop did not become dreadfully boring and energy-consuming for those who struggle in normal classroom settings. It was important that every minute the young people were using their hands to construct things and that the methodology used throughout the past six weeks of workshops was continued. I also had to make sure that sufficient attention was dedicated to all the young people participating, not just those with a technical background like Pablo. Having to navigate the situation in another language and keep all of these considerations in mind was not easy. Nevertheless, the final product was a great success and the process left me with some interesting reflections. The workshop was a very valuable experience for the young people. They absolutely loved the opportunity for hands-on involvement in constructing a system themselves. While the hours ticked by and I expected them to lose interest and energy, they surprised me by staying in the classroom we were using until the bike was completely finished. Later that day, everyone had the chance to pedal around and use the power of the sun to inform the community about the events that would be taking place in the plaza at night (aka blast our little solar powered amplifier at peak volume). The bike is pretty heavy with the module, battery and amplifier, but the most challenging part is gaining a solid balance. By the time Pablo was finally able to propel the bike forward and start moving I was grinning uncontrollably. I swear, I’ll never forget the image of him pedaling away from us down the streets of Cabelo Seco, the sun glinting brightly off the solar panel roof.
The third Beleza Amazônica Festival centered on the young people as art educators, researchers and coordinators of their own projects, presenting the culmination of a year of workshops and courses. On Friday night we had an open dialogue focused on “segurança ecosocial” “eco-social security” with two members of the Military Police force. This conversation opened a space where the community and the police could dialogue about how to solve the issue of violence in the region. We made the solar energy project relevant in this discussion by tying in the idea of environmental security threatened by a violent development model.
On Saturday night a variety of dance presentations were held in the small plaza in the heart of Cabelo Seco. Little girls in bright skirts and glittery make-up pranced around the stage we constructed under strings of lights. The bici-radio leaned against a wall behind the stage, welcoming curious glances and questions. The night closed with a very impressive performance by the dance company AfroMundi, which expressed the tragic consequences of a hydroelectric dam and further destruction of the Amazon. As soon as there are videos available I will share them! On Sunday morning rainy conditions almost cancelled our bicicletada. It was a bit of a blessing to wake up at 7am to the patter of rain on the ceramic roof tiles and realize I could get another two hours of desperately needed sleep, but after experiencing the last bicicletada I was also disappointed. The younger generation of Cabelo Seco was also disappointed and not as easily defeated. The whole morning they clamored at our window, hanging on the metal bars and groaning, pointing at the sky and the street to show that the rain was drying up. We finally allowed them to mobilize community and by midday we had a solid group of screaming, whistling bike riders covered in solar energy ribbons.
A rare cool breeze enters my bedroom as I look out my iron barred window at a sky filled with dark clouds. The smell of an approaching rain follows and a door slams shut across the street. Next to me on my bed sits a brand new solar module, a charge controller and an invertor, still in their packaging. To my delight, these parts arrived at our door on Monday. I ripped open the boxes as soon as they were in my hands to make sure everything was correct and in good shape. Although the module is small (measuring around 2 x 2 with a potential of 55W), its sleek design has a commanding presence when I take it out of the box. I’ve noticed that everyone who admires it is careful to use a delicate touch and not smudge the glass. Tomorrow we will receive another member of GEDAE to help with the construction of the bici-radio. Unfortunately, Luis was unable to return to help us with the installation, but his diligence and dedication to the project will not go unnoticed. In his place, he highly recommended Renato Cavalcante, a graduate student who has worked closely with the group. Renato will stay in Cabelo Seco for three days to participate in our Festival Beleza Amazônica (which began yesterday!) and on Saturday he will help coordinate a workshop for the construction of the bike-radio. The workshop is open to the public, but I anticipate it will mostly be composed of participants from the solar energy workshop.
There is someone in particular who is just as excited as I am about the solar panel’s arrival; a young person involved in the project and the solar energy workshops named Pablo. Given his experience as an electrical technician, Pablo has played an important role in helping to purchase different parts for the bici-radio and he will likely hold much of the responsibility for its maintenance in the future. He is only 15 years old, but he has been working for an electrical repair company for the past 5 years and manages all of Rios de Encontro’s illumination and electrical necessities.
Despite his silent and reserved demeanor, I could tell Pablo was itching to get his hands on the new equipment. I’ve noticed him fiddling with an electrical circuit board or taking apart the amplifier cables and examining their insides during group meetings. He always manages to find something to deconstruct and then reconstruct. When I showed him the module, the invertor and charge controller, he opened everything and started to connect all the parts. I prompted him to explain everything he was doing; so I could better understand and he could practice explaining. This experience is especially important for someone like Pablo because he could be the future of the solar energy industry in Marabá. I proposed the idea that he starts the first solar energy manufacturing or installation center in the municipality. He seemed pleased.
Earlier today Pablo and I also went out to purchase the rest of the materials needed for the installation, such as wires, electrical tape, plugs and the battery (excuse my technical language but I am not a trained engineer and this was Pablo’s moment to shine). This was a bit of a hassle in the rain with bicycles as our only means of transportation, but we were successful in finding everything on the list Renato and Luis sent to us. When we returned to the house Pablo once again took everything out and created a rough outline of how the system would look, using only Luis’s diagram as a guide. When he reached a point where he was relatively content with the parts in front of him, he stopped and looked over at me. He said something along the lines of, “I don’t know why you have someone coming from Belém to help with this installation. I could’ve done it for you.” And he was right; the bici-radio was essentially constructed on the floor in front of him.
All that was missing from his assemblage was the actual structure to be mounted on the bike. I’ve done some hardcore bonding with the solar panel over the past week, aside from the fact that it stays in my room and I sleep next to it every night. Our friend Fabiano is going to build the metal structure that will support the solar module and speaker on the bike, but he needs constant reminders that our time frame is limited, so I have taken on the task of appearing at his garage to ensure the project is moving along. We felt uncomfortable leaving the solar panel with him in his workshop because if anything serious were to happen to it, the project would be impossible. This means that I have been lugging the solar panel on the 20-minute walk to his house so he can use it, and then back to Cabelo Seco (I swear, people in this city definitely think I’m insane). Regardless, the struggle has been worth it and the structure is almost finished. Tomorrow Renato and I will go over everything we have prepared for the installation to make sure it is ready for Saturday. So many things have been happening in the past week that I haven’t had a moment to sit down and publish it all. We had our final solar energy workshop on Sunday, a last minute visit to the community from Joilson Costa, part of the group “Campanha Nacional por uma Nova Política Energética”, and launched the third Festival Beleza Amazônica last night at the José Mendonça Vergolino elementary school! Better pictures are coming soon, I promise…
Over the past few weeks I have been in dialogue with Professor Luis Blasques (member of the alternative energy group GEDAE in Belém, who visited Cabelo Seco in October to launch our solar energy intervention) about our plan to construct a solar powered bike-radio. Luis drew up a design and gave us recommendations about the components we would need to purchase. The small amplifier we will use as a speaker system arrived last week and we have ordered the solar module, charge controller and inverter from a company based in São Paulo. They are estimated to arrive by the end of this week. We plan to buy the battery for the system in Marabá because it will be faster and possibly cheaper. To give you a better idea of what this will look like, below is an image of the design Luis created.
In Sunday’s solar energy workshop, we split the small group into two pairs and sent them out into the community to take pictures. Their assignment was to photograph a response to the following question: what will be preserved with solar energy? They were additionally asked to photograph potential locations to film a short movie on solar energy. This was an excellent idea on Dan’s behalf because it gave the young people the opportunity to extract a more profound and abstract understanding of the benefits of solar energy, rooted in concrete examples in Cabelo Seco. The result was extremely interesting. When each pair returned, we projected the photos on the wall and they explained their thought processes. The first pair presented a series of photographs predominantly featuring negative aspects of the community that would hypothetically disappear with the implementation of solar energy. Their first photo showed a grotesque amount of litter disintegrating on the riverbank below the boardwalk. They explained that litter would be reduced with the arrival of solar energy because people will become more environmentally responsible and conscious of their actions. I wondered whether this idea was sparked by one of the short videos we watched in last week’s workshop. The video showed the effects of population explosion in the city of Altamira as a consequence of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. There were many scenes of the city streets covered in overflowing trash bins and crumbling infrastructure. Maybe in their minds, hydroelectric dams are now associated with litter and unpleasant surroundings. The next photo that appeared on the wall was one of electrical lines running through the neighborhood. The pair made the argument that solar energy uses less electrical lines so therefore the neighborhood will be more beautiful. While this isn’t necessarily true, it is notable that they are drawing a connection between solar energy and a cleaner, less polluted world.
Among the thought-provoking photographs presented by the second pair was one taken on the boardwalk, right as the sun was beginning to set. The picture captured so many different aspects of solar energy: the plants growing on the riverbank, the reflection of the setting sun on the river, colorful shirts drying on a clothesline strung between two streetlamps, and slowly extending shadows. Intended to illustrate one location for filming our video, the photo perfectly exemplified the varied roles the sun plays in their lives. I noticed that the most significant part of this discussion was that the young people were starting to speak with a greater sense of authority about the subject of solar energy. Their facts may not be 100% accurate, but this exhibition of confidence is enough to show that the workshops are having an impact.
I know I haven’t touched much on the larger solar panel installation we envisioned completing during my stay here. The reasoning behind this is due to the constantly fluctuating circumstances regarding property ownership. I felt like it didn’t make sense to keep publishing updates considering the situation changes on a daily basis and is often prolonged by the disappearance of landlords. The whole process of officially connecting a PV system to the grid can take up to 82 days (possibly more in a region where solar generation is so scarce). We can accelerate this process by submitting a request for authorization to CELPA, Pará’s electrical power distributor, but we need to be able to define the system’s characteristics. Meaning, we need to know what type of system we want to install and where. The challenges concerning the location of the panel have made it difficult to move forward and unfortunately it’s something we have little control over. It’s a very frustrating situation for many reasons aside from the solar panel project.
That said, all hope is not lost and the solar installation will still take place, just not before my December 16th departure date. I find it hard to believe that December has already arrived, marking two and a half months of my collaboration with Rios de Encontro. So much has been accomplished in this time, yet we still have many things to do. Originally, this collaboration was intended to span a three-month time period. Given the reality that we will be unable to complete the installation in the next two weeks, Dan, Mano and I have been discussing the possibility of my return in February 2015. This would give us more time to determine what the property situation will look like over the next year.