Magazine article New Internationalist

Homegrown Energy

Magazine article New Internationalist

Homegrown Energy

Article excerpt

They live on the river that forms the border with Uruguay and Argentina - a river in Brazil full of dams already built and being planned, where conflicts over pulp and paper industries are common. The majority living in the upper part of this Uruguay River Basin are small farmers. Since the 1960s these farmers have depended on rural electrification co-operatives for access to electricity. But these co-operatives worked just like any other private company...

So around the middle of the 1990s (when the privatization of energy services was starting in Brazil) the members of this co-operative known as CRERAL 6,000 families in all - got organized through the trade union of rural workers and demanded control. They appropriated the co-operative and took up the challenge of controlling their own electricity supply - a group of farmers managing energy technology and markets! Some years later, they decided that instead of buying energy they could produce their own, renewably, using the local resources they had. So now they have two mini hydro-dams, which provide more than half the electricity for the small farmers living there.

They told me that before this transition, the general assembly of the co-operative used to be just six people making the decisions. But when they took over, more than 1,000 members started coming. Now, before a general assembly they go to the communities one by one - more than 30 different municipalities - and talk to i the people there about their priorities on how to use the i income generated during that year. Everybody has a say. And they bring the outcomes of these discussions to the general assembly.

The co-operative doesn't charge people by sending them an energy bill. Instead, it asks each community to say what they have consumed in energy, and each person in the community gives his or her own word. So it's based on trust - sharing the trust. This means they don't spend a lot of money metering the kilowatts used.

I can see that the members feel much more empowered as a result. They also tell us about improvements in both the production of food (because of the better access to electricity), and the quality of supply of electricity (which is much more dependable). As a result, members of the co-operative can now run small agro-industries in the regions, improving the income of the people. Their members already knew how to produce food, and deal with local food markets. Now - as empowered political actors - they are also involved in energy policies, not only locally but at a national

Today, the co-operative is researching how to produce biogas and electricity from waste in their area. …

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