Archive: Documentary Stories: First Light, Guatemala
SOLAR LIGHTING PROJECT IN CASERIO MANO DE LEON, Jocotenango, Guatemala
November 2010, Notes by Kelly Lynn James
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To help - Integral Heart Foundation
Dona Maria Fidelia is one of two elders in the largely matriarchal community of Caserio Mano de Leon, Guatemala. Her rural Mayan village is geographically closer to Guatamala City than most American suburbs are to their major centers, but it is difficult to get too. The road from the nearest town of Jocotenango climbs 3.5 miles straight up through the private land of a coffee finca (plantation) and into a valley in the mountains with no access to the limited Guatemalan electrical grid. Dona Maria's village of 18 families and over 65 people has no power and no electrical lighting.
Dona Maria says that they need light at night to work and to cook, for their children to study, and for protection and security from strangers. There are known armed bandits in this area of the mountains and there have been numerous armed robberies of visitors and locals.
Over 60% of the population of Guatemala live in rural sections of the country. Estimates place the number of households without power around 500,000.
Mick Quinn and Debora Prieto of the Integral Heart Foundation along with La Asociación Nuestros Ahijados are trying to bring change to Mano de Leon by replacing their nightly candles with very small portable solar lighting units. Each unit costs around Q.1,900 or about USD$235 and will power three high efficiency light bulbs for 4 hours on a full charge. This is comparable in cost to what a typical village family spends on candles in 1-2 years. Though a number of groups produce similar solar units, in Mano de Leon Mick and Debora are installing a product designed and sold by a Guatemalan company, Quetsol, who guarantee the units for 3 years.
On the day we visit Mano de Leon for Mick and Debora to plan the solar installations Dona Maria catches a ride from town with the three police and two military guards assigned to escort us through the finca to the village. Fewer than 20 years ago, this was a country at war with itself and armed soldiers were not a welcome sign in a small Mayan village. But today, the soldiers escort aid workers to the areas that need help - a free service offered by the government.
Small fields of maize line the the last 300 yards of trail down from the finca road to the village. Maize and beans are traditional staples of the indigenous diet and continue to be farmed in small family and
village plots. Clusters of small shacks are surrounded by fences made of sticks. Homes here are made largely of tree trunk posts and corrugated metal. Three dogs bark and a horse walks to the end of his lead to greet us.
The aftermath of 36 years of civil war has left Guatemala poor and slow to redevelop. The wealthiest 20 percent of Guatemalans earn 60 percent of the country’s income (UNICEF). The poorest 56.2 percent live below the poverty line (World Factbook). Despite its fertile land, Guatemala also has the fourth highest rate of chronic childhood malnutrition in the world with 58.6 percent of indigenous children 0-5 years old suffering chronic malnutrition (UNICEF).
After a short demonstration of the solar unit to a group of village families on the porch of the cinder block schoolhouse, one of only two structures in the village with a non-dirt floor, Mick and Deborah work to strategically plan the layout of the solar units in the village so the 3 individual bulbs from a single unit may reach multiple homes. In addition the the light bulbs, each unit can also power a small DC radio and charge a cellular phone. Cell phones may seem minor or even frivolous, but they are often the only form of electronic communication between a village like Mano de Leon and the rest of the country. When walking to town to charge a phone can take more than an hour and a half each way, the solar unit becomes a lifeline as well as a light source. On the day of the demonstration, only one family in Mano de Leon has a cell phone.
As Mick and Debora leave the village with a plan to return with all of the solar units, they stop to ask Dona Maria what the solar units will mean to Mano de Leon. She simply says that she will be very happy when her village has light. When they ask if she has anything else to say, Dona Maria thanks God for sending Debora and Mick and the solar units and then she makes a special point to thank the military guides for bringing help to Mano de Leon and for keeping her village safe.
Project Sponsored by Mick Quinn and Debora Prieto of the Integral Heart Foundation and by La Asociación Nuestros Ahijados
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