Power to the people
At the turn of the millennium Brazil’s government enshrined universal access to public electricity in law. Since then 3.5 million connections have been made, giving nearly 17 million people their first access to the grid. The ‘Luz para Todos’ (‘Light for All’) programme couldn’t quite live up to its billing, however. In the nine states that constitute the Amazon region – places so remote they can’t be easily hooked up to the grid – almost one million people remain without power. In recent years, though, advances in solar technology have brought hope that these communities will soon have access to clean renewable energy. Launched in 2020, the ‘Mais Luz para a Amazonia’ (‘More Light for the Amazon’) programme has seen tens of thousands of solar panels installed across the area.
Brazil accounts for seven percent of the world’s renewable energy production and the country has almost quadrupled its distributed (locally produced) solar capacity since 2020, but bringing power to the farthest corners of the rainforest isn’t cheap. However, Brazilian photojournalist Lalo de Almeida, who has been documenting life in the Amazon for 12 years, believes it is a worthwhile investment. “Without power these people are being left behind,” he says. “Many of the communities here have the lowest HDI [Human Development Index] level in Brazil. The difference that power will make to the people in this region is incalculable.”
Let there be light
“Everything is against the people carrying out the installations,” says Almeida, who joined a team to document one of their operations. “It is hot and humid, the terrain is rough and the equipment heavy.” Added to this is the problem of piracy. The Amazon River is used to transport everything from gold to illicit drugs, and recently piracy has been on the rise. The electrical equipment is considered a potential target, and so the installation teams require security to match. “You soon get used to the sight of guards carrying very big machine guns,” says Almeida.
The operation is an incredible thing to witness. “These teams spend months on a boat, which is both a floating hotel and a factory,” says Almeida. “They eat and sleep there and have an assembly line for putting together the solar panels.” Once the boat is in the vicinity of a community, the team transfers the equipment to a smaller boat to take it ashore, sometimes even on a canoe.
Once on dry land, they must carry the equipment the rest of the way. “If they are lucky they will be close to the village or there will be a cart,” says Almeida. “Otherwise, they have to carry everything by hand. The panels are big and delicate, but at least they are light. The batteries, however, are incredibly heavy and the team has to carry them into the heart of the jungle in 40 degrees [Celsius].”
When the equipment is in place, the real work begins. Each team has a specific responsibility – one oversees the installation of the panels, one fits the batteries and another lays the cabling. Everyone must think on their feet. “Every installation is a different challenge. They don’t know what to expect until they get there and constantly have to improvise,” says Almeida. “They are also working under incredible time pressure. There are a lot of connections to make and only so much daylight, and they only get one shot to get it right – it’s not like they can go back and make adjustments. I watched the team install a solar panel to a tree, running the line to a battery in a shelter they had just built, all in half an hour. It was beautiful to watch.”
But not as beautiful as the result. “I saw people see [an electric-powered] light for the first time,” says Almeida. “For most people in the world this is as normal as breathing, but for them it was a revelation.”
The first place Almeida witnessed the Mais Luz team in action was on Marajó Island, located at the mouth of the Amazon River. “The riverside dwellers of Marajó are among the poorest communities in the country,” he says. “I see a lot of poverty all around Brazil, but nothing like this. The arrival of energy will completely change the region. In two or three years, it will be a very different place.” What little income is made on Marajó comes via fishing, alongside picking and selling the fruit of the açai palm. Almeida believes both local industries will be transformed by the arrival of electricity. “At the moment they need to sell their fish and fruit very quickly before it goes off and that often means accepting a low price,” he says. “But electricity means the arrival of refrigeration. Fish and fruit will last longer, so they will be able to wait and demand a higher price.”
Electricity brings with it another bonus. “Most people I spoke to were most excited about enjoying a cold glass of water,” says Almeida. “Drinking water is usually kept in a large ceramic pot and in Amazon temperatures it gets pretty warm. They couldn’t wait for an ice-cold drink on a hot day.”
One of the solar panel installations Almeida witnessed was to the home of 63-year-old Miguel Dias Moreira. “Dias’s home was very simple,” says the photographer. “If you went back 100 years you’d have seen something very similar, but suddenly it has this 21st century technology attached to it. Suddenly he had power.”
The Xingu Indigenous Territory
Almeida is keen to stress the region’s diversity. The Amazon basin covers 2.72 million square miles, making it almost 70 percent the size of Europe, and it is home to more than 24 million people in Brazil alone. “People imagine the Amazon as a green carpet with nothing but trees, but there are millions of people living here and they have their own languages, customs and histories,” the photographer says. “People say to me that after 12 years photographing the Amazon I must be an expert, but I feel like a beginner. If I was photographing Europe, England is one thing, Sicily is very different. The Amazon is the same.”
The second area the installation team visited with Almeida illustrated the stark differences between regions of the Amazon basin. The Xingu Indigenous Territory was the first demarcated indigenous land to be recognised by the federal government, back in 1961, and it is now home to some 7,000 people. Compared with Marajó Island, “the communities here are far more organised and there isn’t such a big problem with poverty,” says Almeida. Some of the local villages have already had electricity for several years, but produced by unreliable and polluting fossil fuel-powered generators. Mais Luz will replace these with solar panels while giving many more communities access to electricity. The locals’ main motivation for getting power is not refrigerating fish but accessing the internet. “For them the most important reason to have energy is to be connected,” says Almeida.
It was the pandemic that encouraged Xingu villages that had already been electrified to embrace the online world. “Before Covid some villages had access to the internet, but not many people used it regularly,” says Almeida. “But when the territory was closed off, they found themselves isolated and that really drove people, with the help of NGOs and the government, to go online. Now you see these traditional houses with an internet antenna grafted onto the side.”
Access to the online world has presented new opportunities to make money. While in Xingu, Almeida met 31-year-old Kamihukalu Kamayura. “She made beautiful traditional handicrafts and sold them via Instagram,” he says. “She was a one-woman business and that would have been impossible before.” Another local embracing new electric opportunities was 38-year-old Kamikia Kisedje. “He uses a drone to monitor the territory around the village of Khikatxi where he lives,” says Almeida. “He looks out for wildfires, for criminal invasions; he uses technology to protect their territory.”
For Almeida, however, the most important kind of protection that technology can offer the indigenous people is political. “During the [far right] Jair Bolsonaro government there was a lot of pressure on indigenous people and the internet made it possible for them not only to be informed, but also to get more unified, better connected and stronger to resist it,” he says. “They were able to talk with other indigenous people from all the regions of Brazil, and also to NGOs inside and outside the country. That’s why the internet was so important for indigenous people. It aided their survival.”
Not everyone was using the internet for such high-minded purposes, however. One solar panel the team had previously installed at the Polo Wawi community space powered a new internet mast alongside a school and health unit. “All the young people in the village had their phones and tablets out, playing games, watching TikTok videos,” says Almeida with a laugh. “They were lost in their screens just like children and teenagers all over the world.”
Keeping the lights on
The electricity brought by Mais Luz doesn’t come for free. The installation of the photovoltaic cells and their maintenance is the responsibility of private power companies, who charge residents for access. “One of the challenges,” says Almeida, “has been having to explain to local communities why they have to pay for their energy when it comes from the sun.”
Many among the Xingu community were also deeply suspicious of the project, having fought against a previous government-backed electricity project and lost. Despite years of opposition from local tribes, the 40 billion real (£6.5bn) Belo Monte hydroelectric dam was inaugurated in 2014. Diverting 80 percent of the Xingu river’s water flow, the project has been criticised for endangering the local ecosystem and centuries-old way of life of many tribes. The hope is that the solar panel approach will avoid a repeat of the fallout from such mega-projects. As Ianukula Kaiabi Suia, president of the Xingu indigenous land association, told Almeida: “We want energy in the villages – but not just any energy”.
Installing solar panels is time-consuming and expensive. According to the Brazilian ministry of mines and energy, by November 2022 a total of 8,828 units had been installed as part of the Mais Luz programme, benefiting around 35,000 people and costing the equivalent of £98m. A report in May 2023 estimated that to complete the programme up to six million units will be needed by 2030. It remains to be seen whether Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who upgraded and expanded the original ‘Light for Everyone’ programme during his first term in 2003-2007, will continue the push into the Amazon following his re-election in January 2023. Almeida believes that it is vital for the project to continue. “It is a rare good news story for the Amazon,” he says. “I have seen the difference it is making and that will only continue. For the people of the Amazon, energy means not just power but empowerment. We are changing entire communities for the better with a flick of a switch – literally.”
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.