Lighting the Night in Comarca Embera-Wounaan
- Community Growth
The community members of one town in Comarca Embera-Wounaan have
expressed a need for light in their homes. We live in a very remote part of the
Darien and there is not electricity in the village. People rely on flashlights
and batteries for their evening household activities. This can be limiting
because flashlights provide far less light than ceiling lights or lanterns. The
community has elected project leaders, organized meetings, developed payment
plans and assigned volunteers to help this project be successful. During one of
our meetings, I presented the community with a number of options and they voted
unanimously for the Sun King Home System. Everyone agreed that it looked like
the most quality product and that it offered the best features. Of course,
every household is free to use their lights as they see fit, but the idea is
that Each Sun King Home System will provide light to the three most critical
areas of the house: the eating area, the cooking area, and the sleeping area.
Almost the entire community has elected to participate. The only person who has
decided to opt out already has a solar panel in his home, but excluding him, we
have 100 percent participation. The local government has been very supportive
during this whole project and has provided us with almost all of the transportation
from Panama City to Comarca Embera-Wounaan. Everyone is very hopeful that this
project will be possible and are enthusiastically working to collect their
During community meetings, the community regularly discusses the biggest community-wide priorities. The list can vary a little, but lights and a road are always discussed. The hope is that after the road is built, the government will extend the electric grid from Puerto Indio all the way to the local community, but there is no concrete timeframe on either of these projects. The only definitive answer that the government gives is that the road will come before electricity.
The local representative thinks that the road should be completed sometime in the next two years. Then, the discussion of electricity can be brought to the table. Realistically, this means that electric light might arrive 4-5 years from now.
Each time these community priorities are mentioned, the president of the local congress and the traditional community leader ask me if there is anything I can do to help. I cannot help very much with the road project, but I can certainly address the second primary community goal. I did some outside research to see if a solar light project would be possible and then I returned to the community to explain that there were options but that the community needed to be the driving force behind the project.
The community responded very quickly and held an election to nominate a project president and a backup leader just in case. The project leaders have taken me to every house in the community and helped me explain the different options. They have also translated everything for the community members who speak limited Spanish.
The community was given a choice between a variety of different products and prices. They voted unanimously for the Sun King Home Systems and we agreed on a price for each unit. Every single house in the community, with the exception of only one man who already has a solar panel, signed up to participate.
Afterwards, I went to each house with the community leaders and discussed individual payment plans for each person. Each participant came up with their own detailed plan to earn the necessary money and I wrote all of them down in a notebook. Some community members organized gold panning trips, some decided to sell some of their livestock and some women made a goal to sell a certain number of artisanal plates to reach their numbers.
Both the community and the local government have also been very involved and supportive in the materials transportation for project. The “suplente” to the “representante,” or the vice-representative, is a resident of the local town and we have been working with the representante and the community to help with the transportation.
Materials transport is a very costly part of this budget proposal due to the remoteness of the community. The boxes have to travel from Panama City to Puerto Quimba, cross the ocean in a "Lancha", and travel up the river in "Piraguas" (Canoes).
The community has volunteered to provide both canoes and all of the necessary equipment. We also have volunteer drivers. The Representante is providing the Lancha for transport between Puerto Quimba and Comarca Embera-Wounaan and the Diputado is potentially providing the Gasoline. The Representante has also volunteered to let us use his pickup truck to carry the boxes from Panama City to Puerto Quimba. He will also be providing the Diesel for the journey from Panama City to Puerto Quimba.
One of the main reasons that we chose the Sun King Systems for this lighting project is because it was the most sustainable option. Solubrite, the distributor of the Sun King Systems here in Panama, has permanent employees and contacts working right here in country. They have Panamanian phone numbers and speak Spanish, so that if there are any problems with the product in the future, the people of Comarca Embera-Wounaan can contact them. The community will have all of the contact information and the Solubrite representatives are hoping to come to the community with the product delivery to help build personal relationships.
Each kit comes with a two-year warranty and a five-year battery life, which is longest battery life of all the available options that we considered. I have also confirmed that if a battery, or any other part, breaks outside of the two-year warranty, Solubrite can help facilitate purchasing individual replacement parts.
Part replacement can help improve the longevity of the light program, but I also understand that longevity does not necessarily mean permanent sustainability. They might last five or 10 years, but solar batteries can never be an entirely permanent solution because the batteries wear out and plastic parts can break. However, part of what makes this project sustainable is that it can carry the community through the next few years until the government arrives with electrical power. The Panamanian government is working very hard to connect every corner of Panama to the electrical grid. The communities of Puerto Indio and Sambu, an hour and half down the river, already have electricity and the government officials says that they are working to bring electricity to Comarca Embera-Wounaan sometime in the next 2-3 years.
Realistically, that means the community might see full electricity 4-5 years from now. The government claims that its first priority is a road connecting Comarca Embera-Wounaan to Puerto. This project has already been approved and is supposed to begin this year or the next. The hope is that after the road is built, the government will extend the electric grid from Puerto Indio all the way to Comarca Embera-Wounaan. This time frame is the exact reason that the community opted for the Sun King units with a 5-year battery life. The goal is to give the community uninterrupted light into the future without having to wait many years for the government to arrive with electrical cables.
Aside from the light itself, this light project can permanently boost the output and financial gains of the women’s artisanal products. When the women have more time in the evening to weave intricate patterns, they will also have more time to improve their technique. With better technique, each work can sell for more money and these skills are incredibly sustainable. The other communities that have electricity have much higher outputs because the women can work in the evenings. Very soon this can be a reality for the women of Comarca Embera-Wounaan as well.