Nuevo Saposoa is a small and very modest indigenous community in the heart of the Peruvian jungle, where the rhythm of daily life is governed by nature. The village is only accessible by a 5-hour boat ride along the Ucayali River from the town of Pucallpa (in the Ucayali region, in the extreme east of Peru). There are 173 people of the Shipibo-Conibo ethnic group living in Nuevo Saposoa, one of the largest yet most forgotten indigenous groups of Peru.
You could say that in Nuevo Saposoa life revolves around the natural environment: Trees and bushes provide food and medicine, the land is fertile and crops such as cassava and corn are grown, and the river offers an impressive array of tropical fish. But there are risks. In March 2015, the river burst its banks as a result of heavy and prolonged rain in the Andes, which led to it overflowing and flooding everything in its path. The rustic local power plants were damaged, the cables were destroyed and Nuevo Saposoa lost access to the little electricity it had. In the middle of the Amazon, a village was left in darkness.
From an outsider's perspective it might seem simple, but for those living in a small remote village without electricity it was a severe problem that changed their daily lives. The Peruvian government struggled to effectively intervene in the short term, so alternatives were needed.
The adults knew how to adapt to their situation, as work in the fields could be carried out during the day and, furthermore, many of them had already lived without electricity (in fact, only 35 per cent of the population of the Ucayali region has electricity). The major problem was for the children who went to school and had to do their homework and chores at night. "Sure, they can study, but they need to use a burner [which uses kerosene and cloth fibre wicks], which affects your eyesight and respiratory tract due to the smoke," explains Jacquez, a nurse who works in the area.
Energy from plants
Nature caused this problem, so nature should also resolve it. This is not what the people of Nuevo Saposoa thought, but rather what a team of professors and students from the Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC) had in mind. The idea first emerged in the lecture halls of this university in Lima, the Peruvian capital, but it had to be put to the test in the countryside. After visiting Nuevo Saposoa, taking land and water samples and carrying out a few tests, the project was brought to life with a short and effective name: Plantalámparas ("plant lamps").
Elmer Ramírez, a professor at UTEC, explains that Plantalámparas are efficient, energy-saving lamps (300 lumens) that generate light using photosynthesis from plants. "Plants take CO2 (carbon dioxide) from the environment and water and minerals from the ground. Using these components, plants produce nutrients to grow, but they make these nutrients in excess. The plant expels the excess nutrients into the ground, where they interact with various micro-organisms in a complex electrochemical process, generating electrons," explains Ramírez.
He continues, "We capture these electrons using electrodes and store them in a battery. Once charged, this battery can power an efficient, energy-saving lamp. A Plantalámpara can stay on for two hours, and then can always be recharged using the same process we described before. It is an environmentally friendly product and interminable product."
After the project's success in the laboratory, it had to be tested on location. A group of professors and students from UTEC travelled to Ucayali, where they took a boat and sailed along the river to Nuevo Saposoa. When they gathered the inhabitants (as usual the children were the most enthusiastic) and explained to them the process by which a plant, like the thousands surrounding the village, can generate electric light, there was some suspicion. When they performed their tests and the first light bulb was turned on, there were a few nervous laughs, as if it were a magic trick rather than science.
"It's a type of renewable energy that has a lot to give, since there are plants all over the word," explains Marcello Gianino, a young university student. A classmate of his, Lauren Wong, summarises her satisfaction: "The most beautiful part is seeing the positive impact that our work and efforts have, and how they help others."
The impact on the daily life of the Nuevo Saposoa inhabitants is already beginning to be felt. For now, many children hope to finish school so they can study something related to energy and the environment at university. When this happens, the cycle will be complete.
Nuevo Saposoa is a small and very modest indigenous community in the heart of the Peruvian jungle, where the rhythm of daily life is governed by nature. The village is only accessible by a 5-hour boat ride along the Ucayali River from the town of Pucallpa (in the Ucayali region, in the extreme east of Peru). There are 173 people of the Shipibo-Conibo ethnic group living in Nuevo Saposoa, one...