Let there be light (a.k.a. my Christiane Amanpour moment)

(April is almost over, and I haven’t uploaded a single entry since March that’s not related to Daddy’s death. In the meantime, allow me to share with you an old piece of mine originally titled “Teduray tribespeople now see the light,” which was published on the front page of your favorite paper on Easter Sunday, 2007.

(Journalists are in many ways just like doctors. We each have our specialization/s. While others deal with life-and-death situations like trauma medicine, oncology and cardiology, others like Vicki Belo and Aivee Teo are focused on more seemingly mundane matters like looks.

(As a lifestyle journalist, I probably belong to the latter. While my colleagues in straight news deal with stories on rebellion, kidnapping, prices of basic goods and corruption in high places, we at lifestyle report on the “finer” things in life like fashion, food, fitness, home, culture and the arts. Nothing wrong with that, really, as these areas not only add spice to life, but are also what make us complete human beings.

(Once in a while, though, I get to sink my teeth into supposedly more serious stuff that end up being published on the paper’s front page. This was one of them. In fact, an acquaintance of mine, upon reading the story, called my attention to it. He probably couldn’t believe that I was capable of writing a news feature that veered from the usual stuff I did like trends, colors, textures, hemlines and finishes. He even likened my effort to Christiane Amanpour’s.

(With apologies to Ms. Amanpour, here it is. Please watch out for my follow-up post, an essay which appeared in PDI’s Lifestyle section a few months later that doubled as a backgrounder for this coverage.)

IT is better to put up a solar panel than to curse government ineptness. (urbanroamer.com)

IT’S better to put up a solar panel than to curse government ineptness. (urbanroamer.com)

 

THESE INDIGENOUS FILIPINOS seldom stage cultural shows to celebrate their Teduray (Tiruray) heritage, but the most recent one they presented stood out—they sang and danced for the first time in the glow of a solar-powered fluorescent bulb under a moonless night.

They no longer had to shout themselves hoarse either. Thanks to a microphone that was hooked up to a sound system, they were able to voice their concerns and pay tribute to one of the wonders of modern living city folks often take for granted.

It was a “Night of Light” that called for rambling speeches, profuse thanks and endless testimonials that culminated in a village dance among the youngsters. If it weren’t for the rain, the disco in the hinterlands could have gone on until the crack of dawn.

After generations of using foul-smelling kerosene lamps (gasera) to light homes after dark, people in the remote barangays of North Upi, deep in the mountains of the newly formed province of Shariff Kabunsuan in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), now face the future with renewed hope.

Hope comes in the form of electricity generated from individual solar panels and stored in ordinary car batteries. A single solar panel, which can produce up to 50 watts of electricity a day, is enough to power four light bulbs, a small radio and even a black and white TV.

It has been almost three months since the corn and rice farmers of Barangays Rifao, Renti and Bantek literally saw the light. Neighboring Barangay Bayabas is up for electrification sometime this month.

“If our ancestors could only see us now,” said housewife Ophelia Moafot of Barangay Rifao. “We are now able to experience improvements in our lives, no matter how small. I’m so happy, especially for my children.”

Livelihood, education

Moafot and several women who weave intricate baskets and other decorative items made of wild nito during their spare time, have dramatically increased their output since they can now work way into the night.

It’s probably too early to tell how electricity can boost the performance of children in school, but village teacher Bartolome Centina and his three colleagues welcome the development. Due to lack of funds, the village has yet to buy a communal TV to gain access to the Knowledge Channel.

“Most of these kids help in the household chores during the day,” Centina said. “When we didn’t have electricity, they either had to stop doing their homework or plod on under the flickering light of a kerosene lamp. Now, they can study or play as long as they want.”

The situation has also benefited teachers like Centina and his wife Josephine. Since electricity became available in Barangay Rifao, the couple can now do lesson plans and other school-related work in relative comfort at night.

And like the rest of Barangay Rifao, the Centinas don’t have to spend close to three hours traveling to town every so often to have their cell phones charged. A fully charged cell phone is now an electric socket away!

A TYPICAL village gathering in rural Philippines relying on solar power (ruizmark.com)

A TYPICAL village gathering in rural Philippines relying on solar power (ruizmark.com)

It wasn’t their first time to see lighted fluorescent bulbs. Still, the experience of seeing one in town was totally different, if not life-changing, from having one and turning it on with a flick of a switch right in the comforts of their own homes.

“Both kids and adults were up almost all night during the first few days after the lights were turned on,” said Ricardo Garcia, a former barangay captain. “Because of electricity, we were kidding each other that our problems regarding family planning are now solved.”

Garcia and his fellow Teduray are among the beneficiaries of Amore (Alliance for Mindanao Off-grid Renewable Energy), a program initiated in 2002 to promote sustainable electrification in 400 villages or close to 12,000 households located in remote and neglected areas of Mindanao.

Winrock International, a nonprofit organization based in the United States, together with its lead partners such as the US Agency for International Development, Philippine Department of Energy, Mirant Philippines and ARMM, funds and implements the program.

But why has this situation come to pass, especially in Mindanao, the country’s second largest and supposedly richest island?

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” said Tetchie Cruz-Capellan, chief of Winrock International-Amore. “Nobody wants to provide electricity to these villages because people there have no regular sources of income. But how can they boost their income if they have no electricity.”

In North Upi, for instance, the last functioning electric post installed by the Maguindanao Electric Cooperative (Magelco) ends some 8 km away from Barangay Rifao. Based on a study Amore did in 2005, 1,428 or more than half of the 2,564 unelectrified barangays in the country are in Mindanao.

“The situation isn’t that bad,” said Capellan. “But since we’re in the middle of one of the most dynamic regions in Asia and not in Africa, we ought to be 100 percent energized.” Lawlessness, insurgency For sure, a much-saddled national government and a profit-driven private sector have plenty to answer for. A large part of the problem, however, also stems from the country’s unique topography.

“It’s difficult and quite expensive to extend the grid, especially to island barangays,” said Capellan.

And whenever there’s no electricity, there are usually not enough sources of potable drinking water. Amore tries to address this problem after it has electrified a barangay.

It’s also common knowledge that the most backward barangays in Mindanao have become fertile breeding grounds for lawlessness and insurgency. The availability of electricity somehow reverses the situation by spurring economic activity.

“Lawless elements often work under the cover of darkness,” said Capellan. “Once a barangay is electrified, they usually avoid passing through it.”

Energy generated from a micro-hydro generator for instance, is enough to power an entire barangay, including public areas. It only works for Amore-assisted villages near rivers and streams.

Power to the people

Electrification takes time, but once set in motion, grassroots empowerment follows.

Before installing a single solar panel in a barangay, Amore conducts surveys and social awareness programs for a year regarding the benefits of electricity, including the proper use and maintenance of solar panels.

Since there aren’t enough solar panels to go by, only 30 households per barangay are selected during the initial phase of electrification. Families who can cough up equity worth P2,000 are given priority.

“I had no hand in selecting the beneficiaries,” said Mayor Ramon Piang of North Upi. “Since we wanted to empower the barangay officials, I left them and the project leaders to decide among themselves.”

The initial equity, plus a monthly fee worth P320 that each beneficiary family pays for two years, is plowed back to a fund deposited in a bank to help pay for maintenance.

This includes replacing busted light bulbs and drained batteries. There’s no need to regularly change solar panels since a typical one can last up to 45 years with proper care.

At the end of the year, a portion of the money would be used for “intensification.” In other words, an additional 10 families will be added to the first 30 beneficiaries. Again, Amore has left the management of these funds and expansion of subscriber base to the villagers themselves.

“The real work for them begins after we’ve installed electricity,” said Capellan. “But only by doing this can we break the cycle and bring these people to the first step. With electricity, the possibilities are endless.”

BAYANIHAN, one solar panel at a time (updigital.usembassy.gov)

BAYANIHAN, one solar panel at a time (updigital.usembassy.gov)

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