Editor's Note: This article is the first in a two-part series about the “Friendly Energy: a Step Toward Sustainable Development and Ethno-Education” of the AAPG Latin America and Caribbean Region Sustainability in Energy Projects Competition, the winning project that brought electricity to the U’wa indigenous community in Northeast Colombia.
The cloud forests in Western Colombia’s Andes Mountains are home to some of the world’s most spectacular biodiversity, as well as diverse group of indigenous communities including the U´wa people, whose name translates “people who know how to speak.”
The U´was occupy a large part of the natural ecosystem of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, the foothills of the Eastern Cordillera of the Andes in the country’s Boyacá and Santander departments. Smaller groups live in the flat savannahs of Arauca and Casanare in Southern Colombia.
Known for their handmade bracelets and their opposition to the oil and gas industry, the U’was tend to live in isolated areas and have limited contact with outsiders.
Community traditions prohibit members from using energy from non-renewable sources, so most lack access to electricity. Without computers and the internet, U’wa children’s education lags behind that of other Colombians. The inability to refrigerate vaccines makes the community dependent on sporadic government public health campaigns to provide basic services.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated those education and health challenges already present.
Friendly Energy Project
The story changed for one U´wa village in El Chuscal, Guandalay, when a group of geology students and AAPG Chapter members from the University of Pamplona decided to reach out to the U’was living in their department, Norte de Santander, located along the Venezuelan border.
They designed a project, “Friendly Energy: a Step Toward Sustainable Development and Ethno-Education,” and entered the inaugural Sustainable Development in Energy Projects Contest launched by the AAPG’s Latin America and Caribbean Region in early 2020.
The Pamplona team took first place and received $2,000 (U.S. dollars) for their project, which involved installing solar panels to generate electricity and developing a geology primer to teach natural sciences at the Guandalay school.
The group raised additional financial support from professional societies and the university and completed the project, despite a series of logistical challenges resulting from extreme weather and the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Nov. 20, 2021, the U’wa community in El Chuscal received electricity for the first time.
“This project is a victory for the U´wa people, for AAPG and for geoscientists everywhere,” said Carolina Garcia, disaster risk consultant, AAPG member and contest founder. “It is a perfect example of what geoscientists can do when they decide to use their knowledge and their passion to benefit their communities.”
Garcia developed the contest while serving as Latin America and Caribbean Region liaison to AAPG’s Division of Environmental Geosciences. She worked closely with Elvira Gomez, current AAPG vice president of regions, who was serving as AAPG LACR president at the time.
“We designed the competition to promote science and technology focused specifically on sustainable development and to highlight the social, environmental and economic impact of energy projects,” she said. “As geoscientists is our role and responsibility to make sure that we are caretakers of the Earth, its resources and its people. We can develop those resources and make life better for people without destroying the places where we live.”
Garcia noted that the competition specifically targeted contributions from AAPG Student and Young Professional Chapter members.
“We wanted contestants to think outside the box, and who better to do that than students and young professionals? Young people don’t always have the opportunity to propose new ideas and to implement a project by themselves when they start working at companies, so we developed the contest to highlight their ideas and to try to give them the guidance and resources they need to achieve their goals,” she said.
A team of judges evaluated projects using several criteria: innovation; social, economic and environmental contributions; relevance; multidisciplinary focus; integration; and contribution to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Region leadership announced the contest at the First Sustainability and Energy Summit, organized by the Colombian Association of Petroleum Geologists and Geophysicists and AAPG LACR in Cartagena, Colombia in December 2019.
“We announced the contest and stated that we were seeking sponsors to provide funding for winning projects,” Garcia said. “We had an immediate response from event attendees who wanted to support the contest. We received the sponsorship on the spot!”
ACGGP, Neoil Exploration and Rock Whisperer, LLC provided sponsorship for the 2020 contest.
Ruben Arismendy, co-founder and managing partner at Neoil, said sponsoring the contest was an easy decision for the company.
“Neoil is always open to supporting new generations and their fresh ideas towards energy transition and sustainable development. We believe as a company, we play a role in the energy transition, and we need to put effort into moving towards better practices,” he said.
The 2020 contest provided $2,000 for “Friendly Energy” and $1000 and $500, respectively, for the second and third-place winners.
The second-place project, “Geo-routes in Putumayo Oil and Gas Influence Zone,” developed a plan for promoting geological tourism in regions with industry activity.
The third-place project, “Structuring and Promoting the Business Model: Production of Renewable Energy and Syngas from Organic Waste, Trading of Resins and Biocarbon,” focused on biomass processes.
Garcia said she was pleased to see a variety of proposals.
“It was fantastic to be surprised by the students and young professionals,” she said. “We decided to leave the floor open to see what they proposed. They were the brave ones to propose non-traditional projects. In fact, none of the topics addressed in winning projects were included in the syllabi of traditional university geoscience programs. This should make us ponder.”
Arismendy said he and his colleagues at Neoil were impressed with the winning projects.
“It was interesting to see great ideas coming from young professionals and students. Those projects were splendid in having both a technical and societal impact,” he said.
He encouraged other companies to support similar initiatives.
“As a society, we are working to improve constantly. Support for sustainable energy projects is the way to enhance the energy we need to move the world on different scales. The companies need to understand that fresh ideas need support and resources to develop and eventually will have a global impact on our society,” said Arismendy.
Friendly Energy project team members include Laura Carrero, Daniel Figueredo, Luis Sua, Esneider Linares, Elkin Ruíz and Camilo Sierra, University of Pamplona geology students and members of the AAPG and ACGGP Student Chapters and the Switch Energy Alliance Energy and Sustainability Club.
Though they came from different semesters of study, they all had a common interest of serving their community.
Carrero said sustainable development has been a passion of hers for many years.
“I have always tried to live in harmony with the planet and worried about not generating a negative impact on it. At the university, when I became interested in the hydrocarbon industry and joined ACGGP and AAPG student chapters, I began to educate myself and discovered that worrying is not enough,” she said.
“I learned that activities that allow us to live as we do generate an impact, but that demonizing the activities give us our quality of life is not the way to achieve sustainable development,” she added.
For Carrero, recognizing both the need for mineral energy resources and the importance of understanding the territory in Colombia made her passionate about sustainable development. Her knowledge of the topic evolved as she advanced in her studies.
“I discovered that, before learning about the subject, my perceptions about sustainable development were linked to specific things. For example, I thought that using solar panels to produce energy was sustainable development, that not using straws or throwing garbage in the street was enough,” she said.
“Now I understand that sustainable development is a global commitment that must be adopted by companies, countries and individuals, and not always in equal measure. For me, sustainable development is the balance between the meeting our needs, developing our society and protecting the environment.”
Camilo Sierra, now a seventh-semester university student, said his interest in serving his community started in high school, when he volunteered for health campaigns serving the U’wa population of Boyacá.
“I’ve always wanted to contribute to the development of my country as well as the society, from different perspectives,” he said. “It is wonderful to think about geology as a vehicle to connect industry and communities.”
Sierra said attending the ACGGP-AAPG LACR Sustainability in Energy Summit provided incredible opportunity for him and his classmates to learn about the technical, social and governmental aspects of sustainable development in Colombia as well as to learn about the Sustainability in Energy Projects competition.
“The contest was launched at the conference, and it was perfect because some of my future team members and I, in our roles working with the AAPG, ACGGP and SEA, already had been talking about how we could play more active roles in helping a minority community. The contest presented us with an enormous opportunity because it shared the same objectives that we already had and hoped to share with a sector of society,” he said.
A Sustainable Project Close to Home
Carrero described how, at first, she and fellow geology students struggled with how they could have a tangible impact on their communities. That changed during their first contact with the U’was, when they saw firsthand the challenges community members faced living without electricity.
“The ancestral beliefs of the community only allow them to receive energy from the sun god without abusing natural resources,” she said. “They could not refrigerate the medicines that they needed, so they depended on donations received during special government health days. The children in the Gualanday school did not have access to electricity or the internet, which made the work of the teachers very difficult. They could not refrigerate their food or charge any appliances, so they were cut off from the urban area.”
After meeting with the U´was, the Pamplona students started thinking about solutions.
“We wanted to find a way to help them, respecting their beliefs and creating a project that, from the Earth sciences, would allow us to contribute to the sustainable development of this indigenous community that inhabits our territory,” she said. “This is how the project was born. That same year, we attended the Sustainability in Energy meeting to learn more about these two topics that were so interesting to us. They launched the contest there and we thought it was the perfect opportunity to make our project a reality.”
Now, with the project completed, Carrero reflects on the contest and the opportunity it provided. She said the impact is so great that it is difficult to quantify.
“Today, thanks to the support of professional organizations: AAPG, ACGGP, Switch Energy Alliance, Colombian Geological Society, the University of Pamplona and a group of students and young professionals, the U’wa indigenous reservation has a better quality of life, has access to energy, the possibility of refrigerating their medicines and food, and access to computers at school,” she said.
Expanding the Initiative
The Sustainable Development in Energy Projects Contest that started in Colombia soon caught global attention.
Sarah Barnes and Julian Chenin interviewed project winners on AAPG’s Sustainable Development podcast in June 2021, shortly after AAPG Sustainable Development Committee members voted to expand the contest worldwide.
Bill Maloney, committee co-chair, said that, like AAPG’s famed Imperial Barrel Award Competition, the Sustainable Development Contest provides an opportunity for young geoscientists to get real-world experience working on sustainability projects.
“Many organizations around the world are working hard on sustainable development and this is a chance for them to showcase that work,” he said. “We believe that students and young professionals have a passion for this topic and can also bring fresh ideas and solutions to real world problems.”
Maloney said the Sustainability Committee has two primary goals for the contest.
“First we want to raise awareness of the good work that’s being done all over the world on sustainable development,” he said. “Second, we want to engage and harness the creativity of students and young professionals to solve real energy problems in their communities.”
He encouraged students and young professionals to compete and companies to provide financial support.
“This contest is of many steps we need to take to ensure, as the United Nations has said, that we meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” he said. “We all benefit when energy is sustainably developed.”
Call for Proposals
The Sustainability in Energy Projects Contest opened globally on February 1 and proposals are due April 30. For additional information and sponsorship see the competition website, SDC.AAPG.org.
Hear interviews with Carolina Garcia and the 2020 AAPG LACR contest winners in Episode 20 of the AAPG Sustainable Development podcast – Sustainable Development with Carolina Garcia/LACR.
See the March 2022 AAPG Explorer for Part II, detailing how the University of Pamona convinced the U’wa leaders to accept the project and how they overcame financial and logistical challenges to bring electricity to the community.