Colombia’s indigenous U’wa community is rooted in tradition, and community members follow ancient ancestral customs, including living without electricity.
Life changed for U´was living near El Chuscal, Guandalay, in Northeast Colombia in November 2021, when a project developed by the University of Pamplona geoscience students brought electricity to their community for the first time.
The initiative, “Friendly Energy: a Step Toward Sustainable Development and Ethno-Education,” provided solar panels to generate electricity for the local school, health facility and community center, as well as the first geological primer produced in the U’wa language.
The project took First Place in the Latin America and Caribbean Region’s inaugural Sustainable Development in Energy Projects contest, which launched in early 2020.
A ‘Collectivist and Visionary’ People
U’wa representative Juan Pablo Bocota, indigenous affairs liaison for the Cubará mayor’s office, described his people as a “collectivist and visionary” people who have endured for generations and honor their legacy of defending their territory.
“We are guardians of Mother Earth, protectors of fauna and flora,” he said. “What makes the U’wa people essential is their spiritual connection between nature and man, the material and immaterial, their own uses and customs and respect for the Law of Origin, ‘Sir Shita.’ We are and live to defend the ancestral and millennial rights through rites, songs, ceremonies for harmony and connection with the spirits of nature, the cosmos and the Universe.”
U´was living in their territories continue to observe traditions and customs, including the songs, baptism ceremonies, myths, stories, narrations, crafts, food and native dances.
Maintaining a traditional way of life is challenging in Colombia, where vestiges of a 50-year armed conflict continue to plague the country, particularly rural areas, and where the country’s economic development brings energy and mining companies closer to protected areas.
“Some of the greatest challenges faced by the U’wa People are the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources and extractive projects, the presence of armed groups, whether legal or illegal, as well as the presence of outsiders and mining concessions,” Bocota said. “We also face the struggle of the Colombian government refusing to recognize the the U’was as environmental authorities.”
Over the past three decades, the U’was have led multiple struggles with the Colombian government and international oil companies intending to drill on sacred lands. Their non-violent, disruptive protests and demonstrations on well sites, near pipelines and outside Ecopetrol headquarters in Bogota, have drawn international attention.
For the most part, the U’was remain isolated, both geographically and socially, creating additional challenges for their members.
“Another factor that affects the community is the lack of youth leadership and job opportunities, the lack of quality education, and, more recently, social issues, particularly alcoholism,” Bocota said.
The Friendly Energy Project
The U’wa population’s vulnerability troubled five students that University of Pamplona, an institution located in Norte de Santander, 130 kilometers from El Chuscal.
The students – Camilo Sierra, Elkin Ruiz, Laura Carrero, Daniel Figueredo, Luis Sua and Esneider Linares – shared an interest in sustainable development and developed community outreach projects through the AAPG, Colombian Association of Petroleum Geologists and Geophysicists (ACGGP) and Switch Energy Alliance Chapters at the university.
Carrero, AAPG member and Friendly Energy Project lead, said the project idea started in 2019.
“When discussing sustainable development with our peers, we struggled to find a space for geology and a place for ourselves as professionals and students. Then we had the opportunity to meet the U’was and see firsthand the limitations that the community faced due to the lack of electricity,” she said.
“They could not refrigerate the medicines that they needed, and that they were only donated on health campaign days. The student children of the Gualanday school did not have access to electricity or the internet, which made the teachers’ work very difficult. They could not refrigerate their food or charge appliances, so they were cut off from the urban area.” she said. “In addition, the ancestral beliefs of the community only allow them to receive energy from the sun god without abusing natural resources.”
The students decided to develop a project that would allow them, as Earth scientists, to contribute to the sustainable development of their territory, helping native communities while respecting their beliefs.
“This is how the project was born,” Carrero said. “That same year, AAPG and ACGGP held the First Meeting on Sustainability and Energy, which we attended 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.”
The contact with the U’wa people came through team member Camilo Sierra, who first met the community in 2014 while volunteering for a health and social assistance campaign in the Sinsiga indigenous reservation located in Güicán de la Sierra in Colombia’s Boyacá department.
“During that time, I met a community leader named Andrés Sinsiga. We became friends and started working on projects related with the preservation of the Sierra Nevada de Güicán National Park,” he said. “That friendship is what allowed us to share our intention to participate in the Sustainable Development in Energy Projects Contest and to focus our project on the U’wa community.”
Sierra said he admires the way the U’wa community thrives despite a long history of challenges.
“Like typical Colombians, they are a very happy and festive people, tied to strong ancestral traditions and lovers and protectors of their customs and their territory,” he said. “They are respectful of all beliefs and expect the same from others. They are excellent artisans, who have overcome violence, extermination and state oblivion.”
A Sustainable Project
Embracing the U’wa’s spiritual, cultural and artisan identities are key components of the Friendly Energy Project, which was designed to meet community needs while fulfilling United Nations Sustainable Development Development Goals outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,adopted by all United Nations member states in 2015.
Carrero noted that Goal 7, affordable and clean energy, took first priority, and meeting the community’s most immediate need allowed the project to tackle other areas as well.
“Providing access to energy generates a ‘domino effect,’ which will contribute to meeting a number of other goals including quality education (4), and decent work and economic growth (8), good health and wellbeing (3) and industry, innovation and infrastructure (9), among others,” she said.
She explained that improving educational facilities enabled the U’was to teach their customized curriculum, including traditional subjects mandated by the Ministry of Education, as well as implement ethno-education, a pedagogical strategy developed in Colombia to help ethnic minorities maintain their traditional language and customs.
The school also serves as a center for developing the U’wa handicrafts microenterprise, led by the leaders of the Bocota Baja sector, and its flagship product, a handmade bracelet crafted from biodegradable materials and marked with phrases in the native language.
“The community is working on other products, shopping bags and jewelry boxes, and they hope to reach a market of environmentally responsible consumers, generating jobs and income for a large part of the families in this sector,” Carrero said.
Carrero said that, in addition to meeting the United Nations SDGs, the project aligned with the Colombian government’s 2030 Agenda, which develops a roadmap for improving the quality of life for all Colombians, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable.
“We hope to be able to incorporate this initiative into local development programs that seek great transformations in small communities like the U’wa,” she said.
Developing a strong proposal was not enough to make the Friendly Energy project a reality. Team members had to convince the U’wa people to accept their idea.
When the project was developed and ready for implementation, Sierra contacted Andrés Sinsiga, his partner from national park conservation work.
“Andrés told us that on Jan. 9, 2020, the U’was would be holding elections, and he helped us to set up a meeting in the Güicán municipality with the new community leaders,” he said.
Team members hand-delivered a written proposal and had to receive unanimous approval from the Community Council representing U´wa populations across Colombia.
“The ‘formal introduction’ of the project before the community, was a little strange, because they asked us to travel to the town of Cubará, in U’wa territory along the Colombian-Venezuelan border, where the Council would be meeting to make decisions about a variety of items, including public health, security, employment, education, public policy and the construction of the first Uwa’s boarding school,” he said. “They also wanted to discuss personally our project with us.”
Upon arrival to Cubará, the students found 80 U’was waiting to meet with them.
“They wanted to know why we were interested in their community, what we knew about it, how our proposal would work, and what kind of impact it would have on the environment,” he said.
The community had translators available to help explain project details to elders who did not speak Spanish.
Sierra said that convincing the leaders of the project’s benefits to the community was not an easy task.
“There were diverse opinions, especially related to installing the solar panels, because some of them believed that the panel would ‘steal’ part of the energy supplied by Father Sun, but eventually, after receiving support from the social leaders, we were able to get the proposal approved so we could start working hand-in-hand with the community, starting in the Chuscal zone,” he explained.
Receiving approval was the first of several hurdles for the Friendly Energy team, who struggled with inclement weather, a global pandemic and budget shortages while attempting to complete the project.
A strong rainy season in Colombia caused flooding and made roads impassable on the way to the U’wa territory, and complications related to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in solar panel installation being delayed three times.
“Sometimes the members of (the) community got impatient, but finally they understood that it was a matter out of our reach,” Sierra said. “At the end, we were able to fulfil the task.”
Carrero said the project’s greatest challenge was economic.
“We managed to advance in the construction of the project, educate ourselves in sustainable development and energy security. We had the advice of many professionals and associations that supported us and helped us to develop the proposal, but our limitation always (was) to have sufficient funds to make the project a reality,” she said.
The total Friendly Energy Project budget was $4,900 (U.S. dollars), which covered four solar panels, the materials needed to install them and team travel expenses to Cubará. The prize from the Sustainable Energy in Energy Projects Contest provided the first $2,000.
Students reached out to a variety of organizations and, after receiving support from ACGGP, the Universidad de Pamplona and Switch Energy Alliance, they gathered sufficient funding needed to complete the project.
From Plan to Reality
The team members made two visits to the Cubará community.
In May 2021, they surveyed the area where the boarding school would be built, reviewed the topography and energy sources, and socialized among local community members to familiarize them with the project.
In November 2021, they completed the solar panel installation, providing sufficient electricity to power a refrigerator, blender and a television and laptop computers for the school and community center. They also conducted educational workshops, met with female community leaders to discuss the handcrafts business and began work on the geological primer in the U´wa language.
“The main purpose of the geological primer is to explain the formation and importance of geological formations, acknowledging and connecting the U’was’ ancestral beliefs and mythology with current academic and geological criteria,” Sierra said.
He noted that the group is planning another visit in July 2022 to ensure that installed equipment is functioning properly, to finalize details related to the commercialization of the U´wa handicrafts and to take a detailed tour of the area along with members of the community.
“During the tour we are going to visit sites of interest for geotourism, specifically to four trails in Güicán de la Sierra, which we plan to include in the geological primer,” he said.
Sierra said that geotourism, environmentally responsible sightseeing committed to respecting local sensibilities and heritage, provides an additional tool for sustainable development of U´wa communities.
Since an additional visit to Cubará and geotourism were not included in the original Friendly Energy budget, Friendly Energy team members seek additional funding for the July visit and the additional project phase.
“We are looking for supporters to help us conduct this additional visit, which is of vital importance to a well-rounded project including energy sufficiency and security, decent work, gender equity and the promotion of sustainable communities through geotourism,” he said.
From Skepticism to Acceptance
Bocota said the U’wa people’s perceptions of the University of Pamplona students developed along with the project itself.
“At first, some of the community members felt threatened by the presence of people from outside the territory, but socializing the project helped them understand that alternative energies are necessary and that the legacy of caring for Mother Earth was accepted as strengthening the process,” he said.
Bocota said the U’was appreciate how the project helps the community to develop without compromising its most important values.
“The project provides the opportunity to have an alternative energy that strengthens the community and allows it to care for natural resources, as well as teaching children to conserve nature and improve their quality of life,” he said. “The project benefits U’wa community leaders, councils, health promoters, teachers and students. It helps us to improve the organizational processes of the community, and best of all, it is free.”
Benefits for the Participants
Sierra noted that the project benefitted not only the U’was, but also the Friendly Energy team members who worked with the community.
“Finishing the task gave us enormous satisfaction,” he said. “It was so gratifying to see so many happy faces, and to know that it is possible, from academia and from the geosciences, to help contribute to the development of a community who, unfortunately, has been marked by violence and oblivion.”
He shared how participating in the project has helped him develop as a professional and a person.
“My views of society, development and sustainability have taken a more local focus, and now I understand the importance of respecting and honoring the local context and integrating it into a global vision that helps to provide greater impact,” he said. “I also have learned that I enjoy working as a part of a team whenever possible. This project taught me to take on challenges, big challenges, to work with a greater sense of responsibility and to respect the interests of others at all times.”
Advice for Other Geoscientists
For Carrero, the Friendly Energy project is proof that Earth sciences can make a tangible impact on their communities.
“I have learned that Earth sciences are protagonists in the construction of sustainable territories, that it is possible to create, structure, finance and execute projects, that from our roles we can contribute to improving the quality of life of the communities that co-inhabit our territories,” she said.
She and her team members have advice for other individuals interested in working with native groups.
“I believe that the most important thing in working with indigenous communities is respect, understanding their customs without judging them, never believing that our knowledge is more important or true than theirs,” Carrero said. “It is vital not to want to change their thoughts or impose our ideas, we must always be willing to learn and teach with the same will.”
“Being relatively close to this community helped me to understand firsthand how important it is for geoscientists to have human tact, to know how to communicate effectively and, most importantly, to listen to community members’ opinions and help them to connect scientific concepts with practical experience.”
After finishing his studies at the University of Pamplona, Sierra plans to pursue a career in sustainable development and energy transition initiatives and to continue working with indigenous communities.
He said that participating in the Sustainability in Energy Project has provided a jumpstart on his career and has opened doors for team members.
“It’s a huge plus to be able to say that we won an international contest focused on development, energy and sustainability,” he said. “We have gained experience, knowledge and the confidence that we need to speak with some authority in different scenarios, and people see that and take notice.”
Carrero, who graduated from the University of Pamplona in October 2021, now serves as executive director of the Colombian Geological Society, a role that enables her to fulfill her passion for connecting geosciences and society.
She also serves as AAPG Latin America and Caribbean Region coordinator for the Earth Science Week, an initiative designed to teach grade school students and teachers about the Earth sciences.
Carrero encouraged students and young professionals around the world to participate in AAPG’s Sustainable Development in Energy Competition, which opened Feb. 1, 2022.
The competition is open to all undergraduate and post graduate students and young professionals with less than two years of experience in the energy sector.
Sierra encouraged his peers around the world to participate in the contest.
“I have found that students and young professionals are the most interested in the preservation of the natural resources, searching for renewable and sustainable energy sources,” he said. “I am convinced that all of us have sufficient knowledge and the tools for improving the quality of life of our communities. We just need to get out there and get to work.”
Call for Proposals
Bill Maloney, AAPG Sustainable Development Committee co-chair, said he looks forward to receiving proposals that, like Friendly Energy, provide tangible solutions to energy challenges.
“This contest began as an idea of a handful of people in the Latin America and Caribbean Region of AAPG. Now we want to expand that idea on a global scale,” he said. “Our hope is that the ingenuity of students and young professionals will lead us to new and exciting solutions for sustainable energy development.”
Proposals may be submitted by individuals or teams, and submission deadline is April 30, 2022.
Learn more about the contest and apply visit SDC.AAPG.org.
To support the geotourism phase of the Friendly Energy Project, please contact [email protected].