How Solar Energy Empowered a Nicaraguan Community Once Devastated by War
By Laurie Guevara-Stone
Forty years ago Sabana Grande, a small community in northern Nicaragua, was ravaged by war. Now you will find people sitting under solar-powered lights, eating solar-cooked chicken, and drinking smoothies made by a bicycle-powered blender. Sabana Grande (pop. 2,000), in the mountains of Totogalpa, about 20 miles from the Honduran border, has embraced a solar culture that has transformed the community.
Turning landmine survivors into solar technicians
The war between the government Sandinistas and the Contra rebels left hundreds of people disabled by landmines, especially in the northern part of the country. In 1999 a Nicaraguan non-governmental organization (NGO) called Grupo Fenix received a grant from the Canadian Falls Brook Center to reintegrate landmine survivors back into society. The NGO decided it would teach the landmine survivors how to make solar panels, providing them with both a livelihood and a way to get electricity in a poor, off-grid region. It focused on Sabana Grande, an agricultural community in one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest departments of Nicaragua.
Grupo Fenix, founded by engineering professor Susan Kinne of the Engineering University of Nicaragua and made up of many of her engineering students, taught the villagers how to solder together discarded solar cells they received from some large photovoltaic (PV) manufacturers to make solar PV panels, up to 60 watts in size. They also held classes on installing and maintaining off-grid solar PV systems. The Sabana Grande solar workshop was born, and soon a few of the trained farmers-turned-technicians started selling small solar home lighting systems to people in the community and throughout the region.
Marco Antonio Perez is one of the landmine survivors trained by Grupo Fenix. “One gets a complex, and believes that their life is over,” he said. “To reintegrate into society, to feel useful again, took five years.” After being training in photovoltaics, he directed the Sabana Grande solar workshop for years, and now runs a solar company in a nearby town. Despite his lack of a formal education, having only graduated from the 6th grade, he has traveled to Haiti and Costa Rica to teach people how to construct solar panels, and is a co-author of a paper on an encapsulation method he helped develop in Elsevier’s journal Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells.
Women's empowerment through solar energy
The engineering students also brought along some solar cookers, and showed them to the women in the community. The women were intrigued—in Nicaragua approximately 90 percent of the rural population cooks over open fires, and respiratory diseases are the leading cause of death for women. Soon the women were learning how to build their own solar cookers and using them to cook for their families, greatly reducing their firewood consumption and smoke exposure. The women were hooked, and organized themselves into an organization called Las Mujeres Solares de Totogalpa—the Solar Women of Totogalpa, which officially became a cooperative in 2010. In early years of the group’s work they had been constructing solar cookers based out of different members’ homes. In 2005 they decided they needed a place of their own.
With the help of Grupo Fenix, the Solar Women acquired three acres of donated land along the Pan-American Highway and secured a grant from the Noble Foundation. They then embarked on building their own solar center to house both the PV workshop and the solar cooker workshop. The women learned how to make adobe bricks and after donating thousands of hours of time and making 6,000 adobe bricks, they built their own building which houses an office, a warehouse, and workshop space for constructing solar panels, solar battery chargers, solar cookers, and solar driers.
La Casita Solar
While experimenting with their solar cookers the women made an interesting discovery with coffee, one of Nicaragua’s main export crops. Since the country’s good beans are exported leaving the bitter green beans in the country, coffee found in Nicaragua is not very tasty. But when the women roasted the coffee beans in the solar ovens it took the bitterness away, and left a rich, delicious flavor. Wanting to market their new discovery, along with the solar dried fruits and recipes they were developing for the solar ovens, they decided to create a restaurant.
Through more grants, the women built the first solar restaurant in Nicaragua aptly named La Casita Solar (The Little Solar House). They grow their own organic fruits and vegetables on adjoining land. The restaurant has solar-powered lights and a freezer, and uses solar cookers, fuel-efficient charcoal stoves (from charcoal made from the agricultural waste from their land), biogas stoves (from biogas made from the restaurant’s latrine plus added cow manure), and fuel-efficient firewood stoves. “Truly, it has been a success for us, the Solar Women, to build this dream that we’ve had.” according to Nimia Lopez, a cooperative member.
Empowering the next generation
Local kids wanted to get in on the action as well, so the Solar Youth group was formed. One of their first projects was to construct a bicycle-powered blender, which is now used at the solar restaurant. Getting the youth involved was important for Grupo Fenix and for the Solar Women. The school in the community only goes up to the 6th grade, is overcrowded, and has little access to educational resources like books. Many of the women in the Solar Women’s group only have a second or third grade education, and they wanted more for their kids. One of the most recent projects Grupo Fenix has undertaken is to help the community build a solar youth center. With the help of Earthen Endeavors Natural Building, the group recently built a beautiful building out of earthen materials—cob, wattle and daub, adobe and earthen plasters.
The building will be used as both a preschool and daycare center—two services not currently available in Sabana Grande, and will provide extracurricular activities, after school tutoring, and environmental education for older children and teens, as well as parenting classes for adults.
The Solar Women have put thousands of hours of labor into these projects, and there were times when things were moving slowly and morale was down. With help from Grupo Fenix and an international economics major volunteer, the group came up with an innovative solution to secure compensation for their efforts. Each woman logs her hours spent working with the cooperative. Those “green hours” can then be used to purchase a solar cooker, a solar PV lighting system, or other appliances such as flashlights and battery chargers that are either donated to the group or bought with cooperative funds.
In Totogalpa, only 15 percent of the population has electricity in their homes. Currently all 20 members of the Solar Women’s Cooperative have electricity in their homes, 85 percent of which have solar photovoltaic systems (the electric grid now goes through a part of the community).
Nicaragua continues to be the second poorest country in the western hemisphere (after Haiti), and only 30 percent of the rural population has access to electricity. Yet the people of Sabana Grande have shown that a brighter future is possible. Unlike many development projects where an NGO leaves the community after a project is completed, the Managua-based Grupo Fenix has stayed with this community for 15 years helping them grow and realize their full potential. “What’s happening in this community,” Susan Kinne explained, “is a good example of how people can learn to work together with nature, work within the limits, and still make a higher quality of life.”
It’s no doubt that this community has been completely transformed by renewable energy technologies.
This post originally appeared on the Rocky Mountain Institute's RMI Outlet.
Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.
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By Beth Ann Mayer
Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.
How to Rock Your Walk<p>Walking isn't just fun and healthy. It's accessible.</p><p>"Walking is cheap," says Dr. John Paul H. Rue, a sports medicine doctor at <a href="https://mdmercy.com/" target="_blank">Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore</a>. "You can do it anywhere at any time; [it] requires little to no special equipment and has many of the same cardio benefits as running or other more intense workouts."</p><p>Want to up your walking game? Try the tips below.</p>
Use Hand Weights<p>Cardio and strength training can go hand-in-hand when you add weights to your walk.</p><p>A <a href="https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2019/03000/Associations_of_Resistance_Exercise_with.14.aspx" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that weight training is good for your heart, and <a href="https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(17)30167-2/abstract" target="_blank">research</a> shows it reduces the risk of developing a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/nutrition-metabolism-disorders" target="_blank">metabolic disorder</a> by 17 percent. People with metabolic disorders have a higher chance of being diagnosed with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.</p><p>Rue suggests not carrying weights for your entire walk.</p><p>"Hand weights can give you an added level of energy burning, but you have to be careful with these because carrying [them] over a long period of time or while walking could actually lead to some overuse injuries," he says.</p>
Make It a Circuit<p>As another option, consider doing a circuit. First, put a pair of dumbbells on your lawn or somewhere in your home. Walk around the block once, then stop and do some bicep curls and tricep lifts before walking around the block again.</p><p>Rue recommends <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/running-with-weights" target="_blank">avoiding ankle weights</a> during cardio workouts, as they force you to use your quadriceps rather than hamstrings. They can also cause muscle imbalance, according to the <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/wearable-weights-how-they-can-help-or-hurt" target="_blank">Harvard Health Letter</a>.</p>
Find a Fitness Trail<p>Strength training isn't limited to weights. You can get stronger by <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/bodyweight-workout" target="_blank">simply using your body</a>.</p><p>Often found at parks, fitness trails are obstacle courses with equipment for pullups, pushups, rowing, and stretches to build upper and lower body strength.</p><p>Try searching "fitness trails near me" online, checking out your local parks and recreation website, or calling the municipal office to <a href="https://calisthenics-parks.com/" target="_blank">find one</a>.</p>
Recruit a Friend<p>People who workout together stay healthy together.</p><p><a href="https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-017-0584-3" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that older adults who exercised with a group improved or maintained their functional health and enjoyed their lives more.</p><p>Enlist the help of a walking buddy with a regimen you aspire to have. If you don't know anyone in your area, apps like <a href="https://www.strava.com/" target="_blank">Strava</a> have social networking features so you can get support from fellow exercisers.</p>
Try Meditation<p>According to the <a href="https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/nhis/2017" target="_blank">2017 National Health Interview Survey</a>, published by the National Institutes of Health, meditation is on the rise, and for good reason.</p><p>Researchers <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29616846/" target="_blank">found</a> that mind-body relaxation practices can regulate inflammation, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/biological-rhythms" target="_blank">circadian rhythms</a>, and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/glucose" target="_blank">glucose</a> metabolism, as well as lower <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/high-blood-pressure-hypertension" target="_blank">blood pressure</a>.</p><p>"Any form of exercise can be turned into a meditation of some type, either by the surroundings you are walking in, like a park or trail, or by blocking out the outside world with music on your headphones," Rue says.</p><p>You can also play a podcast or download an app like <a href="https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app" target="_blank">Headspace</a> that has a library of guided meditations to practice while you walk.</p>
Do Fartlek Walks<p>Typically used in running, fartlek intervals alternate periods of increased and decreased speed. These are <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-hiit" target="_blank">high-intensity interval training (HIIT)</a> workouts, which allow exercisers to accomplish more in less time.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0154075" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that 10-minute interval training improved <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/metabolic-syndrome" target="_blank">cardiometabolic</a> health, or lowered the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, just as well as working out at a continuous pace for 50 minutes.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111489" target="_blank">Research</a> also shows that HIIT workouts increase muscle <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fast-twitch-muscles" target="_blank">oxidative</a> capacity, or the ability to use oxygen. To do a fartlek walk, try walking at an increased pace for 3 minutes, slow down for 2 minutes, and repeat.</p>
Gradually Increase Pace<p>A faster walking pace is associated with a lower risk of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/copd" target="_blank">chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)</a> and respiratory diseases, according to a <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30303933/" target="_blank">2019 study</a>.</p><p>Still, it's best not to go from a stroll to an Olympic-worthy power walk in a day. Instead, increase your pace gradually to prevent injury.</p><p>"Start by walking at a brisk pace for about 10 minutes per day, 3 to 5 days per week," Rue says. "Once you've done this for a few weeks, increase your time by 5 to 10 minutes per day until you get to 30 minutes."</p>
Add Stairs<p>You've likely heard that taking the stairs instead of an elevator is a way to add more movement into your daily routine. It's also a way to step up your walking. Stair climbing has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335519301123?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">decrease the risk of mortality</a> and can easily add a bit more challenge to your walk.</p><p>If you don't have stairs in your home, you can often find them outside a local municipal building, train station, or at a high school stadium.</p>
Is Your Walk a True Cardio Workout?<p>Not all walks are equal. A walk that's too leisurely may not provide enough burn to qualify as cardio. To see if you're getting a good workout, try to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-check-heart-rate" target="_blank">measure your heart rate</a> using a monitor.</p><p>"A target goal for a good walking workout heart rate is about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate," Rue says, adding that maximum heart rate is <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/fat-burning-heart-rate" target="_blank">typically calculated</a> by 220 beats per minute minus your age.</p><p>You can also monitor how easily you can carry on a conversation while you walk to gauge your heart rate.</p><p>"If you can walk and carry on a normal conversation, that's probably a lower intensity walk," says Rue. "If you are slightly breathless but can still have a conversation, that's probably a moderate workout. If you are out of breath and can't talk normally, that's a vigorous workout."</p>
Takeaway<p>By shaking up your routine, you can add excitement to your workout and reap even more rewards than a basic walk provides. Increasing the pace and intensity of a workout will make it more effective.</p><p>Simply pick your favorite variation to add some spice to your next walk.</p>
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