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In the home of Lilian Gómez, nestled in the mountains of eastern El Salvador, the darkness of the night was barely relieved by the faint, trembling flames of a pair of candles, just as it did among her neighbors. Until six years ago.
The light was made when everyone set out to build their own hydroelectric project together, not only to light up the night, but also to take small steps towards undertakings that help improve the living conditions of the community.
Now she, using a refrigerator, makes “charamuscas”, ice creams based on natural soft drinks, which she sells to generate some income.
"With the money from the charamuscas, I pay for electricity and buy food and other things," this 64-year-old woman, who heads one of the 40 beneficiary families of the El Calambre Hydroelectric Mini-Plant project, told IPS.
This is a community initiative that provides energy to Joya de Talchiga, one of the 29 villages in the rural municipality of Perquín, with about 4,000 inhabitants, in the eastern department of Morazán, on the northern border with Honduras.
During the civil war (1980-1992) this region was the scene of fierce battles between the government army and the then leftist guerrilla of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, now a political party and in power since 2009, after winning two consecutive presidential elections. .
Already without war, the largest towns in the area managed to excel with ecotourism and historical tourism, in which the visitor knows of battles and massacres in the area. But the most remote villages lack the basic services to do the same.
The El Calambre Mini Hydroelectric Power Plant takes its name from the river with cold, turquoise waters that rises in Honduras and winds its way through the mountains until it crosses the area where La Joya is located, as it is called, dedicated to subsistence agriculture, especially corn and bean.
A small dam reservoirs the water in a segment of the river, and part of the flow is directed through underground pipes to a booth, the powerhouse, 900 meters below, inside which a turbine roars a 58 kilowatt generator.
La Joya is an example of how its inhabitants, mostly poor farmers, did not sit idly by waiting for the company that distributes electricity in the area to connect them with such a vital service.
The distribution of energy in this Central American country, of 6.5 million inhabitants, is in charge of several private companies, since this sector was privatized in the late 1990s.
During the days that IPS spent in La Joya, the neighbors said that they own the land where they live, but they lack all the formal documentation, and without it the company that operates in the region does not provide electrification. It only gave access to a couple of families that do have everything in order.
In this Central American nation, households with electricity represent 92 percent of the total in urban areas, a figure that drops to 77 percent in rural areas, according to official data published in May.
Without much hope that the company would bring the energy, the residents of La Joya set out to obtain it by their own means and resources, with the technical and financial support of national and international organizations.
One of these was the Basic Sanitation, Health Education and Alternative Energies (SABES El Salvador) association, which played a key role in bringing the initiative to La Joya, initially received with reservations.
“People still doubted when they came to us to talk about the project in 2005, and even I doubted, it was hard for us to believe that it could happen. We knew how a dam works, the water that moves a turbine, but we didn't know that it could be done in a small river, ”peasant Juan Benítez, president of Nuevos Horizontes, the La Joya community organization for promoting development initiatives, told IPS.
The small hydroelectric plant, in operation since 2012, was built with the voluntary work of men and women from the community, in exchange for being beneficiaries of the service. For specialized work, such as electrical or complex masonry, workers in these branches were hired.
The total cost of the mini-press exceeded 192,000 dollars, of which about 34,000 were contributed by the community with the many hours of work that the neighbors put in, assigning them a monetary value.
Charging for the service is based on the number of bulbs each family owns, each costing $ 0.50. Thus, if a family has four, it cancels two dollars a month, a lower amount than is commercially charged.
Local residents still remember how difficult life was when they did not see the possibility of electricity coming here.
“When I was a child, it was tremendous without light, we had to buy candles or gas (kerosene) to light a candle,” one of the beneficiaries, Leonila González, 45, told IPS as she rested on a chair in the corridor of his house, located in the middle of a pine forest and 30 meters from the river.
Most of the settlers, he recalled, used to use "ocotes", as the pieces of pine wood are called locally, whose resin is flammable.
"We put in a pot about two little splinters, and that is how we kept ourselves, with a very poor light, but that's how we touched," he said.
Meanwhile, Carolina Martínez, the teacher who attends the nursery school in the village school, pointed out that in those days the children carried their homework stained with the soot of coal from the ocote.
She and her relatives used to buy car batteries to run a device, which implied significant costs for them, which included paying for the devices and the person who brought them from nearby locations.
Others who needed to work with more powerful devices, such as carpentry saws, had to purchase gasoline-based generating plants, he said. And those who had a cell phone had to send it to Rancho Quemado, a nearby village, to recharge it.
"Now we see everything differently, the streets are illuminated at night, it is no longer dark," said Martínez.
In the farmhouse there are people dedicated to carpentry or welding, and now the work is made easier for them with the electrical outlet (plug) within easy reach.
For María Isabel Benítez, 55 years old and dedicated to housework, one of the advantages of having electricity is that she can watch the news and find out what is happening in the country.
"I like the news program at 6:00 AM, I see everything there," he narrated, while holding his little granddaughter Daniela in his arms.
In tato, Elena Gómez, a young 29-year-old psychology student, pointed out that she can now do her homework on the computer, at home. "I no longer have to go to the nearest cybercafé," he stressed.
The project was considered from the beginning as binational, since the surplus energy generated in La Joya is distributed to the Cueva del Monte village, four kilometers away, already in Honduran territory.
To achieve this, additional lines were installed and in this way your plant can benefit another 45 families, of which 32 are already connected to the service.
"The Hondurans deceived us, they told us that they were going to put the energy project on us, but they didn't, we just got the plans made," Mauricio Gracia, the community leader of the Honduran village, told IPS.
The inhabitants of Cueva del Monte are Salvadorans who in September 1992 remained overnight in Honduran territory, following a ruling by the International Court of Justice at that time, which resolved an old binational border dispute, which included that northern area. of Morazán.
Benítez, the president of the La Joya association, said that sometimes the generator fails, especially when there are electrical storms, which is why the organization has proposed to seek more support to acquire a second generator, which will work when the first is turned off. .
Also, as a community they hope to go, little by little, creating some development initiatives, with the electricity they already have, in order to improve the local economy.
For example, they have managed the possibility of promoting rural tourism, taking advantage of the natural beauty of the area, with the pine forest and the pools and waterfalls of the Calambre River.
The plan is to establish mountain cabins, which have electricity. But the idea does not fully take shape because it has not been possible to agree with the owners of the land, which must give the guarantee, said Benítez.
Meanwhile, Lilian Gómez is happy that her charamuscas are in great demand among her neighbors, something she could not have achieved if the light had not been made in La Joya.
By Edgardo Ayala
Edition: Estrella Gutiérrez