Bogotá — A trip by a group of energy sector executives to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in the Colombian Caribbean region, allowed them to see an opportunity for deploying solar power in an area referred to as ‘the heart of the world’ by the local Indigenous population.
Following a meeting with the Arhuaco Indigenous communities, the guardians of the area, progress has been made toward the design of a large-scale solar energy project to be carried out in partnership with the native population.
The plant to be built in the Sierra Nevada, known by the Arhuaco people as ‘the heart of the Earth’, will have a capacity of 144MW, part of which will be sold to electricity companies in the country.
The solar plants will be installed inside the ancestral Arhuaco territory, where no other project of this type had been approved to date, due to the lack of prior consultation with the community.
Terra, as the initiative has been called, has already been approved by the communities’ authorities, or elders, known as mamos, and will now be subject to further administrative processes before it is finally approved.
The Future of the Power Plants
The plan is that, after 25 years, the Indigenous people of the community will be the owners of the plants’ infrastructure, and for which the young Arhuacos will be trained to provide maintenance of the plants in the future.
When the final cycle approaches the 25th year, it is also expected that the indigenous authorities will have acquired the necessary knowledge in key aspects such as the legal, accounting and management aspects of a solar plant.
It is estimated that the life of the solar panels is between 35-40 years, with an acceptable level of electricity generation, before they begin to degrade.
“Initially the project has been discussed by the mamos, we have talked with them very extensively, but the only threat is from our own people, from our own envious people, who finally do nothing. But if we look on the positive side, environmentally it is friendly to the territory, to the area,” Indigenous leader Noel Torres said in an interview with Bloomberg Línea.
He added that the project has the support of the mamos, and downplayed the objections from some members of the community that it does not comply with the requirements of prior consultation as a fundamental right of the Indigenous peoples.
“Within the territory of the black line, in the jurisdiction of the Arhuaco territory, those who decide on a project, on whether it advances or not, are the mamos, they are the ones who consult at a spiritual level on the cultural, environmental or social impact that any project may generate. This project has the conditions that the Arhuaco people are really pursuing, which is the defense of their territory, and the protection of the mineral resources underground,” he added.
Torres said that the area has been identified as offering opportunities for mining exploitation, and with this initiative, “instead of exploring and exploiting what is in the subsoil, it takes advantage of the sun for the production of energy for society. It is advantageous because it allows society to learn about other forms of energy and wealth production, and not just coal”.
How Much Will It Cost?
The project has a planned investment of $120 million and is expected to be carried out progressively, Guido Patrignani, CEO of Greenwood Energy, the company in charge of the project, told Bloomberg Línea.
He added that the first plants are expected to be completed by the end of this year, but that their entry into operation would not be until 2023.
“Possibly during the fourth quarter of 2023 we will have the first plants operating,” he said.
Patrignani added that the project has already passed the prior consultation, one of the stages he considers the most difficult, thanks to the fact that it had the approval of the Tayrona Indigenous Confederation (CIT), the organization that represents the Arhuaco people, from the beginning.
Prior consultation, he said, has in the past put the brakes on projects in the sector that even had a connection point, financing or a contract for the sale of energy, and therefore the initiative in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta has started precisely there.
“It is a way of structuring things in which the community is not just one point on a checklist, but rather a partner in the project. The most difficult process in Colombia is prior consultation, which is where we started. And it is the one that concerns us the least because the prior consultation is carried out by them [the Indigenous people],” he said.
He said the project is now at the licensing stage, and about to start the so-called phase two, and he has asked that it be given priority treatment.
How Will the Project Work With the Communities?
The initiative sets out that, for each solar plant that is deployed in the territory, an Arhuaco village will be built, called a talanquera, which will be designed and distributed respecting the cosmology of the communities. One of these, for example, will have the theme of the dawn star.
The villages will have 137 buildings in total, including 50 family homes, community kitchens, a health center with a first aid clinic, and a traditional school, among other facilities.
In addition, the Tayrona confederation is expected to be remunerated for each kilowatt-hour generated by the solar plants, and these funds will be used to preserve the environment.
In addition, 294,000 acres of land in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is expected to be conserved during the life of the project, and an energy offset of more than one million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) will be created as a result of the plants.
There have been division within the local community, however. The Arhuaco people faced a governance crisis after the election of their governor, Zarwawiko Torres, who was later accused of alleged sexual abuse by some women of his community, as well as other alleged physical aggression and irregularities.
Due to these allegations, according to local media, the Prosecutor’s Office charged him with procedural fraud and the Constitutional Court ordered his suspension while the implementation of a guardianship is under consideration.
The figure of Zarwawiko Torres has divided the community, with some members having reached out to international organizations to denounce the situation regarding the governance of the community and the alleged economic interests behind it.