Latin America & Caribbean

Solar energy connects remote communities in Peru

Schoolchildren in Torani at their computer class
Image caption Pupils at the school in Torani can now do their work with computers

In a sunny courtyard made of reeds, about 60 students from the Torani primary school, on Lake Titicaca, do the roll call in neat rows, wearing colourful uniforms.

They belong to the Uros people, who still live in small floating islands in the bay of Puno in south-eastern Peru.

Like their ancestors centuries ago, these residents of pre-Inca descent continue to build their houses and islands with the aquatic plants that abound in the lake.

The school itself is floating. And this is where the children learn to read Aymara and Spanish, and also where they have recently begun to connect to the rest of the world.

"For us, it was a joy when we got an internet signal," says Santos Pineda, the school's head teacher.

Image caption Old and new: The school is on a man-made island of reeds with solar panels on its roof

Since last year, this community has had free and clean energy, as well as computers and an internet connection, thanks to an aid programme largely financed by the European Union.

"The children were very excited," says Mr Pineda.

"Before, they only knew about computers in theory. Now they can connect to the web. It's very useful."

A solar panel and a satellite antenna have been installed on the yellow aluminium roof of the multimedia classroom. This technology allows the school to have electricity and be connected to the internet.

Inside, the students now do their homework using five laptop computers and a printer/scanner - all provided by the EU's Euro-Solar programme.

Opportunities

With a budget of more than 36m euros ($47m; £30m), the EU and its local partners across Latin America have donated kits aimed at producing energy in 600 rural communities that are not connected to the electricity grid. Of these, 130 are in Peru.

According to the Peruvian energy ministry, only 63% of rural areas in the country have electricity, and 2.8 million people - about 10% of the country's population - are still without.

Image caption Connecting to the outside world has been more problematic in Pasiri

Euro-Solar is using renewable energy to help promote development in Peru as well as the seven other poorest nations in Latin America: Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Paraguay.

"Part of the objectives of the project," says Sergio Dianderas, programme co-ordinator in Puno, "is to reduce the migration of rural people to the city, by giving them better conditions where they live and by offering the same opportunities they would get elsewhere, especially with the internet."

However, in Pasiri, a community of 583 people at 4,250m (13,950ft) above sea level, the internet connection has not been working for two months.

"The technicians told us they would be back tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, or next month," says Ruben Ticona, a teacher.

"But they haven't yet returned to fix it."

He says that the internet only worked once, the day it was installed.

He also complains that most of the computers were not properly configured, and that they cannot find replacement ink cartridges for the hi-tech printer that was provided to the community.

Costly kit

Getting to Pasiri is difficult. There is no public transport to this high altitude, and the nearest town is a five-hour walk away.

"We told Euro-Solar about the problems," says resident Gilberto Quispe Ramos, "and they promised they would change our printer to a more commercial one.

"But so far their promises have yet to materialise."

Victor Velarde, Peru's Euro-Solar co-ordinator, acknowledges that there have been problems with the kits.

Image caption When it is not sunny in Pasiri, energy is generated by a wind turbine

But he says the problems will soon be resolved.

"We hope to... correct and fix most of them," says Mr Velarde.

However, what mostly worries residents of Pasiri and Torani is what will happen once the warranty period comes to an end.

Each community uses the power supply to offer services for profit, such as the charging of batteries and mobile phones, or the printing and photocopying of documents.

"But this is not enough," says Jaime Coila, a teacher in Torani.

A photocopy costs four Peruvian cents, or less than 4 US cents; the charging of a mobile phone is 50 Peruvian cents.

"What we charge for photocopies is minimal. I don't know what we'll do if the equipment fails," says Mr Coila.

To replace the batteries for the solar panels - which have a lifespan of about 10 years - would cost about $300 in Peru. That is more than the monthly minimum wage in the country.

The residents of these isolated communities realise it will be a challenge to generate enough revenues for the future.

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