Bringing Light to an Ancient Culture

One dark night in 2018 in Katansama, a seaside Indigenous village in northern Colombia, a miracle occurred, especially for the Arhuaco children and teaching staff living at the local school. Someone flipped a switch, and instantly—for the first time ever—lights came on. While the new solar installation means longer days to study and to access online educational resources, its lights also serve as a bright beacon that Katansama has reclaimed its rightful place after the Arhuacos’ 500 years of exile from the Caribbean coast.

They were forced into the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains by various colonial factions. After the fall of colonial rule, the Arhuacos’ ability to maintain their traditions and culture was impeded by the Colombian government. The current, progressive government has encouraged the tribe to reclaim its homeland. 

Planning for Katansama’s coastal re-emergence, tribal leaders led by visionary Danilo Villafañe chose to establish a cultural and leadership center whose community infrastructure would be powered by solar electricity. For the first phase of the project, they asked SELF to install a solar micro-grid to power school buildings, a dormitory, and a food service center. A brief documentary about the 2018 project can be viewed here.

The Katansama project was not SELF’s first involvement in the Arhuaco community. It began in 2012 with the installation of battery-free, solar-powered, direct-drive vaccine refrigerators and freezers at four health facilities. Subsequently, the Arhuaco leadership invited SELF to pursue additional solar projects. Their invitation was notable, because the village’s Kogi and Arhuaco tribes previously resisted exposure to the wider world. After intensive consideration, they came to believe that solar power complements their spiritual connection with nature and the need to protect it.

In 2015, SELF, with funding from the U.S. Agency For International Development, completed installation of a 12.5 kW solar micro-grid in Sabana Crespo, a traditional village in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern Colombia with a population of 12,000. This micro-grid serves as a unique, sustainable model to power shared facilities in similar Indigenous villages throughout Colombia. A unique aspect of the project is that it delivered a 12.5 kW solar-powered micro-grid system coupled with hydro power and backed up by a diesel generator. This model is designed to meet all energy demands of the village’s school, community buildings, health facilities, and a coffee processing enterprise.

In addition, SELF installed seven solar refrigeration systems in the Indigenous villages of Nabusimake, Gunchukwa, Juerwa, and Sabana Crespo. SELF installed six solar direct drive (SDD) battery-free vaccine refrigerators and one SDD water-pack freezer—the first to be installed anywhere in the world.

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