Energy Trails: lighting a path in Bolivia

A writer's perspective on a life-changing journey.

Energy Trails: lighting a path in Bolivia

Image from the initial trip taken in Riberalta, northern Bolivia. Photo Noah Friedman-Rudovsky

The journey began at the Oklahoma City airport. I hugged my husband and children tightly. Although I would be gone for only a few days, the reality of being thousands of miles away and with limited access to communication felt a little uneasy. Still, the excitement and anticipation of what was to come captivated my thoughts. The airplane I boarded in Oklahoma City was one of five airplanes in route to Bolivia. On February 1, 2016, I landed in the city of La Paz, Bolivia, with my team members who represented NRECA International, Missouri’s electric cooperatives and the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives, Oklahoma Living’s publisher. Our final destination was Riberalta, a charming city in the heart of Bolivia’s Amazon Basin.

I imagined we would arrive at a small airport, equipped with basic infrastructure and services. For a city of 90,000 people, I assumed this was a realistic thought. I was wrong. We landed in an open field and were directed to a building structure that was still incomplete. We waited under scorching heat as we observed a couple of wagons approaching the airplane to retrieve our luggage. This was our first time in Riberalta, and we were taking in the sights and sounds of the city. It had been raining and the terrain was muddy. We tried to navigate around the mud as we approached the wagons that had been filled with passengers’ luggage. Once we had our belongings, our team leader, Fernando Mercado with NRECA International, recruited a car to take the luggage. Then he said, “You all pick a ride.” He pointed to a sea of motorcycle taxis and their drivers who were parked at the airport front. In Riberalta, the main mode of transportation is motorcycles. Several locals own motorcycles and use them as a way to earn extra cash in the form of taxi “cabs.” It’s not a norm in the U.S. to hop on the back of a motorcycle with a complete stranger, but in Riberalta, we did just that. One thing we all had a good grasp on: we had to go with the flow. We hopped on a motorcycle with a Bolivian and it was quite a fun ride. We arrived at our destination and, at that point, it was all that mattered. 

The purpose of this trip was to assess the area for an electrification project. Through the leadership of NRECA International, Oklahoma’s electric cooperatives and Missouri’s electric cooperatives are joining forces to bring power to two villages in the outskirts of Riberalta. The project will span an area of 16 kilometers (nearly 10 miles), and 250 poles will be installed to electrify the villages of Dos de Junio and El Torito. At the end of the project, approximately 361 families will have electricity for the first time. Suffice it to say, it will be transformational. A team of volunteer linemen, engineers and licensed electricians from Oklahoma and Missouri co-ops will take on this project in late summer. They will be assisted by linemen from the local electric cooperative, Cooperativa Electrica Riberalta (CER). This electric cooperative of 25,000 consumer-members will generate, transmit and distribute the power to these two villages. 

During the initial trip, we attended town hall meetings in the two villages and spoke to local residents about the project. A few of them mentioned they hoped this was not a promise that would end up unfulfilled. While Fernando Mercado described the project to them, their eyes were bright, lit up with the promise of a new day. 

These families live in primitive means. They have no way to preserve their food, no running water. Their bathroom facilities are rudimentary outhouses. When the sun goes down around 6:30 p.m., the day is over. It’s not safe to walk on the streets. Kids do homework by candlelight. Radios are battery-operated. One older gentleman we met at Dos de Junio, Saul, has a cell phone. When we asked him how he was charging his phone he said he had to go to the city of Riberalta to pay for a charge. 

It’s a distant reality for many, but it could not be more real for the residents in the villages of El Torito and Dos de Junio. The good news: In August 2016, they will enjoy having light for the first time. And it’s not a gift that will go away. It’s a life-changing gift that is going to stay, just like farming families experienced in rural America in the 1930s and 1940s. Today’s generations still enjoy the gift that was received nearly 80 years ago. Future generations will continue to be empowered and benefit from an improved quality of life because of their access to electricity. For some, electricity is taken for granted. For community members in the Riberalta region, it’s a much-anticipated gift. 

In the next few months, we will invite Oklahoma Living readers to embark on this journey. As a member of your electric cooperative, you’re a part of this dream. At one point your previous generations did not have electricity. It’s now our time to lend a hand and reach out to those who have not been as fortunate. Giving the gift of light is a life-transforming gesture. Our Oklahoma volunteers will be just as blessed as those receiving the gift. It’s a journey worth following. OKL Article End

Anna Politano