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Solar Energy Used to Fight Poverty and Deforestation in Paraguay
by Martin Almada

First published in Craft News, Winter 2001

During the last few years, the socioeconomic situation of the rural communities in Paraguay, South America has steadily declined. Of Paraguay's total population of five million, only 5% fit into the wealthiest bracket, while 75% of the population falls drastically below the poverty line. The majority of people in Paraguay live in rural farming communities, with an average annual family income of $250. Many of these communities struggle with unemployment, illiteracy, infectious diseases, and the disintegration of their families, as individuals continue to leave their villages to look for work in the cities.

With a recommendation made at UNESCO's "World Solar Summit" held in Harare, Africa in 1997, a program called UNIBANCOOP was launched that uses solar energy to create jobs through responsible use of the abundant natural resources in the area. Initiated by the Celestina Perez de Almada Foundation, UNIBANCOOP is aimed at fighting poverty while preserving the local environment. Through literacy training programs, the use of solar energy equipment, and the allocation of microcredit loans, the program helps rural women become self-employed and financially secure.

UNIBANCOOP works with women between the ages of 12 and 60 in small, poverty-stricken communities. The project uses the trunk of the banana tree, formerly considered a waste material, to make beautiful, ecologically sound paper. A technical team led by Prof. Maria Stella Coceres combines the knowledge of specialists with the experience of local trainers - women in the communities who have begun their own microenterprises. Beginning a papermaking microenterprise requires an initial training, but then the work is done in the women's own homes, allowing the costs to remain low.

With the help of microcredit loans, the women invest in the necessary equipment and cover basic start-up costs. According to Dr. Martin Almada, President of the Celestina Perez de Almada Foundation, the solar power equipment doesn't require huge investments. The paper solar dryers cost between $50 and $300, depending on their size. The simplest model permits the drying of six to eight sheets of paper in two days. A pulp mixer costs $8 to $100, depending on if it is a domestic or industrial model.

The banana tree trunk is cut into pieces, fermented, and made into a pulp. Traditional tools and techniques, such as the use of a corn mortar, have been reintroduced for the preparation of the pulp. Using new technology made with the help of Swiss engineer Jean-Claude Pulfer and adapted to fit with the cultural traditions of the area, the paper is dried in solar dryers. Experiments with other plant fibers, including sugarcane and wildflowers, are currently underway to find additional sources for pulp.

Flowers from native trees are pressed, dried, and used for decorating the paper. The ecological paper made through this project is turned into cards, book covers, gift boxes, handicraft dolls, biodegradable cardboard pots for seedlings, and ecological packing. The crafts are then sold at markets in surrounding communities, weekly fairs in the provinces' capital cities, the Foundation's Ecotienda in Paraguay's capital city of Asuncion, and the growing fair trade networks around the world. The paper is sold both by the sheet and in larger quantities.

As a result of this project, many women have successfully begun their own microenterprises, while some have even joined together to form cooperatives. The income generated by the women goes back to their communities, transforming their families' lives and supporting the continuation of sustainable harvests of surrounding natural resources.

For more information contact Dr. Martin Almada, Prof. Maria Stella Coceres, Mrs. Marta Machain, Celestina Perez de Almada Foundation, Av. Carlos Antonio Lopez 2273, Asuncion-Paraguay, 595-21-425345 (phone), ubc@rieder.net.py or malmada@rieder.net.py (e-mail).


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