Problematizing rural electrification: A capability and intersectionality approach analysis of energy perspectives and visions of indigenous communities in Ecuador.
Ten Palomares, Maria; Boni Aristizabal, Alejandra; Belda Miquel, Sergio (2016). 'Problematizing rural electrification: A capability and intersectionality approach analysis of energy perspectives and visions of indigenous communities in Ecuador.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.
Keywords: off-grid electrification; capability approach; intersectionality; Ecuadorian Amazon; indigenous peoples.
Decentralized systems based on renewable energies have been widely utilized in rural electrification projects. The international cooperation system has promoted these technologies in different countries and contexts. However, evidences show that energy and technology are politically biased. Energy not only is a fundamental part of the development policies (as strategies to provide energy access for example), but it also shapes society and culture (Acosta, Ariza-Montobbio, Venes, Lorca, & Soley, 2014). Development approaches define energy and technology visions, and these visions determine who is going to be benefited by electrification projects and how.
A large number of development interventions base their design on wrong assumptions about people’s needs and aspirations (Muñiz, 2014). These unconfirmed assumptions are more related to the cooperation agencies own interests than to the communities’ where projects are implemented. These assumptions are even greater with indigenous communities. Their diverse characteristics are not considered adequately, and the intersectionality between ethnicity, gender, and territory is not recognized (Radcliffe, 2014). This undermines people’s opportunities, especially for women. New approaches that identify diversity and intersectionality in the energy-based development projects are therefore needed.
The Capability Approach (CA) is one of the frameworks used for the analysis of development projects that recognizes the diversity of persons and their own circumstances. Under the CA, which provides the theoretical basis of the Sustainable Human Development (SHD) paradigm, development should lead to an expansion of the capabilities needed to live the life people have reason to value (Sen, 1999). The fact that an individual or community has access to a technological project does not necessarily lead to the expansion of capabilities. It depends on the personal and socio-environmental context in which the project is delivered. In this paper, we explore how the CA helps us to understand how indigenous people’s diverse characteristics impact on the opportunities electrification projects can generate at a territorial, national and global level.
For the stated purpose, we use a perspective named “Technologies for Freedom” that includes the SHD principles whilst focuses on expanding people’s freedoms (Fernández-Baldor, Boni, & Hueso, 2012). Based on it, we propose a framework that enables us to create a space for dialog between the macro and micro context when designing rural electrification projects. From such perspective, we emphasize human diversity and its connection to technology, which is the principal axis of our conceptual framework. That gives us an understanding of how technological interventions are designed and under which circumstances are appropriate for different social collectives and their environments.
Our research was carried out from April 2014 to June 2015 and it is based in a case study in the Ecuadorian Amazon, with five indigenous communities. The contemporary Ecuador is a relevant case as far as social transformation processes is concerned. These initiatives, articulated around the ‘Buen Vivir’ (Good Living), interrogate the hegemonic vision of development and also the dynamics of the international cooperation system. The Ecuadorian Amazon is the most diverse region in the country in terms of culture and ethnicity and is a territory where these discussions are constantly emerging. This research was carried out while we were part of a team in an electrification project launched by the Ecuadorian Government, the Inter-American Development Bank and a local NGO, the Ecuadorian Foundation of Appropriate Technology (FEDETA, according to its initials in Spanish). We worked with five communities which belong to three different indigenous nationalities: Achuar, Kichwa and Siona. Communities with different perceptions of energy and ‘Buen Vivir’; what we can call diversity among diversity. We followed a qualitative research strategy with a participatory approach, combining in depth interviews with participatory workshops and time use survey. We co-designed the fieldwork strategy with FEDETA and we realized the field visits with them and the local energy company staff. We also applied an ethnographic approach where we were able to interpret how the electrification intervention was designed based on long-term participant observation as insiders of the project.
By analyzing our case study through the lens of the CA, we linked how global and local agendas of development were connected; exploring how development approaches of institutional cooperation stakeholders influence electrification project designs. This innovative approach, allowed us to identify the factors that expand or constrain individual and collective capabilities of indigenous communities and how all these impact in their ‘Buen Vivir’ understanding. The CA enabled us to unveil assumptions that institutional development actors make concerning indigenous people and how these affect energy-based project designs. One of these assumptions is for example that indigenous communities aim to achieve the same goods and services that can be found in an urban area. When applied to practice, centralized off-grid energy systems designs (e.g. solar microgrids) are promoted in communities with a dispersed nature, being necessary for them to have a reunification. Moreover, through the CA, we identified how territorial, ethnic and gender intersectionality enhance barriers to the participation in decision-making processes where electrification projects are delivered.
This study allows us to question the development projects values and structures that marginalize certain social groups whilst privileging others. It also enables us to build best practices to foster energy-based project designs in line with indigenous communities’ diverse understandings of development. And therefore, to achieve new scenarios away from power and dominance structures based on diversity.