Oxfam’s solar partner in Puerto Rico: protecting the environment and the people who live in it

Sheila Plaza Gillot works in the Olympia convenience store. “Now that we have solar panels,” she says, “we’re better prepared than ever for emergencies.” Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/ Oxfam

Carefully targeted solar installations are helping people recover from Hurricane Maria and prepare for the next emergency.

The central mountains of Puerto Rico are a jumble of sharp peaks that resemble the spine of a dragon. The roads that take you through them are narrow and winding, and around each blind corner there’s an equal chance of meeting a rooster, a dog, or a tractor trailer. To one side are trees and vines clinging to impossibly steep slopes; to the other, a precipitous drop to the valleys below. Here and there in the distance, a stream hurtles off a mountain in a thin and graceful waterfall.

If you travel in and around Adjuntas, you have a local organization called Casa Pueblo to thank for the health and beauty of the land around you. There are mineral deposits in this region, and in the 1980s and again in the ‘90s, this tiny nonprofit took on mining interests and the island’s own government to oppose an excavation plan that would have ravaged the environment and displaced families across 36,000 acres of mountain terrain. It was a 15-year struggle, but they won, and now instead of open-pit mines there are farms here, and a forest reserve that doubles as a center for environmental education.

Casa Pueblo, in other words, is a powerhouse, so when Hurricane Maria struck the island, Oxfam was proud to join forces with the group in our emergency response. Local organizations can often act quickly in the wake of a disaster, but Casa Pueblo’s readiness was exceptional: though the island would be without electricity for months, Casa Pueblo was up and running the day after the storm. Its secret? Solar power. 

Casa Pueblo headquarters in Adjuntas runs on solar—and that includes its radio station, which immediately began helping people contact their relatives over the airwaves and was soon transmitting messages from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) about how people in need could access aid. To fill gaps in their solar coverage, they had a diesel generator on hand. With electricity and light available, the center became a source of power for phones and a key distribution point for emergency supplies like tarps, food, and diapers.

After the hurricane, Wilfredo Perez’s barber shop became a meeting place for people who needed each other’s company. “We cried together and we laughed together,” says Perez. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Power for the most vulnerable

In major emergencies, local organizations are often consigned to back-seat roles while international organizations take charge. It’s a model Oxfam is challenging around the world. “Organizations with local roots have so much important knowledge—about language, culture, history, politics, and geography—and such valuable networks that they should be taking the lead in emergencies, not following orders,” says Carlos Mejia, Oxfam’s humanitarian director in the US. “International organizations like Oxfam often have an important role to play,” he adds, “but it should be in support of local leadership.”

So, Oxfam is supporting Casa Pueblo to do what it does best: help create more resilient communities—and reduce their carbon footprint—through a shift to solar energy. We are funding technicians to install solar systems in 90 rural homes where poverty, isolation, medical conditions, and other special needs compound the dangers and difficulties of losing electricity. The technicians are also solarizing businesses that play critical roles in emergencies. For example, when homes lose power, people lose the ability to store perishables, and the local grocery store effectively becomes the community’s refrigerator. And a source of essential emergency goods.

“Since the hurricane, we’ve been carrying more items that are useful in disasters, like candles, light bulbs, medicines, flashlights, insect repellent, and propane gas,” says Sheila Plaza Gillot, who works in the Olympia convenience store. “Now that we have solar panels,” she adds, “we’re better prepared than ever for emergencies.”

Casa Pueblo is also installing solar panels on hardware stores, which sell important materials for repairing homes—as well as businesses that benefit their communities in less tangible ways.

On a busy street in Adjuntas, there is a barber shop with shiny new panels on the roof. Puerto Rico lost power for months after the storm, and owner Wilfredo Perez is thrilled he no longer has to depend on a neighbor’s generator or the island’s fragile electric grid. “My neighbors had a power failure two days ago.” He pauses and smiles. “I didn’t even notice.” Haircuts aren’t a critical need in times of emergency, so a barbershop may seem an odd choice of businesses for Casa Pueblo to target for assistance. Outside aid groups might have missed its significance, but if you step in the door and find men sitting there, chatting over a game of dominos, you begin to see what Perez and Casa Pueblo understood to be true: “The shop is a meeting place,” says Perez. “After the hurricane, neighbors came to tell their stories. They shared the good and the bad. We cried together and we laughed together.” While grocery and hardware stores serve as oases for essential goods, Perez’s barber shop is an oasis for people who simply need to be together.

Some distance from Adjuntas town, Benito Diaz and Joel Caba live with their elderly mother Antonia in a house perched on a steep mountainside. Casa Pueblo recently installed solar panels on their roof, and the family is feeling more secure. “Now we don’t have to worry that any little thing will blow out our electricity,” says Caba. They are big fans of Casa Pueblo and its solar projects around town, and they recognize the dedication that’s been a hallmark of the organization’s work for decades.

Diaz sums it up well: “Casa Pueblo will try and help people, no matter what.”

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