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Liliana and Luisa Terán are two indigenous women from northern Chile who traveled to India for training in installing solar panels. Together, they have not only changed their future, but that of their remote village, Caspana, as well.

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“It was hard for people to accept what we learned in India,” explained Liliana Terán. “At first they rejected it, because we’re women. But they gradually got excited about, and now they respect us.”

Liliana’s cousin, Luisa, said that before they made the transition to Asia, there were over 200 people interested in implementing solar energy in the village. That number dropped to 30 when it was discovered that these two women would be the ones responsible for installing and maintaining the solar panels and batteries, however.

“In this village there is a council of elders that makes the decisions. It’s a group which I will never belong to,” explained Luisa, 43, who has a small farm and is a craftswoman, making replicas of rock paintings. Now a single mother of an adopted daughter, she graduated secondary school in Calama and went on to take several courses, including one in pedagogy.

Liliana, 45, also completed secondary school and has since taken courses in tourism, which she believes to be complementary to agriculture — allowing her to help stop the exodus of people from the village. A married mother of four and a grandmother of four, she works on her family farm and cleans the village shelter.

Together, the two women are in charge of giving Caspana at least part of the energy autonomy that the village needs in order to survive.

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“Every year, around 10 families leave Caspana, mainly so their children can study or so that young people can get jobs,” Luisia explained.

An electric generator, which gave each household two and a half hours of power in the evening, powered the village up to 2013. The generator broke frequently, however, leaving the entire village in the dark. Today the generator is a mere back-up system for the 127 houses thanks to the solar panels the cousins installed.

Every home is equipped with a 12-volt solar panel, a 12-volt battery, a four-amp LED lamp, and an eight-amp control box thanks to a donation received by the Italian company Enel Green Power.

The cousins owe their training to the donating company, along with the National Women’s Service (SERNAM) and the Energy Ministry’s regional office, which allowed them to learn at the Barefoot College in India.

Barefoot College describes itself as “a non-governmental organization that has been providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities for more than 40 years, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable.” To date, 700 women from 49 countries have taken the course to become “Barefoot solar engineers.” The two women traveled to college in March 2012 along with Elena Achú and Elvira Urrelo, who belong to the Quechua indigenous community, and Nicolasa Yufla, an Aymara Indian.

“We saw an ad that said they were looking for women between the ages of 35 and 40 to receive training in India. I was really interested, but when they told me it was for six months, I hesitated. That was a long time to be away from my family!” explained Luisa. It was her sister who encouraged her to undertake the journey, however, and so she and her cousin made their way to Tilonia, sleeping on thin mattresses on hard wooden beds in rooms ridden with bugs. They didn’t even have access to hot water for bathing purposes. They were also not used to the type or quality of the food.

“I knew what I was getting into, but it took me three months anyway to adapt, mainly to the food and the intense heat,” she noted.

Upon their return, the cousins began to put their education to the test. They began by charging 45 dollars to install the solar panel kit in homes in the village. As a result of their training, the cousins and other Barefoot solar engineers must install, repair, and maintain the solar panels in their respective villages for a minimum of five years.

The community now pays the cousins 75 dollars each month to maintain, every two months, the 127 panels that they have installed in the village.

“We take this seriously,” explained Luisa. “For example, we asked Enel not to just give us the most basic materials, but to provide us with everything necessary for proper installation.

“Some of the batteries were bad, more than 10 of them, and we asked them to change them. But they said no, that that was the extent of their involvement in this,” she said. They were required to sign a document stating that their working agreement was completed.

“So now there are over 40 homes waiting for solar power,” she said. “We wanted to increase the capacity of the batteries, so the panels could be used to power a refrigerator, for example. But the most urgent thing now is to install panels in the 40 homes that still need them.”

Not everyone can afford to buy a solar kit in the village, however, so some must be donated.

The women are accepting of the challenges they face, saying they are simply happy to play an important role in the village.

“I’m really satisfied and content, people appreciate us, they appreciate what we do,” explained Liliana. “Many of the elders had to see the first panel installed before they were convinced that this worked, that it can help us and that it was worth it. And today you can see the results: there’s a waiting list.”

Luisa believes she and her cousin have helped change the way people see women in  Caspana, since the “patriarchs” of the council of elders themselves have admitted that few men would have been willing to travel such a distance to learn something for their community. “We helped somewhat to boost respect for women,” she explained.

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