Report from Patagonia

To say the last three days have been fascinating, interesting, and eye-opening would be a huge understatement.

After spending Sunday with the sedentary herders outside of Rincon de Los Sauces (my earlier report), we left early Monday morning to find the transhumant herders, those who leave their winter homes in the spring (now) to travel with their goats to their summer feeding grounds. We got in our truck for the five hour drive to the Tromen volcano area, where we first talked to Oscar Rebolledo and his 17 year old son, Alexis. They had arrived on horseback the day before with their 900 goats – after 11 days on the trail. Actually, they first left their winter home and got stuck in a huge snowstorm with no tent or protection, so had to quickly return (with 900 goats – I’ll never feel bad about trying to get 3 children to do something again) to their home. Oscar’s wife and the rest of the family will follow later after the men get everything in order.

Also in the group was their bachelor neighbor Cano Vega, a gnarled, wizened old guy with a great face and interested demeanor. In addition, there were two park rangers with us who have helped us identify targets for the pilots – people who are off the government’s radar and didn’t receive solar panels the government passed out a few years back, but then never trained anyone how to use or maintain them.

Our hosts greeted us and invited us inside their home – a stacked rock wall home with a wood and tin roof. Inside, a dirt floor, several herd dogs, a wood stove and a broken propane lantern. There was also a skinned goat head hanging from the ceiling. When I asked, it was for a stew they were going to make. Nothing goes to waste. After the obligatory mate (made again with river water – its gotten to the point where I just slurp it out of the communal straw and keep in mind I’ve got some Cipro if anything goes wrong), we began our discussion of BrightLight and our solar lanterns.

I couldn’t help but notice one half burnt candle in the room on a saucer. There was also the broken propane lantern. The only sources of light I saw. While it’s staying light longer now as Argentina goes into summer, all with whom we spoke were aware of the advantages of the lanterns when it gets dark earlier in the fall and winter. I should point out here that the transhumant herders are doing much better than their sedentary comrades. The drought has devastated the sedentary herders.

These guys “got it” very quickly, but felt cell phone charging would be the biggest help to them as they have no way to charge their cell phones while at their summer homes. They thought the women and children would have more uses for the lantern light – reading and studying, working at night, etc. But they both mentioned how the smoke from the wood and kerosene they burn affects their eyes and breathing, and next door neighbor Cano said he burns a can of diesel with a cloth wick stuffed in it….no safety issues there!

Today we drove six hours on dirt roads into the country (saw 3 other cars during this time) and stopped some herders as they were driving their herds to their summer grounds. A couple we met, Roberto and Alicia, especially liked the idea for their summer “ranch” as it has no power whatsoever. It was interesting that neither of their sons were with them. They encouraged them to go to school and one now is a policeman in Neuquen and the other works for the government. Classic case of parents wanting a better life for their children. Roberto is 4th generation herder and can’t imagine doing anything else.

In spite of the enthusiastic reception and good partner in WCS, I’m concerned about how we can be successful here. I don’t see how we can possibly scale this up in an affordable way when families live miles apart and there’s very little gathering of communities. In Rwanda, it’s relatively easy to get 50-75 families together in a village for a presentation. It’s also easier to maintain and repair lanterns when people are clustered. Here, it’s a very different situation. Maybe this is a lesson on picking our sites.  Sebastian from WCS in New York contacted me together with ideas on Asia, areas dense in population. Maybe Patagonia becomes a good test site for the durability of the technology.

We’ve also got to figure out the pricing and costs, as Kerry has been preaching. A pilot costs us around $250 per family – obviously this involves surveys and personal solicitation and focused maintenance and delivery and a good partner and travel and only 100 families.  How can we make this project happen for $25-50 per family?

Let’s see how this pilot goes, and tonight I have dinner with WCS folks as well as some Duke Argentina employees. Perhaps they’ll have some ideas regarding scalability…I’m stumped.