Fábio Rosa, Brazil: Rural Electrification
In 1982, at the same time that Gloria de Souza was launching her Environmental Studies curriculum in India, Fábio Rosa, twenty-two, a recent graduate in agronomic engineering, was trying to deliver electricity to poor people in Brazil. It all began when Rosa received a phone call from one of his university classmates inviting him to come to Palmares do Sul, a rural municipality in Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul, an area famous for its beautiful grassy plains—the pampas—inhabited by gaúchos, Brazil’s cowboys. Rosa didn’t know that his friend’s father, Ney Azevedo, had just been elected mayor of Palmares. Azevedo had previously been the technical director at the state’s rice institute, and one evening, over dinner, he and Rosa got into a long conversation about the possibilities for improving life for local villagers. After listening to Rosa’s ideas, Azevedo offered him the post of secretary of agriculture. Although Rio Grande do Sul is one of Brazil’s wealthiest states, Palmares was a depressed area, reminiscent of the Mississippi Delta. The municipality had recently been cobbled together. When Rosa showed up for work his first day, he found no city hall, no records, no municipal employees, not even a pickup truck. A local priest let him work out of a church. Rosa dropped off his boxes and set out to talk to the villagers.
What he heard surprised him. Politicians in Rio Grande do Sul were always talking about building roads. But when Rosa asked farmers about their priorities, nobody mentioned roads. They spoke about educating their kids and escaping poverty and holding onto their farms. They didn’t want to move to the city. But unless they could find a way to boost their farm incomes, they would soon have no choice. The primary wealth in Palmares was the irrigated rice crop. Ninety percent of the land was lowland, good only for rice production. And Rosa quickly discovered that the villagers had a big problem. Rice needs a lot of water to grow, but wealthy landowners owned most of the dams and irrigation channels, and they set the price of water high. Rosa found that small farmers were paying as much as a quarter of their production costs on water, triple the world average. “Without water there was no production,” Rosa explained. “And without production there was no wealth. The whole political situation was determined by this fact.” Looking for ideas, Rosa read a book written by a Brazilian agronomist who had traveled to Louisiana in the 1940s and documented how rice plantations were irrigated with artesian wells. It made him wonder: “Could something similar work in Palmares?” First they would have to get the water out of the ground—and the only way to do that cheaply was with electricity. That was a problem. Among the many differences between Brazil and the United States—countries of comparable size—is that Brazil never had a government works projects comparable to the Rural Electrification Administration, the New Deal agency that brought electricity to 98 percent of U.S. farms between 1935 and 1950. Brazil’s electrification standards had been designed under a military regime to serve cities, industry, and large farms. In the 1970s, a shortlived abundance of credit for rural electrification led Brazil’s utilities to rely heavily on expensive technology. The cost of providing
electricity to a single rural property in the early 1980s had soared to $7,000, five to ten years’ income for a poor farmer.1 “The electric companies install lines with excess capacity, forcing small and medium landowners to pay huge sums for power they won’t use,” Rosa explained. As a result, the lines weren’t built. Today 25 million Brazilians have no access to electricity: no refrigeration, no lights, no computers.2 In short, no future. That was seemingly the case in Palmares, where Rosa found that 70 percent of the rural...