About the Ocoa South Project
The Ocoa South Project is an innovative, grassroots based effort to develop a sustainable rural development model for the post-petroleum era. Based in the arid southwest mountains of the Dominican Republic, the Project brings together four neighboring agricultural villages in an intensive, integrated effort to create a future that addresses ongoing issues of isolation and poverty, as well skyrocketing energy costs and the expectation of extended fuel shortages. The Project focuses on adapting and integrating sustainable technologies into its local context, with particular emphasis on solar energy, small hydroelectricity, and bio-fuels. A broadband telecommunications system supports a social commitment to inter-village cooperation and local capacity building.
The Ocoa South Project is an ongoing work in progress, with eight years of practical experience and a reputation for successful village scale projects. El Limon, the Project’s base community, has had micro-hydroelectricity and wireless Internet access for eight years, and these services have recently been replicated in nearby Los Martinez. Los Ranchos is now planning its hydroelectric system, and its first Internet connection has just been installed. While these basic services (and the participatory process of their installation) have produced significant social and cultural advances in the communities, poverty has remained a pervasive and defining characteristic of the villages, and the project’s priorities have shifted towards economic development. The communities find themselves increasingly linked to a rapidly globalizing world. It is becoming apparent that a major redesign of the systems of production and consumption is needed if the villages are to prosper, or possibly even survive. Energy has been the key to the success of the developed world, and is a necessary ingredient of any realistic scheme for rural development. But the crisis of peak petroleum makes it clear that we need to create new rural energy strategies with a post-petroleum theme
For the last half century, virtually every advance in rural development has been accompanied by an increasing dependence on petroleum. The mountain villages of the Dominican Republic are typical: diesel-powered trucks and gasoline-powered pickups (and motorbikes) bring in agricultural supplies, the articles of daily living, and most of the food the residents consume. Produce goes out to national and international markets. Services such as health and education are concentrated in the larger towns, reached primarily by truck or motorbike. As the era of cheap, abundant petroleum ends, an entire way of life is approaching a defining crisis. Breaking the petroleum habit requires an integrated approach that shifts energy usage to renewable sources, in a way that is functional in economic, social, and ecological terms. No model for this future currently exists, and this effort to create one is based on the combination of four committed communities, extensive technical expertise, and a deep commitment to ecological and human values.
Replacing petroleum products with renewable alternatives is the core strategy, and also provides an effective framework for developing a much broader social and economic transformation. Transportation, the single biggest energy use, is a prime example. Oil seed crops are a well-known replacement for diesel fuel, but take considerable arable land and effort to produce, collect, and process. So it is also necessary to reduce the need for transportation of products (and people). We can reduce the need for transporting agricultural chemicals by promoting organic agriculture, producing more (and higher quality) foods locally, and initiating food processing in the villages, since compact, high-value products like cheeses and desserts require less fuel to transport than fruits and vegetables. Out in the countryside, motorbikes are the primary means of transporting people, and require gasoline… or alcohol, which is still much more difficult than oil to produce in arid mountainous areas. But travel can be at least somewhat reduced by the use of broadband telecommunications, through distance learning, telemedicine, and even the simple installation of wireless telephones. It’s all connected… the transportation problem is now bound to initiatives in income production, nutrition, education, telecommunications, and health care.
A diversity of technologies are needed for this sustainable future. Small hydro and, away from the streams, photovoltaic panels are already providing an environmentally acceptable source of electricity. In the next phase, solar thermal systems will provide heat for food processing and refrigeration for cold storage. Oil seed based biofuels will power diesel trucks and tractors, replace propane for cooking, and can also generate electricity. Biofuel residues will be fed to earthworms, which in turn will feed fish for local consumption and export. A low-cost broadband telecommunications network is now coordinating the Project’s development and operations, and will support the distance learning and telemedicine initiatives.
The Ocoa South Project brings together a unique mix of resources for creating a new model for a sustainable rural future. The communities of El Limon, Los Martinez, Los Ranchos, and Las Caobas have a long history of participatory community development projects, including irrigation, organic agriculture, hydroelectricity, and telecommunications. The Rural Alternative Center of El Limon (CAREL), a community-based nonprofit incorporated in the Dominican Republic, brings broad experience in appropriate technologies and an essential linkage to developed-world resources, including an affiliation with Cornell University’s Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy. CAREL personnel have worked extensively with the United Nations Development Programme – Small Grants Program in support of community hydroelectric projects around the Dominican Republic, and with various institutions in the application of low-cost Wi-Fi technology to rural telephony and Internet access.
The Project currently has modest startup funding commitments from the United Nations Development Programme – Small Grants Program for coordinated projects in two of the four participating communities ($ 34,000 total). Rotary International has committed $ 12,000 for telecommunications related work, with a focus on telemedicine and distance learning. About an additional $ 250,000 will be needed over the next two years. This will pay for staff salaries, a replacement truck, construction materials for facilities and energy systems, equipment, and various operating expenses.
Jon Katz, CAREL
September 16, 2006