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Sustainability: Lessons from Latin America

How are renewable resources influencing policy and global citizens’ daily lives? by Dr. Christine Folch, assistant professor of anthropology

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When I tell people that I’m an anthropologist, an image of Indiana Jones, fedora-clad and bullwhip in hand, is often the first picture that comes to mind. Though I’ve never raided a lost ark or escaped a snake pit, I have seen the stunning Iguazú waterfalls depicted in the fourth film of the series. And I’ve heard stories that rival Hollywood drama from locals adept at debating energy politics.

As a cultural anthropologist, I research how people live in the world today. The core lesson I’ve learned is the importance of seeing through someone else’s eyes, not merely because we value diversity, but because it’s there we find wisdom. I study renewable energy in Latin America, a topic I find more engrossing now than when I began my research in 2007. Yet, had I not heeded the input of an ordinary Paraguayan, I would have missed that path.

Confession: the first time I visited Itaipú Dam (the Brazilian-Paraguayan hydroelectric plant that I research), I was underwhelmed. Even though it’s the largest dam in the entire world (capable of powering 33 percent of California’s annual energy usage), Iguazú, the Argentine-Brazilian cataracts where water pounds rock so powerfully that the mist rises like smoke, eclipsed my present view of Itaipú’s concrete wall and placid reservoir. 

Then, one Paraguayan to my right murmured, “Paraguay used to have waterfalls like Iguazú.” He took my look of surprise as an invitation to continue. “But they were destroyed for that,” he added with a meaningful nod at Itaipú Dam. 

His critical remark set me off to explore why the governments of Paraguay and Brazil sacrificed natural beauty for the sake of a dam. While Itaipú is an energy workhorse, supplying nearly 20 percent of Brazil’s annual consumption, my Fulbright-awarded research—inspired by that comment— revealed how sustainability can positively or adversely influence policy and citizens’ daily lives. 

While the United States and most other countries derive at least twothirds of the electricity needed from fossil fuels, South America stands apart, generating two-thirds of its electricity from renewable energy sources, namely, hydroelectricity. On the surface, this seems like an innovative step forward for humanity, but when you dig a bit deeper, the use of the dam’s resources has given rise to harmful political practices and structures within Paraguay.

For example, a series of formerly classified documents about Itaipú Dam show how the Paraguayan secret police used the dam in its security and intelligence apparatus to violently suppress any opposition to General Alfredo Stroessner, the former president.

Perhaps had the resources produced by Itaipú been handled with more compassion and responsibility, and shared more freely with citizens, my Paraguayan neighbor would have responded more positively to the engineering marvel. As the United States and developing nations diversify their energy strategies, South America’s successes and pitfalls offer valuable insights—including how power can corrupt even the most beautiful aspects of creation, but how there’s hope to be found in responsible stewards interested in harnessing creation’s power for the common good.

Dr. Christine Folch is assistant professor of anthropology, and holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the City University of New York and a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard College. Interested in sustainable development, she studies the politics of water and energy in Latin America, especially in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil.

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