Aela Energía: supporting local communities

Aela Energía: supporting local communities Image

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With nearly a third of Chile’s indigenous population living in poverty, according to the Ministry of Social Development, Chilean renewable energy business Aela Energía (Aela) believes it has as significant a role to play in promoting diversity and inclusion economically in local communities as it does inside its own organisation.

With an ethos of being a good neighbour and sharing value with people in close proximity to its windfarms, Aela has been running a number of community projects aimed at generating economic development and increasing empowerment since 2013. Over that time, over a quarter of the people supported by Aela’s projects and programmes have come from indigenous populations and around 50% have been female – a particularly strong result in rural communities in Chile, where the vast majority of women view themselves primarily as housewives even if they have micro-enterprises, according to Constanza Correa, Head of Communications at Aela. “We’re on the way to gender equality in Chile,” she explains. “But there is still a long way to go, especially in rural areas.”

One of Aela’s longest-running projects has been to support an initiative led by two local women from the Carrillanca indigenous community - the creation of an etno-turism business. Starting in 2013, Aela supported the extended Carrillanca family’s bid to constitute itself as part of the Mapuche community, resulting in formal recognition by the Chilean state. The act of bringing together 20 Carrillanca families is significant in itself, strengthening community bonds and culture, yet its main purpose was to develop, with support from Aela, a strategy to nurture economic development.

The first phase involved creating a quincho (or barbecue space) for the families to share and provide a space from which to generate income. Built entirely by the community with Aela providing technical advice, materials and financial assistance, the quincho started hosting gastro ventures in 2015. The second phase saw the construction of three cabins to provide accommodation for a new tourism business run by the Carrillancas, focused on offering visitors the chance to experience the community’s culture, rituals, crafts and food as well as offering tours of the local area to see native animal species, meet nearby sacred places, and experience daily life from the locals point of view. The community is now working on a new handicraft room and a ruka (traditional Mapuche house) in a project that draws on the knowledge and experience gained from the previous two phases and with support from local public resources. It also has plans to build more cabins with Aela’s financial support.

Overall, the development programme with the Carillancas has benefited over 50 people with an investment of only $56,000, of which $28,000 came from Aela. The remainder was sourced from other organisations such as the Institute of Agriculture Development, with which the community has now forged strong and lasting links. Etno-turism has boosted the community’s income by 30% and many now have a long-term goal of leaving their jobs to concentrate on the Carrillanca business. “The programme has helped unite the community and revive customs, language and traditions so they are saved for future generations,” says Constanza. “It has become a benchmark for many other indigenous communities, few of whom have gone through the formal constitution process.”

Aela has also been involved with another indigenous community – the Lefnahuel – which also sought, and received, formal constitution in 2014 with the company’s assistance. Aela has been running a number of training programmes with the community of 15 families after work was completed to restore an abandoned health centre to provide a new multi-purpose space. A project also supported by the local municipality, the community now has access to the space for the next 30 years.

The space is now used partly as a workshop, where, following consultation with the community, Aela provided training in wooden furniture manufacturing, designed in a rustic style, drawing on the families’ experience of manufacturing and working with looms as well as their woodworking traditions stretching back generations. While working with wood has traditionally been seen as a male occupation, the training programmes have been delivered to this community where women made up 80% of the trainees and who have been producing rustic furniture since 2018. So far, the community has made $7,700 in sales even though the business has been a part-time endeavour.

Further training programmes are planned – although they have been delayed by Covid-19 – in upholstery and ironwork, skills that can be used in new furniture design, and many of the women are looking to move to the business full-time over the longer term. The initiative has clearly increased the economic empowerment of the community’s women, but it has also created an important legacy, passing on craft skills to younger generations.

Training has also featured heavily in Aela’s work with communities close to the Cuel wind farm in central Chile. After noticing that 65% of the attendees at Aela’s community meetings were female, the company decided to focus enhancing the skills of local women to improve their economic prospects and foster entrepreneurship. “Many had already started complementary activities to supplement their incomes, such as making and repairing clothes and selling cosmetics,” says Constanza. “But they wanted to develop their knowledge further so they could get jobs or establish their own businesses.”

Starting in 2017, Aela, together with the municipality, started offering technical and practical workshops in a variety of areas, such as how to maximise fruit production with agro-processing. The initiative gained attention further afield and soon, four further communities wanted to be involved. Aela partnered with Prodemu, a foundation that focuses on women’s development and together, they devised a training programme centred around personal development, entrepreneurship and business plan development. “The personal development aspect was especially important because it helped women feel valued and helped them see where they could contribute,” says Constanza. “They haven’t all become entrepreneurs, but the personal change has been evident – they participate more in their own organizations and they speak up more.” Allied to this has been training in women’s rights and their role in society, a move that helps trainees understand they have equal part to play in their communities.

Since 2017, 99 women have been through Aela and Prodemu training cycles and the courses have covered a range of areas, including agroprocessing, baking and fruit and vegetable farming. The courses have also introduced, with funding from Aela, new technologies, such as greenhouses to improve production and make agriculture a viable business proposition. “We’ve seen some great examples of women moving from, for example, micro-poultry farming to farming on a bigger scale and selling eggs and fruit growers now growing commercially,” says Constanza. “But one theme runs throughout -it’s the personal journeys many of these women have been through and the ability to share these with others – it’s a form of contagious empowerment.”

While Aela has been closely involved in these and other projects, the ultimate aim is to help communities build links and networks as well as viable businesses that will endure long into the future. “We want to build capacity,” says Constanza, “so that the communities we work with do not depend on us. We want to help them build the skills, knowledge, resources and links to continue growing without us.”

Cápsula etnoturismo_subtítulos inglés from Constanza Correa on Vimeo.