In this edition, we feature Victoria (Vicky) Lopez, former Executive Director of SIBAT (Sibol Ng Agham At Teknolohiya) and founder of RESILIENCE, in the Philippines. Vicky has been a micro hydro practitioner and advocate for 27 years, and community mobilizer for even longer. Reflecting on her journey, Vicky shares important insights on the power of community-led change-making, the role of women in micro hydro planning and implementation, the importance of climate resilience, and more.
I've been a development worker for most of my life, for about 27 years to be exact. Before that I was a faculty member at the National Institute of Physics at the University of the Philippines. I joined SIBAT in 1991 as its Executive Director. SIBAT is built as a network of many local NGOs doing appropriate technology for communities. Development work meant being directly involved in developing appropriate technology innovations on the ground with communities. There were two areas that I worked in: sustainable agriculture and renewable energy. I led in developing these programs at SIBAT. I took the lead in developing innovations in establishing and expanding sustainable agriculture in many rural parts of the country among farming communities and then we started focusing on energy in the year 2000. We decided to focus on micro hydro because, at the time, solar was quite an expensive technology and not very appropriate for the needs of farmers; conversely micro hydro could really provide not just home lighting for the community, but also support livelihood needs.
You’ve worked in a diverse context over your 27 years in the rural development sector. For example you were a professor and also a community mobilizer. How were you able to bridge the different worlds?
I got my Master's in Physics and went on directly to teach Physics at the university. Before that I was in engineering, which focuses mostly on applications, but I loved basic theory. With physics you can really delve into scientific concepts and theories. Most importantly, it helped me to understand the theory of change, which has an implication or impact, not only in technology, but in society as a whole.
When I was at the university, it was a time of social upheaval in my country. I took part in the youth movement and activist movements – the university took part in that. So, that was my baptism into the world of change. Through school I learned that change is constant, and in society everything changes, and we were taught that we should participate in change-making. That was the most important lesson: that you should be confident in your ability to contribute to change for the better. The importance of people in this change process also became very strong in my understanding of things. So I got involved in community organizing and that helped me appreciate even more their role in change-making.
I became part of a movement, doing advocacy work in objection to big dams. The World Bank was funding huge dams in the Northern part of the Philippines. Well, the objection was led by communities. They fought over several years and the people won, and the World Bank withdrew from the area. It wasn’t only the dams, but issues related to logging as well. When Ferdinand Marcos was president, under martial law, he allowed his cronies to exploit the resources up in the mountains, the watersheds. And again, the Indigenous people in that area resisted and they won – the big corporation withdrew from the area. So, I witnessed this and that, of course, was immense and very important to me. I realized that only the people can make change. Actually, it was a tribal community (the Butbut tribe) who articulated and requested that a small-scale hydro be built in their community, as the alternative to the big dam. They realized the importance of hydropower, but at a scale that would not hurt them, that would not displace communities. So they provided us the insight on what to do and that was the birth of the community-based micro hydro. Reflecting now, I think that was, in fact, a key element of our framework for renewable energy development.
So, basically, it was in that region where the micro hydro work started. We provided the technical support and the community contributed as well, and that became our framework going forward. And we leveraged this to reach out to funding agencies such as the UN Development Programme Small Grants Program and the Department of Energy, who then supported a number of our projects. Then that experience in that area inspired other tribal, Indigenous communities in the North to build similar systems, which in turn set an example for other Indigenous provinces to do the same.
I built a team of effective people. Not all were engineers; we especially paid attention to involving people from the ground. In time they all learned the theories behind the civil works. And, most importantly, we built all of the micro hydro components locally. We were in collaboration with a university in the North, who had good people who understood community-based work. There was one very good engineer, who has since passed away, who really provided strong, technological knowledge to our team, who we are very thankful for.
That was a period in the Philippines when policies were being drawn up to embark on renewable energy. We advocated for a community-based approach, but the government was influenced by the big energy companies coming in. So we continued our work even without policy to support us and, in the Cordillera Region, we built 27 micro hydro systems in collaboration with the communities and with local government units who recognized the role of the communities. The people, women, men and even children, came to do the physical construction work. The micro hydro organizations were built coming from the collective work in construction, and each organization formulated and enforced the policies to maintain and sustain the plant over these many years. The community organization provided the guidance to manage and sustain the micro hydro. Certainly, women have important roles to play in managing the micro hydro organizations, such as enforcing policies, and collectively sustaining the waterways and hillsides along these.
Following a period of rehabilitation after some 10 years or more, all the projects there are further improved and made to function up to the present, delivering the required energy per household and per community, providing 24-hour lighting, use of household appliances and powering livelihoods.
“With that understanding of the need to protect the water source…the communities have been able to sustain their systems for about 20 years now.”
There are more and more people in the science and technology sector, including students and professionals, who are interested to volunteer and come with us to the field and take part.
So, this was after my work in SIBAT. I thought of broadening the focus to embrace climate change because that is a very big threat to societies and it will have a very adverse impact on resources, and even on the micro hydro systems that we were advocating for. SIBAT already focused on sustainable agriculture, so we had that framework for addressing how different issues are connected, but climate is something that had to be addressed. So I organized RESILIENCE with a few people, but it will take us some more years to develop. With the pandemic it really had slowed down due to movement restrictions; but once the situation improves we will get back to it. And it will involve connecting with organizations that focus on climate change and us contributing our strength in sustainable agriculture, in watershed management, as well as renewable energy. It has yet to take off strongly, but the concept is there.
Well, it's for the protection of the systems themselves against landslides, the lowering of the water level – all those aspects that affect the resources in the communities. Now communities are seeing an increase in specific impacts of climate change, such as typhoons and landslides. When these things happen we have to rehabilitate the systems, strengthen the civil works, and strengthen the role of the communities in conserving the forests and maintaining the water channels. In micro hydro communities, climate resilience encompasses a lot – the lives of the people and the protection of their innovations, successes and achievements.
We have seen many communities that lead in this – they have formulated community policies that govern watershed management, including the cutting of trees and protection of resources in the watershed area. But there are communities that still have to formulate theirs. So the traditional system that’s at the forefront of sustainable watershed protection is called lapat, which is a very important policy that people hold sacred and that they abide by. That is a great tradition being sustained up until now, but not all communities have done that. And only Indigenous communities have that; others should learn from them.
What challenges have you faced as a woman practitioner? How did you overcome these obstacles?
Of course, men dominate this field, but I am intrinsically strong and I have to keep showing that strength in order for other women to be strong. So, I have built small women’s groups in the city and while in the rural areas. And I have tried to show by example that you can speak, that you can act, that you can contribute to the discussion and take the lead where you are needed to take lead. I think mobilizing women is my strength. When I go to a rural community, the first people I engage are the older women.
“Of course, men dominate this field, but I am intrinsically strong and I have to keep showing that strength in order for other women to be strong.”
Access to energy has an impact within households on women and children. Women are really impacted by everything that energy is used for inside the home, because of the care work that they do. So, I have seen rural women speaking very strongly for the sustaining of the micro hydro, and even taking a strong role in the physical maintenance of the hillsides, keeping the water channels clean. They're quite strong in that because it has an impact on their life. Electricity reduces their work in the household, it allows the children to study longer hours, and they can go to the fields with less risk because there is light outside the homes.
Traditionally, women are often not present at community meetings and instead stay home to care for the kinds. But when it comes to rural electrification, we’ve seen that women are quite strong in community meetings. The mothers come even together with the children and that provides insight into the importance of energy access to women, and the important role of women within these innovations.
Well, the livelihood opportunities that energy access enables should be more accessible to women. And during my time in SIBAT we worked on innovating on some machines so that women can handle them easier, with less physical strength required. And when it comes to maintenance of the powerhouse, women can do that. So first help develop a fair opportunity for them to be part of what is supposedly a men’s domain, especially in livelihood matters. You can develop a specific approach to address that; maybe a women’s committee can be formed among other committees in the community, in order to address women’s particular needs. It’s important to look at technical matters, as well as the broader impacts. Always consider how women are affected and strengthen these aspects.
Within SIBAT, I have advocated for technical training for women and, although we have more men, we do have women engineers. But renewable energy development is not just technology and from the start of designing a program you have to look at the projected impact. So, you should not leave out the participation of women, especially in designing their livelihood paths. For example, sugar cane pressing, which is traditional in the mountain areas – with electricity they can develop the sugar industry, beyond just pressing.
Food is important to rural women, it is important to households. So agriculture can also be strengthened by micro hydro, for instance by enabling electric machines and equipment. Such activities have always concerned women in particular because of their role in sustaining the household.
Again, that there will always be change. And I know if people can really work together then they can encourage the authorities to involve them. Right now during the pandemic, when the roles of local people are being addressed, there should be room made for community-based initiatives to build the change. I know that in my more than 30 years in this, when I began as a student activist in a small corridor of the university doing science, there had been great changes already. But not very structurally. But you could see the people’s minds do change.
And our efforts in micro hydropower development should – at least up to the municipality level – make them realize that community-based efforts should be a big, big part of the Philippines national program for development. In the mountains of Abra in Kalinga, there are 30 micro hydropower systems, not resulting from the initiative of the government, but from the initiative of the people. And there are those coming to a realization that this is something that they should study and perhaps multiply. My hopes for that are high.
Is there anything we have missed about your journey that you would like to share with our readers?
I look forward to seeing what big collective efforts will come about through the work of RESILIENCE, looking at all aspects, from water, to energy, economics, agriculture. That’s something that I hope to be a part of.