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Bringing electricity to rural Guatemala reinforces our cooperative legacy of improving lives

By Chuck Soderberg

When I traveled to a rural village in Guatemala in October, I was truly shocked to see how difficult life was without access to electricity. There was no running water, no refrigeration or indoor plumbing. Most of the villagers live in one-room huts with dirt floors. They work in the fields, planting and harvesting crops by hand. Women manage meals and laundry without electric conveniences. This lifestyle is all they’ve ever known, but change is coming.

Electric cooperatives from Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin joined forces to send 12 linemen, equipment and supplies to bring electricity to the village of Salinas 7 Cerros in north-central Guatemala. The rural community is home to approximately 300 people and a school, church and health outpost. 

I was privileged to be in the village at the end of the three-week electric project to attend the lighting ceremony. Traveling to rural Guatemala made me quickly appreciate the roads and bridges back home. Secondary roads in Guatemala were filled with substantial potholes and were often severely flooded. Locals warned us to travel over bridges only in the daytime so we could avoid dangerous holes in the metal planks. I also realized that I take clean water for granted back in the U.S.; the community retrieves water from a nearby stream, which is also where they bathe and wash clothes and dishes. 

Farming without access to electric-powered equipment or tools is quite tedious and laborious. I couldn’t help but think about how rural electrification in Iowa in the 1930s and 40s profoundly improved the quality of life for rural families. I was blessed to witness the beginning of a new era for the village of Salinas 7 Cerros. Their homes and buildings are now wired for lighting and outlets. I’m told that the safe electric lighting will save families money as they no longer have to buy candles or kerosene. They can also use electric outlets to charge and power devices instead of relying on expensive batteries. With a safe, reliable and affordable electric infrastructure in place, this community is ready for a brighter future.

I’m also very proud of how our four Iowa linemen represented our state’s electric cooperatives. The team leader for the project told me that the quality of the work and the crew’s work ethic were second to none. In fact, he had never seen a crew work so well together. These men worked 12-hour days in extreme heat and humidity to bring opportunity to this community. 

This mission was the first international project for Iowa’s electric cooperatives, but it likely won’t be our last. Several other Iowa electric co-ops have expressed interest in supporting a future project. While the working conditions were difficult, all four Iowa linemen who volunteered in Guatemala said, without hesitation, they would serve again if asked.

Traveling to Guatemala caused me to reflect on our cooperative beginnings back here at home. Rural electrification dramatically improved the quality of life for Iowans generations ago, and it was an honor to witness the start of that transformation for a rural Guatemalan village. 

Finally, I want to thank the electric cooperatives in Iowa for providing the people, equipment and financial support for this project. The community of Salinas 7 Cerros will be forever grateful for the gift of hope and opportunity you have given them.

Chuck Soderberg is the executive vice president and general manager of the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives.


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