Out of the past Co-ops provide power for the future, here and abroad


duane highley“There is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of space except that our consciousness moves along it.”

— H.G. Wells, “The Time Machine.”

If you could travel backward in time, to when would you go? To 1858 to see the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas? Or maybe go back thousands of years to witness how people lived in biblical times? In a recent 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair survey, a third of respondents said they would like to go back to 1965 to see the Beatles’ concert at New York’s Shea Stadium.

Of course, if you could really travel back in time you would face the grandfather paradox, a topic of many science fiction movies, in which the time traveler inadvertently changes something in the past, causing profound changes in the future.

Thanks to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s (NRECA) International Foundation, I was able to do a little time travel of my own recently. In a trip to the most remote parts of Bolivia, we turned the clock back some 75 years.

In most parts of Arkansas there was no access to electricity 75 years ago. For-profit utilities were serving citizens in urban areas, but most of the state was left in the dark. People outside the cities lived much as they had for centuries, relying on fuel-oil lamps for light, pumping water by hand and cooking by wood-burning stove. Rural Arkansans began forming the first electric cooperatives to provide their own electricity.

Our trip to Bolivia took us to the city of Guayaramerin, near the northern border with Brazil, to visit with the management and directors of a member-owned, non-profit electric cooperative: the Cooperativa de Servicios Electricos Guayaramerin, or COSEGUA. We were there to consult with their co-op leaders and to plan future trips by workers from electric cooperatives in Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma and possibly Arkansas, in order to assist the people of remote rural Bolivia in gaining access to electricity for the first time. As we left the city on a muddy dirt road, it was easy to imagine that we had traveled back to Arkansas in the 1930s.

Young girls gathered water and washed clothes in the nearby river. A horse pulled a farm wagon. Dairy cows were milked by hand. Men toiled in the fields, growing yucca, rice and pineapple. In short, people lived as most people on this planet have lived for centuries, in a way that most of us now living in the developed world have never known.

Every time we entered a village, we were greeted by a community-wide meeting called to persuade us to help the villagers gain access to the power that would make such a difference in their lives. I needed an interpreter to follow the language, but I had no trouble understanding the despair in their faces. In every village, the leaders made speeches explaining how they would use their newfound access to power:  building a milk storage facility to expand their dairy operation, building a sawmill for their woodworking tradesmen, automating irrigation so that larger crops could be planted, building a processing facility for crops to keep a greater share of profits in their village, providing a medical clinic and video learning for their school.

Work will start this summer, with co-op workers helping Bolivians expand service to the unserved areas surrounding Guayaramerin, Riberalta and Santa Cruz.

Seventy-five years ago in Arkansas they said we couldn’t do it ourselves, that rural people couldn’t build and run their own electric power system. With a little help and a lot of self-determination, we prevailed, and electric co-ops are now a successful part of our history. With this project in Bolivia, we will get the chance to change history for hundreds of Bolivians, helping them realize the dream of a more prosperous future.