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Student Featured in Award-Winning Film

Carolina Barreto Helps Bring Solar Power to Mali

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Carolina Barreto gave lectures about solar energy to local residents in Mali and helped them install photovoltaic panels on the roof of houses.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

“Riveting!” “Forward-looking and charismatic.” “Inspirational!”

These are just some of the accolades from critics who reviewed “Burning in the Sun.” The documentary film, which highlights one man’s mission to end extreme poverty through solar energy and features a UMass Lowell graduate student, recently won a prestigious award in Germany.

Carolina Barreto, a native of Nicaragua and a doctoral student in the University’s solar energy engineering program, played a key role in “Burning in the Sun.” It is one of five films that won this year’s Cinema for Peace award.

“The awards are sort of like the German Oscars,” says Barreto. “They recognize filmmakers who are involved in making a difference in the world. We won the Cinema for Peace International Green Film Award sponsored by the German automaker Opel. Some people call it the Green Oscar.”

The Cinema for Peace is a worldwide initiative that highlights the human condition and creates a platform for peace, freedom and tolerance through cinematic work. Other winners for 2012 include “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” a movie about fighting war and genocide directed by Angelina Jolie, and a film about the life of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

The directors/producers of “Burning in the Sun” — Richard Komp, Cambria Maltow, Morgan Robinson and Claire Weingarten — attended the awards ceremony, which was held during the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

“I was also invited but could not attend because of personal scheduling conflicts,” says Barreto.

A Catalyst for Development

“Burning in the Sun” tells the story of Daniel Dembélé, a 26-year-old bartender in Amsterdam who decides to return to his homeland in Mali, an impoverished, landlocked country in Western Africa, and start a local business building solar panels — the first of its kind in the sun-drenched nation. Dembélé’s goal is to electrify the households of rural communities, 99 percent of which live without power. His first customers are the residents of the tiny village of Banko. 

The film addresses climate change, poverty and self-sufficiency and demonstrates how, using appropriate technology, a small-scale business model can provide job opportunities and empowerment to people everywhere. 

“The movie was filmed in 2005, when I was invited by Dr. Komp to train a group of Malians on how to assemble and install solar modules,” says Barreto. 

The American non-profit organization Practical Small Project paid for their trip, together with the Mali-based non-governmental organization “Ji Duma,” which means “water” and “life” in Bambara, the native Malian language.

“Cambria, Morgan and Claire became interested in the project and decided to make a documentary about technology transfer using solar energy as business startup,” says Barreto. “In the film, I’m shown training Daniel and other Malians on how to assemble and install solar panels. Daniel didn’t have any background on solar energy, but he always wanted to find a way to help his countrymen. This solar energy training provided him with the skills, job and business opportunity to do it.”

Barreto was also interviewed on-camera and gave her views about rural electrification in developing countries.

“I explained how electricity is a catalyst for development and how it gives people opportunity to improve their quality of life through access to education, health and livelihood,” she says.

The documentary, which had its national broadcast premier on PBS on Jan. 29, comes in two versions: 83 and 22 minutes long. You can watch the 22-minute version on YouTube; there are additional scenes with solar ovens here.

This is not the first time Barreto became involved with projects that benefit people in developing countries. In addition to her solar engineering work in Nicaragua, in 2009 she and mechanical engineering Prof. John Duffy came up with a low-cost, highly efficient solar drip-irrigation system in Turripampa, Peru, that doesn’t rely on fossil fuel to power the pump. The project, which promotes sustainable use of water and energy, is part of UMass Lowell’s decade-old Village Empowerment Project with indigenous Peruvian farmers.