2018 Fellow Jorge Nieto studies energy development at the household level in Myanmar

June 12, 2020

1. Where did you go for your fellowship?

I was based in Pinlaung Township, Myanmar, and mainly lived in the town of the same name. I also made visits to Yangon for interviews with key informants. Pinlaung is rural; it is surrounded by a mix of forested hills and cultivated plains and valleys. There are a few small factories for the processing of tea, coffee, and potatoes. There is a large cement factory nearby, but it was closed.

2. Why did you go there?

I am interested in the similarities between South East Asia and Latin America as sites of international research and development with similar styles of government. Yale and F&ES have a history of study in the region. Professor of Anthropology Jim Scott and 2018 TRI Fellows Jared Naimark and Nicholas Lo all helped me plan my project.

Myanmar is interesting because it was isolated for so long. The country is just now building infrastructure that other developing countries built 30 years ago. Myanmar is also undergoing an energy transition moving from coal and firewood to cleaner liquid fuels, gas, and hydropower. I am interested in how this transition is experienced and described by people who are not in control of it. I think my research provides insight into how fuel transition development projects may unfold in places that are also just starting to build electrical infrastructure.

3. What research question were you investigating?

I asked how people at the household level are making an energy transition. People usually frame energy transitions around macroeconomic policy questions, such as what kind of incentives do people need to make a transition? I am interested in what prompted people to change energy sources, not change, or postpone energy decisions. A microeconomic view tends to assume that certain groups (e.g., poor and/or rural people) will uniformly adapt to the energy transition. However, there is so much variation in how these groups adapt and we cannot explain it with traditional economic analyses. That is why I am using situated ethnographic research to learn more about the variation and complexity of peoples' perspectives on Myanmar’s energy transition.

4. Why does this question matter to you? Or to the people you were working and studying with?

Myanmar has positioned mini-grids (typically less than one megawatt) as a more democratic, community-driven, energy source. However, it is the communities, not the government, that are developing these mechanisms of distributed generation. Yet planning small microgrid systems is hard because communities are not working together to estimate demand and access technical assistance. If you want to decentralize production, you have to understand demand. My research will help with mini-grid planning.

There are also broader questions, including how households get enough energy for their needs and how the state can incorporate these needs. Further, what are the steps of planning for energy access? Rural electric schemes barely provide enough power for light and television, but people need more. People want activities that produce income, but also that reduce exposure to unsafe conditions, such as walking outside alone at night, or travelling long distances in the elements. For example, farmers often have to walk through difficult terrain, or find enough money to buy motorcycles and fuel for easier transportation. Even though fuel for transportation is a key part of household energy use, surveys often do not include transportation fuels.

Energy and development, more broadly, does not address the needs of rural people who need power to set up shops, work as carpenters, and require electrically powered pumps to deliver drinking water, and to grow and process tea. People need power to reduce the risk of being dependent on agricultural commodity markets. While funding gets thrown at clean, renewable, solar power, it’s harder to make use of this source than it is to make use of energy from coal or gas.

5. What personal experiences can you share that help us understand this problem and place better?

I think one thing that many folks do not realize when we are studying a place from afar, is that the place can have many different opportunities. The challenge for locals is to decide what opportunity to take.

In 2009, a road was built and electricity infrastructure was installed near the city of Taunggyi, in Pinlaung Township. The area was then opened to the national and global economy. People were selling products, but there were too many investments to capitalize on opportunities. Studies of clean cooking suggest that even with economic development, people haven’t changed their fuel use. The literature focused on the concept of the fuel ladder, in which people would move “upwards” away from charcoal and wood towards cleaner fuels such as natural gas. However, this idea has been widely discredited because people are not switching, but actually stacking multiple types of fuel for cultural, financial, and practical reasons.

Further complications relate to how households decide to invest their capital. For example, the region has favorable climate, geography, and prices for growing tea. Yet, people have to make investments in a steamer, a fertilizer, and other equipment in order to produce tea. Thus, the cash they invest in tea is diverted from investing in cleaner energy sources.

6. What are the critical challenges facing the communities at your research site?

Communities lack local experts who can solve problems while also sharing local needs and priorities. For example, one village had issues with a micro-grid that they had developed and financed. They had money and labor to fix the problem but they could not find someone who could solve the technical issues. I think there is a missing link between universities and communities. It’s not a question of capital either, there is a lot of money moving.

7. What do you think is needed to understand or improve the situation?

You have to be committed to critiquing and improving your own development strategies over time. Many agencies are doing a great job with grassroots organizations. Even small non-advocacy organizations that are formed solely for small hydropower or solar projects. However, they are so flooded with projects and immediate work that it’s hard to escape bad patterns. Agencies and communities often make the same mistakes over and over again. For example, the choice of equipment such as electrical cables could be similar in different places. Yet, agencies start from zero everywhere. Meanwhile, local communities feel that agencies “come to tell us what to do” and lack sensitivity to local circumstances. Development workers are not consulting with the community and there is a need for that intermediary role. However, smaller organizations depend on the resources of larger organizations, so it’s difficult to make progress.

8. What challenges did you experience in your research?

The main challenge is political … it’s hard to question people who are decision-makers. I think being a foreigner can create mistrust, but it’s a challenge I would have seen in my country of Mexico as well. You run the risk of getting your collaborators in trouble, which is even worse. Myanmar is also complicated by a long-running civil war that makes the politics incredibly hard to navigate. I was fortunate that the Pa’O National Organization helped me to find interlocuters to speak with.

9. How do you want to use your research? How do you think your research will be used?

Ideally, this research can help inform future fuel-switching projects. I hope to draw out broader lessons on how we can accelerate effective and inclusive energy transitions. Globally, communities are facing very dire circumstances and they need help, but development organizations need to learn from mistakes in order to really support local communities.

10. Is there anything else you want to tell us?

It was hard to find people who could tell me more about the more technical aspects of energy and biodiversity. I was surprised at how much technical information I had to learn. Development practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers who focus only on “objective” measurements do not collaborate with social scientists. But we need to collaborate. Tropical restoration, conservation, and development folks should also partner with social scientists to make knowledge more accessible.

Fellowship Year: 
2018-01-01 00:00:00