Antonethe Castaneda, a science diplomat and political scientist, is the recipient of the 2019 Fayzah M. Al-Kharafi Award. She won the award for her work bringing communities in Latin America together to plan for a future of renewable energy and sustainable development.
Castaneda specialized in international relations and sustainable development, and she entered science diplomacy because it was at the junction of her interests. She attended the TWAS-AAAS science diplomacy summer course in 2017, which she called an “incredible experience.” She then received training in Panama with the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), and further experience with Open Doors Programme of Using Science for / in Diplomacy for addressing global Challenges (S4D4C).
“I have worked with decision makers in the government sector, but I also like science and science diplomacy,” she said. “The lesson of such interdisciplinary work is to have a holistic vision.”
The award is named for 2004 TWAS Fellow Fayzah M. Al-Kharafi from Kuwait, who provides USD4,000 for the prize. Al-Kharafi, the former president of Kuwait University, was the first woman to head a major university in the Middle East. She is also a former TWAS vice president for the Arab Region.
“I am grateful to Prof. Al-Kharafi, for selecting me. It is gratifying that a scientist at her level considers you,” Castaneda said. “As a Latin American and a Guatemalan I’m happy too. As a political scientist I feel so proud to participate in the world of exact sciences. It is another step toward becoming an international decision maker.”
Castaneda has worked in several regions of Latin America to advance local communities’ efforts to prosper sustainably. Teamwork, she said, is critical between decision makers at all levels – and this is especially true as climate change complicates the challenges each local community faces. She said her multi-disciplinary experience has been able to bring a synergistic force to Latin American communities and aid them in their plans for future growth.
“When you have more discipline, when you have more vision, you have strong objectives,” she said. “In Latin America, here we don’t have many people with backgrounds in different disciplines. And in sustainable development this is my strong point, because I understand political issues, but I also understand the science.”
For example, as a volunteer of UNESCO Con-E-Ect, she works to aid negotiations taking place in the area of Huehuetenango, a city in Guatemala’s western highlands. There, decision makers are developing a plan to bring companies that specialize in renewable energy into the region and enter the electrical integration market in Central America. Decision makers include mayors, local community leaders, academics, and non-governmental organizations. And during negotiations between all these interests, Castaneda tries to show what benefits the community will see – both technological and economic – from hydroelectric power, while keeping the impact on the ecosystem low.
These negotiations can prove very important because of the severe, long-term impact they will have on local communities. For example, the regional communities of Chel and Xacbal have historically relied on smaller hydroelectric power plants for local energy consumption, but they are now negotiating to share a river basin with one of the largest hydroelectric plants in Guatemala.
Her role is to urge local decision makers to prioritize renewable energy development alongside other priorities that may seem to compete. “For Central America, and Guatemala specifically, they are at a top level risk for climate change,” she said. “But they also don’t have principle services like schools and hospitals because they live in far away areas. So a local decision maker may prefer a new hospital over a hydropower plant.”
In Santa Ana, a city in western El Salvador, Castaneda works to convince local mayors to accept biogas, a renewable form of energy which has trouble competing with non-renewables like gas and coal.
The advantage of biogas is that it makes use of waste – typically rotten food or forest leavings – to generate energy. And a community with a biogas company can rely on it even if there is an oil crisis. So she has to convince decision makers there that the renewable form is worth the higher investment and lower profits.
“In Santa Ana, we don’t have so many conflicts with the people, just decision makers, because they prefer fossil fuels to renewable energy,” Castaneda said. “So we try to change their minds.”
In Nova Friburgo, a community of 180,000 southeastern Brazil, she supports the focal point of UNESCO Con-E-Ect, with local sustainability, ecosystem and ecotourism organization to raise awareness of the need for risk management and hydropower projects.
Nova Friburgo, in 2011, suffered from floods that killed over 200 people. So Castaneda is trying to raise local decision makers’ awareness of the effects of climate change. This will help local experts and authorities anticipate changes to local rivers, as well as take advantage of its strength for hydroelectric power more effectively. Castaneda was involved in a recent event there about risk management and the use of electricity for example.
“Today, it is not common for renewables to be approached with risk management,” she said. “It takes teamwork and multidisciplinary cooperation in several countries. So we do not work only from science and technology, but with local and community decision makers.”