The linemen were to spend 12 days in Bolivia to bring electricity to a remote village. The Montana working men got more than they bargained for.
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Lineman Mike Teter of Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative works on a pole near Villa Cotoca, Bolivia. (Photo: Ryan Hall/MECA)
It’s not the type of goodwill gesture you’ll hear about on the national news. Its end result won’t eliminate poverty, cure disease nor change the course of nations, but for the people of one small South American village, the kindness shown by a small group of Montana linemen was life changing.
On February 26, a small contingent of Montana electric co-op employees left on a two-week philanthropic mission to Bolivia. Their objective was to spend 10 days in a remote corner of the country, bringing their skill and experience to help run power lines to Villa Cotoca, a small Amazonian village that had never known the benefits of reliable electric power before.
The task seemed straight-forward enough, but from the very beginning almost nothing went according to plan.
Montana electric cooperative lineman monitor and slow a wire reel as power line is pulled using a backhoe in a remote area of Bolivia. (Photo: Ryan Hall/MECA)
“What we were told originally was that we would be running a power line from an existing line, approximately seven miles to Villa Cotoca,” explained Ryan Hall, Communications Director for the Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association. “The right-of-way would be cleared and the poles would be set and we would go in and put all the hardware on the poles and run the wire across the poles. That was the original scope of work.”
The Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association (MECA) is a not-for-profit, statewide trade association representing Montana’s 28 electric cooperatives. Unlike large private utilities, electric cooperatives are user-owned and user-controlled. Their members actively participate in setting policies and making decisions, and benefits from co-op operations are returned to their users based upon annual energy consumption.
Many of the nation’s 900-plus electric cooperatives were established in the 1930s as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” program of public works projects. The goal was to bring electricity to sparsely populated regions where private utility companies found little financial incentive to operate.
“It’s very much like the U.S. was in 1935,” Hall said of the Pando Region, the northern tier of Bolivia where the MECA linemen went. “There are utility companies there, but what they want to do is take power to the big, densely populated urban areas. This village (Villa Cotoca) is 130 people. It’s seven miles of wire to 30 homes. It’s not high on the local utility’s list. It doesn’t make a lot of business sense to drag a line for a few people, but electric co-opers believe everybody’s entitled to power.”
The Pando Region of northern Bolivia is shown by a star near the center of the image (Photo: Google Maps)
Just getting to Villa Cotoca is an ordeal. The 40-hour travel plan included boarding a plane in Great Falls, with layovers and transfers in Minneapolis, Houston, Panama City, Panama and Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Then the 16 team members boarded a small plane to the Amazonian town of Riberalta, followed by a seven-hour bus ride to the outskirts of Villa Cotoca.
“We arrived late in Panama City due to a plane delay in Houston,” Hall said. “We ended up spending one night in Panama City that wasn’t scheduled at all, and two nights in Santa Cruz that were also not scheduled.”
The original plan was for the linemen to spend 12 days in Bolivia; 10 of them working on the project with two days to rest and take in a few sights. By the time they got there they were down to just nine days and no time for further error.
A local man works to clear vines from the power line with a machete, while hanging from a crane. (Photo: Ryan Hall/MECA)
The expectation was that advance work crews would have cleared the power line’s right-of-way, and that the 94 power poles needed to bridge the seven mile gap would already be set in place. The Montana linemen’s job would be to attach the necessary hardware onto the pre-positioned poles and then string the line to Villa Cotoca.
“When we got on scene about half the right-of-way had not yet been cleared;” Hall said, “their bulldozer broke down, and only 34 (of 91) poles had been put in the ground.”
Things seemed to be at a disorganized standstill. The Montana linemen had brought very little equipment with them; just theirclimbing gear, a few wrenches and some impact guns. The heavy equipment; backhoes, front end loaders, bucket trucks and pickups, was left to the local government. Little of what had been promised was at the job site when the linemen arrived.
“The government there had the bulldozer and the front-end loader, and there were a couple backhoes, one of which we were able to borrow eventually,” Hall said. “There was no bucket truck.We were supposed to have three pickups and there was only one – and it was busy.”
There was little alternative but to push forward with the work as best they could. The linemen had come more than 5,000 miles to do a job and complaining about the equipment they didn’t have wasn’t going to get it done. The terrain and weather didn’t make it any easier.
“It was flat, hot, very thick dense jungle,” Hall recalled. “We were on flat ground that had never been cleared before. There was just a clay road that we came in on and jungle on either side.”
The midday temperatures topped 90-degrees, but with 80% humidity and the intense equatorial sun it felt more like 110. At night the crew returned to a collection of jungle huts with no hot water. Electricity was only available for four hours a night, courtesy of a gas generator.
The Montana linemen set the goal of catching up the Bolivian crew that was setting poles about 2½ miles ahead of them.
With no bucket truck the linemen were forced to climb every pole with just hooks and belts. For the first several days they were forced to move the steel power lines by hand.
“We had five guys pick up power lines and hand pull them,” Hall said. “They’re pulling them off a wooden spool sitting on two steel jack stands. You’re pulling over uneven ground that’s clay and was just moved by a bulldozer. That is something that is very, very tough to do, and something they do not do in Montana.”
Despite the challenges, the MECA crew caught up with the pole setters in just four days. It was a discouraging moment.
The face of lineman Mike Teter of Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative tells the story after a 14-hour workday in Bolivia. (Photo: Ryan Hall/MECA)
“There was a time with about four days to go that no one on that crew would have thought we would finish, because the crew in front of us didn’t have half the poles set,” Hall said. “They had a backhoe there to set the poles, but they were hand digging them with giant post hole diggers that we call ‘chopsticks’ - so they’d hand dig the holes and then use a backhoe to set the pole.”
With a little coaching from the Montana linemen the project began to move into overdrive. Still, with just two days before their return flight home was scheduled to take off, the power line to Villa Cotoca stood more than two miles short of completion.
Exhausted and working on little more than stubborn determination, the Montana linemen pushed through in one grueling workday marathon.
“On that last day our boys worked over 14 hours, literally into the early hours of darkness,” Hall said. “Thirty-three poles in one day, we climbed and did something on. Some weren’t up, some were up with no wire, some had wire but the wire had to be attached and clipped in.”
Villagers and children from Villa Cotoca gather with Montana linemen under a ceremonial light bulb. It’s lighting marked the first time villagers had access to reliable, 24-hour a day electricity. (Photo: Ryan Hall/MECA)
By comparison, a crack line crew in Montana might be expected to install, equip and wire 20 poles in a day – and that using bucket trucks and the other equipment the MECA crew didn’t have access to in Bolivia.
With only hours left before the Montana linemen’s departure, the entire village of Villa Cotoca gathered for a ceremonial lighting at a semi-enclosed basketball court the townspeople frequently use for community gatherings.
“The day they turned the lights on all of us went,” Hall recalled. “They had kids dancing and singing traditional songs for us. A lot of the community leaders spoke about how important it was and thanked the linemen. The kids came up and gave us necklaces of Brazil nuts that had been peeled and varnished, just grinning ear to ear and saying ‘Thank you so very much.’”
“When we turned the light on everyone cheered, yelled and clapped,” Hall said. “There were a couple of the residents who were in tears because they never thought they’d get electricity.”
The MECA’s mission to light Villa Cotoca was paid for entirely through donations. In addition to their time and hard labor, the MECA crew brought 30 soccer balls, 26 blenders, four fans, more than 100 pounds of school supplies and 114 light-bulbs – enough for every family to have three, plus additional lights for the village community center.
Villa Cotoca is a world away from Montana. Most of its citizens had probably never heard of the Treasure State, nor could they point to it on a map. But they will remember the working men from a faraway place called “Montana” who visited their community so briefly, but changed their lives so dramatically.
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“You really begin to appreciate what you have,” Hall said reflecting back on his Bolivian adventure. “There’s some really great things that we take for granted, just as simple as electricity. Just being able to turn on lights and have a blender made these people cry with joy.”
“I had an elderly woman who came up to me at the end of the ceremony,” he added., She said, ‘You didn’t do something that is life changing. This is generation changing.’ Because of what these linemen did – those eight days, those 100 hours – generations have a better chance at a better life.”
David Murray is Natural Resources/Outdoors reporter for the Great Falls Tribune. To contact him with comments or story ideas; email at email@example.com or call (406) 791-6574. To support his work, subscribe today and get a special offer.
Post time: May-18-2020