Energy Cooperatives Swim Against the Tide in Mexico

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Energy

Onergia, one of the two energy cooperatives operating in Mexico today, installs photovoltaic systems, such as this one at the Tosepan Titataniske Union of Cooperatives in the municipality of Cuetzalan, in the southern state of Puebla. CREDIT: Courtesy of Onergia

Onergia, one of the two energy cooperatives operating in Mexico today, installs photovoltaic systems, such as this one at the Tosepan Titataniske Union of Cooperatives in the municipality of Cuetzalan, in the southern state of Puebla. CREDIT: Courtesy of Onergia

MEXICO CITY, Aug 31 2020 (IPS) – A Mexican solar energy cooperative, Onergia, seeks to promote decent employment, apply technological knowledge and promote alternatives that are less polluting than fossil fuels, in one of the alternative initiatives with which Mexico is seeking to move towards an energy transition.


“We organised ourselves in a cooperative for an energy transition that will rethink the forms of production, distribution and consumption to build a healthier and fairer world,” Onergia founding partner and project director Antonio Castillo told IPS. “In this sector, it has been more difficult; we have to invest in training and go against the logic of the market.”

The eight-member cooperative, created in 2017, has so far installed some 50 photovoltaic systems, mainly in the south-central state of Puebla.

“A public policy is needed that would allow us to move towards the transition. Getting people to adopt alternatives depends on public policy. It is fundamental for people to have the freedom to choose how to consume. It is our job to organise as consumers.” —
Antonio Castillo

Castillo explained by phone that the cooperative works with middle- and upper-class households that can finance the cost of the installation as well as with local communities keen on reducing their energy bill, offering more services and expanding access to energy.

In the case of local communities, the provision of solar energy is part of broader social projects in which the beneficiary organisations’ savings and loan cooperatives design the financial structure to carry out the work. A basic household system can cost more than 2,200 dollars and a larger one, over 22,000.

“The communities are motivated to adopt renewable energy as a strategy to defend the land against threats from mining or hydroelectric companies,” said Castillo. “They don’t need to be large-scale energy generators, because they already have the local supply covered. The objective is to provide the communities with alternatives.”

Onergia, a non-profit organisation, promotes distributed or decentralised generation.

In Mexico, energy cooperatives are a rarity. In fact, there are only two, due to legal, technical and financial barriers, even though the laws governing cooperatives recognise their potential role in energy among other diverse sectors. The other, Cooperativa LF del Centro, provides services in several states but is not a generator of electricity.

The Electricity Industry Law, in effect since 2014, allows the deployment of local projects smaller than one megawatt, but practically excludes them from the electricity auctions that the government had been organising since 2016 and that the administration of leftwing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador put a stop to after he took office in December 2018.

Since then, López Obrador has opted to fortify the state monopolies of the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) and the Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) oil giant, which translates into favouring fossil fuels over renewable sources.

The National Electric System Development Programme 2018-2032 projects that fossil fuels will represent 67 percent of the energy mix in 2022; wind energy, 10 percent; hydroelectric, nine percent; solar, four percent; nuclear, three percent, and geothermal and bioenergy, four percent.

In 2032, the energy outlook will not vary much, as fossil fuels will account for 60 percent; wind, nuclear and geothermal energy will rise to 13, eight and three percent, respectively; hydroelectric power will drop to eight percent; while solar and bioenergy will remain the same.

In Mexico, rural communities are guaranteeing their electricity supply by using clean sources, thus furthering the energy transition to micro and mini-scale generation. The photo shows the "Laatzi-Duu" ecotourism site (the name means "standing plain" in the Zapotec indigenous language) which is self-sufficient thanks to a solar panel installed on its roof, in the municipality of San Juan Evangelista Analco in the southern state of Oaxaca. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

In Mexico, rural communities are guaranteeing their electricity supply by using clean sources, thus furthering the energy transition to micro and mini-scale generation. The photo shows the “Laatzi-Duu” ecotourism site (the name means “standing plain” in the Zapotec indigenous language) which is self-sufficient thanks to a solar panel installed on its roof, in the municipality of San Juan Evangelista Analco in the southern state of Oaxaca. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

The government cancelled the call for long-term electric auctions that allowed private companies to build wind and solar plants and sell the energy to CFE. But these tenders privileged private Mexican and foreign capital and large-scale generation.

In a dialogue with IPS, independent researcher Carlos Tornel questioned the predominant energy design promoted by the 2013 reform that opened up the hydrocarbon and electricity markets to private capital, and the form of energy production based on passive consumers.

“We don’t have an effective legal framework to promote that kind of energy transition,” said the expert via WhatsApp from the northeast English city of Durham. “A free market model was pursued, which allowed the entry of megaprojects through auctions and allowed access to those who could offer a very low cost of generation, which could only be obtained on a large scale.”

With that strategy, he added, “small projects were left out. And the government did not put in place economic incentives to foment cooperative schemes.”

“We need a more active model focused on the collective good,” added Tornel, who is earning a PhD in Human Geography at Durham University in the UK.

Mexico, the second largest economy in Latin America with a population of 129 million, depends heavily on hydrocarbons and will continue to do so in the medium term if it does not accelerate the energy transition.

In the first quarter of 2019, gross generation totaled 80,225 gigawatt hours (Gwh), up from 78,167 in the same period last year. Gas-fired combined cycle plants (with two consecutive cycles, conventional turbine and steam) contributed 40,094, conventional thermoelectric 9,306, and coal-fired 6,265.

Hydroelectric power plants contributed 5,137 Gwh; wind fields 4,285; nuclear power plants 2,382; and solar stations 1,037.

The Energy Transition Law of 2015 stipulates that clean energy must meet 30 percent of demand by 2021 and 35 percent by 2024. By including hydropower and nuclear energy, the country will have no problem reaching these goals.

Residents of the small rural community of Amatlán, in the municipality of Zoquiapan in the state of Puebla, oversee the operation of photovoltaic panels installed by the Mexican cooperative Onergia. This type of cooperative can help rural communities in Mexico access clean energy, particularly solar power. CREDIT: Courtesy of Onergia

Residents of the small rural community of Amatlán, in the municipality of Zoquiapan in the state of Puebla, oversee the operation of photovoltaic panels installed by the Mexican cooperative Onergia. This type of cooperative can help rural communities in Mexico access clean energy, particularly solar power. CREDIT: Courtesy of Onergia

By early August, the government’s Energy Regulatory Commission (CRE) had granted 310 permits for solar generation, small-scale production and self-supply, totaling almost 22,000 Mw.

The 2017 report Renewable Energy Auctions and Participatory Citizen Projects, produced by the international non-governmental Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21), cites, with respect to Mexico, the obligation for investors to form self-sufficient companies, which complicates attempts to develop local ventures.

Onergia’s Castillo stressed the need for a clear and stable regulatory framework.

“A public policy is needed that would allow us to move towards the transition,” he said. “Getting people to adopt alternatives depends on public policy. It is fundamental for people to have the freedom to choose how to consume. It is our job to organise as consumers.”

Affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Onergia is reviewing the way it works and its financial needs to generate its own power supply. It also works with the Renewable Energies Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in the design and installation of solar power systems.

In March, the government’s National Council for Science and Technology launched a strategic national programme on energy transition that will promote sustainable rural energy projects and community solar energy, to be implemented starting in 2021.

In addition, the energy ministry is set to announce the Special Energy Transition Programme 2019-2024.

But to protect the CFE, the CRE is blocking approval of the development of collective distributed generation schemes, which would allow citizens to sell surplus energy to other consumers, and the installation of storage systems in solar parks.

Tornel criticised the lack of real promotion of renewable sources.

“The Mexican government has been inconsistent in its handling of this issue,” he maintained. “They talk about guaranteeing energy security through hydrocarbons. There is no plan for an energy transition based on renewables or on supporting community projects. We have no indication that they support renewable, and that’s very worrying.”

The REN21 report recommends reserving a quota for participatory citizen projects and facilitating access to energy purchase agreements, which ensures the efficiency of tenders and the effectiveness of guaranteed tariffs for these undertakings.

In addition, it proposes the establishment of an authority for citizen projects, capacity building, promotion of community energy and specific national energy targets for these initiatives.

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Young People Bring Solar Energy to Schools in the Argentine Capital

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Energy

Sebastián Ieraci (L), a member of the group of students who in 2014 pushed for the switch to solar energy at the Antonio Devoto High School, stands next to the school's principal Marcelo Mazzeo on the rooftop of the educational institution located in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Villa Devoto. Credit: Daniel Gutman/IPS

Sebastián Ieraci (L), a member of the group of students who in 2014 pushed for the switch to solar energy at the Antonio Devoto High School, stands next to the school’s principal Marcelo Mazzeo on the rooftop of the educational institution located in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Villa Devoto. Credit: Daniel Gutman/IPS

BUENOS AIRES , Mar 19 2020 (IPS) – “The idea came to a group of schoolmates and me in 2014, but we never thought it could become a reality,” says Sebastián Ieraci, 23, as he points to a multitude of photovoltaic solar panels shining on the roof of the Antonio Devoto High School in the Argentine capital.


The secondary school is one of the first public centres in Buenos Aires that has managed, since last November, to cover 100 percent of its electricity needs from renewable energy generated in the building itself.

Although today only seven of the city’s public schools have solar panels, the authorities have identified another 140 school buildings with the conditions to generate solar energy, and the plan is to gradually equip all of them with solar panels.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this case is that it was the students’ own enthusiasm for clean energy and community involvement that allowed the school to be chosen for an experiment that is new to Buenos Aires.

“Now they come to see us from schools in different parts of the country, to see what we have done and to try to replicate it.” — Marcelo Mazzeo

Ieraci, who arrives in a hurry at his former school after his workday at a paint factory, was in his last year of high school in 2014, when law teachers suggested to him and his classmates that they come up with a project for the programme The Legislature and Schools.

The programme, carried out for over 20 years, invites final-year high school students to submit proposals to the Buenos Aires city legislature, in the areas of environment, public spaces, traffic and transport and security.

Once they do so, the students sit on the city legislature for an afternoon to discuss their proposals with students from other schools.

“We came up with the idea of installing solar panels because we knew that the school’s rooftop was not being used for anything and that doing so could be doubly beneficial, both environmentally and economically, since the school could generate its own energy,” says Ieraci during IPS’s visit to his former school.

Aerial view of the rooftops of the primary and secondary schools located across from the main square in Villa Devoto, a residential neighborhood in the Argentine capital. The adjacent schools now have 200 solar panels with an installed capacity of 70 kilowatts, and the surplus is injected into the Buenos Aires electricity grid. Credit: Courtesy of Buenos Aires city government

Aerial view of the rooftops of the primary and secondary schools located across from the main square in Villa Devoto, a residential neighborhood in the Argentine capital. The adjacent schools now have 200 solar panels with an installed capacity of 70 kilowatts, and the surplus is injected into the Buenos Aires electricity grid. Credit: Courtesy of Buenos Aires city government

“Then we started looking for information, and after a month we presented the project. Back then it was a utopia and today seeing these panels makes me very proud, because this is a school that generates a sense of belonging,” he explains.

The school is located in a large two-storey building that preserves the style of the old manor house that Italian immigrant Antonio Devoto had built there at the beginning of the 20th century. Devoto is considered the founder of the middle-class residential neighbourhood that today bears his name.

The school is located across from the main square of Devoto, in an area with many old trees and few tall buildings, full of bars and restaurants, and bursting with vitality far from the centre of Buenos Aires.

The Devoto teenagers’ solar panel project was the winner among more than 70 initiatives that students presented in 2014 to the local legislature, and in 2016 the Buenos Aires city government launched it. The first step was to start feasibility studies in more than 600 school buildings.

But it was in 2017 that the school received the definitive push to move towards solar energy, when it once again presented the project in a competition, this time in BA Elige (Buenos Aires Chooses), a citizen participation programme in which the more than three million inhabitants of Buenos Aires proper vote on the projects they want to see carried out.

On that occasion, the residents of Devoto expressed their opinions online, supporting the installation of solar panels in the neighbourhood schools and thus enabling the authorities to allocate budget funds.

The installation of the solar panels began in August 2019 and took three months. Since November, 87 two-by-one meter solar panels have been in operation on the rooftop of the Antonio Devoto High School.

The primary school next door was soon incorporated into the programme, and since January 113 solar panels have been operating, bringing the total to 200 panels on the adjacent rooftops of the two schools that serve a combined total of 500 students.

Solar panels nearly cover the entire rooftop of the Antonio Devoto High School in Buenos Aires. Until last year the rooftop area was not put to any use. The idea of using that space to generate renewable energy came from students in their final year in 2014, who presented a project to the Buenos Aires city legislature. Credit: Daniel Gutman/IPS

Solar panels nearly cover the entire rooftop of the Antonio Devoto High School in Buenos Aires. Until last year the rooftop area was not put to any use. The idea of using that space to generate renewable energy came from students in their final year in 2014, who presented a project to the Buenos Aires city legislature. Credit: Daniel Gutman/IPS

“In secondary schools, the panels have 30 kilowatts (kW) of installed capacity, and in primary schools, 40. But the most interesting thing is that the primary school injects its surplus energy into the city’s electricity grid, generating credit with the power company,” engineer Andrés Valdivia, head of climate action in the city government’s Ministry of Education, told IPS.

The Ministry reports that the 140 school rooftops declared suitable for the installation of solar panels – because there are few high buildings surrounding them and they receive good solar radiation – have a combined surface area of 145,000 square meters and could have a total installed capacity of 13 megawatts (MW).

Renewable energies – basically, solar and wind – have experienced major growth in Argentina since a fund was created by law in September 2015 to finance the construction of facilities and to guarantee the purchase of the energy generated.

By late 2019, nearly eight percent of the electricity produced in the country came from renewable sources, up from just 2.2 percent in early 2016, according to official statistics.

However, that growth will not continue because the recession and the devaluation of the local currency in Argentina mean that almost no new projects will be launched, say industry analysts.

View of the front of the Antonio Devoto High School, which was built in an old manor house belonging to the Italian immigrant recognised as the founder of the Villa Devoto neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. Credit: Courtesy of Marcelo Mazzeo

View of the front of the Antonio Devoto High School, which was built in an old manor house belonging to the Italian immigrant recognised as the founder of the Villa Devoto neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. Credit: Courtesy of Marcelo Mazzeo

“Ours is not a technical school; we have an orientation in economics and administration. But the kids’ interest in the energy transition surprised us and led us to gather a lot of information together about the subject,” said Marcelo Mazzeo, the principal of the Antonio Devoto High School.

“Now they come to see us from schools in different parts of the country, to see what we have done and to try to replicate it,” he told IPS.

Félix Aban, one of the law teachers who worked with the students on the project and is now the school’s vice-principal, said that “one of the most interesting things was that in 2014 the kids suggested that the surplus energy generated by their schools could be injected into the power grid, when that possibility was not even being discussed in Argentina.”

In fact, the law on distributed (or decentralised) energy was not approved by Congress until 2017, under the official name “Regime to foment distributed renewable energy generation integrated into the public electricity grid”.

“They investigated and found that in other countries individual generators fed power into the grid. So we can say that the kids at this school were really ahead of the game,” said Aban.

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The Amazon Seeks Alternatives that Could Revolutionise Energy Production

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Milton Callera (holding the microphone) and Nantu Canelos, members of the indigenous Achuar community, explain how the two solar boats built to transport their people on the Amazon rivers of Ecuador work. The project is from the Kara Solar Foundation, which is promoting an alliance to "solarise" river transport in the Amazon rainforest. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Milton Callera (holding the microphone) and Nantu Canelos, members of the indigenous Achuar community, explain how the two solar boats built to transport their people on the Amazon rivers of Ecuador work. The project is from the Kara Solar Foundation, which is promoting an alliance to “solarise” river transport in the Amazon rainforest. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

MANAUS, Brazil, Apr 5 2019 (IPS) – A large steel wheel, 14 meters in diameter and 1.3 meters wide, could be the energy solution of the near future, generating 3.5 megawatts – enough to supply a city of 30,000 people, according to a company in the capital city of the state of Amazonas in northwest Brazil.


An internal fluid, which expands through a chemical reaction in contact with an ink, drives the rotation that produces electricity without interruption for at least five years, say executives at Eletro Roda, a company in the city of Manaus that is marketing the invention and is building its first demonstration unit.

“Installation of the unit costs less than half that of an equivalent solar power plant and occupies an area of just 200 square meters, compared to 50,000 square meters for solar and 5,000 square meters for wind power,” Fernando Lindoso, the director of the company in which he is a partner, told IPS.

In other words, in the space occupied by a wind power plant that generates 3.5 megawatts (MW), 25 electro-wheels could be installed, multiplying the generating capacity by a factor of 25.

In addition, it has the advantage of stable generation, “free of the intermittency of other sources,” said Lindoso, who estimated the cost of each 3.5 MW unit at around five million dollars, a price that is reduced for social projects.

There are interested parties in Japan, India and other countries in Asia, as well as in European and Middle Eastern countries, based on earlier prototypes that never made it to market, he said.

There will be a smaller version, generating one MW, “30 percent cheaper”, of identical dimensions, but with three tons of the fluid that is biodegradable, instead of the four used in the other model.

This was one of the alternatives presented at the Fair and Symposium on Energy Solutions for Communities in the Amazon, which brought together more than 500 participants and 39 companies and institutions in Manaus Mar. 25-28.

“My favorite is the solar boat, a good example of how to find solutions,” said Sam Passmore, director of the Environmental Programme at the U.S.-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, one of the meeting’s eight international sponsors.

A large metal wheel that can be taken apart in order to facilitate transport produces electricity by rotating driven by an internal fluid, which is expanded by a chemical reaction. Producing 3.5 megawatts, the generator to be sold by Eletro Roda could produce a steady supply of electricity on just 200 square meters of space. Credit: Courtesy of Eletro Roda

A large metal wheel that can be taken apart in order to facilitate transport produces electricity by rotating driven by an internal fluid, which is expanded by a chemical reaction. Producing 3.5 megawatts, the generator to be sold by Eletro Roda could produce a steady supply of electricity on just 200 square meters of space. Credit: Courtesy of Eletro Roda

An alliance for solar-powered transportation in the Amazon is propose by the Kara Solar Foundation, of the indigenous Achuar people of Ecuador, who since 2017 have built two 18-passenger boats powered by electricity from a rooftop made of photovoltaic panels.

Kara means dream in the Achuar language and it is about maintaining the sustainable culture of river transport, as opposed to “the roads that threaten our territory, presented as if they represented development,” project coordinator Nantu Canelos told IPS during the fair.

“We want to build 300, 400 solar boats,” said Milton Callera, technical director of the Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin (Coica).

Riverside dwellers and indigenous people in Brazil are also seeking to “solarise” their boats, especially the small ones, dedicated to fishing and the transportation of a few people. The problem is where to put the solar panels on the so-called “flying boats”, without slowing them down.

The discussions at the symposium, however, focused on the need to universalise energy. “There are still 500,000 people, or 100,000 families, without access to electricity in Brazil’s Amazon region,” according to Paulo Cerqueira, coordinator of Social Policies at the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

Attorney Joenia Wapichana, the first indigenous woman to hold a seat in Brazil's Chamber of Deputies, speaks at the opening of the Symposium on Energy Solutions for Communities in the Amazon, in the city of Manaus. She is from Roraima, the state with a high indigenous population in northwest Brazil that is suffering a serious energy crisis due to the interruption of supplies from neighboring Venezuela. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Attorney Joenia Wapichana, the first indigenous woman to hold a seat in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, speaks at the opening of the Symposium on Energy Solutions for Communities in the Amazon, in the city of Manaus. She is from Roraima, the state with a high indigenous population in northwest Brazil that is suffering a serious energy crisis due to the interruption of supplies from neighboring Venezuela. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The Light for All Programme, launched in 2003, benefited more than 16 million people, according to the ministry, in this country of 208 million people. But so far, isolated and remote communities, not reached by the power grid, have been excluded.

There are also millions of families who do have electricity, but are outside the National Integrated System, including the entire state of Roraima, in the northeast, with 580,000 inhabitants, on the border with Venezuela, from where it received most of its electricity until the supply crisis that erupted in March in the neighboring country.

Isolated communities in the state receive electricity mainly from diesel- or other petroleum-fueled generators.

The slogan for such cases is to replace costly, slow and unreliable transportation fueled by fossil fuels on the Amazon rainforest rivers, and to prioritise clean sources of energy. Solar power is presented as the most feasible solution, since the Amazon rainforest is not windy.

The exception is Roraima, where the state´s numerous indigenous people are studying the adoption of wind farms to help defend themselves from the impacts of the Venezuelan crisis.

Autonomous solar generation projects are mushrooming in the Amazon, in indigenous villages and riverbank settlements, sometimes funded by non-governmental institutions and international assistance, such as the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the Rainforest Foundation of Norway.

Willi Seilert, from the I9SOL Institute, explains how his solar panels are manufactured, during the Fair and Symposium on Energy Solutions for Amazonia, held in Manaus. He has a project to disseminate a thousand small solar panel factories in Brazil, in order to make photovoltaic generation cheaper in poor communities. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Willi Seilert, from the I9SOL Institute, explains how his solar panels are manufactured, during the Fair and Symposium on Energy Solutions for Amazonia, held in Manaus. He has a project to disseminate a thousand small solar panel factories in Brazil, in order to make photovoltaic generation cheaper in poor communities. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

As a result, companies such as Fabortec Solar, which installs photovoltaic systems and sells equipment, focused on designing and offering off-grid projects, incorporating batteries and equipment that ensure operation and maintenance by the users themselves.

“The Amazon is a great market for those who don’t mind long trips and can work in places that are difficult to access,” a company technician told IPS.

The expansion of solar energy in many parts of Brazil, not only in the Amazon, prompted Willi Seilert to design a plan to promote 1,000 solar panel micro-factories throughout the country.

This could make the product cheaper and facilitate access by poor families and communities to solar energy, in addition to training, employing and generating income for nearly 20,000 people in the country, he estimated.

That’s why he founded the I9SOL Institute, where the “9” stands for innovation.

A 50-square-meter office, at least 10 people trained by two instructors, a glass-top table, an oven and a few tools are enough to produce small solar panels, he told IPS.

“The main obstacle is the import of photovoltaic cells, which Brazil does not produce and which has to pay too high a tariff, because of a strange legal measure adopted in 2012,” he lamented.

In addition to this, there are two industrial processes for processing silicon, and “the rest is packaging work that trained people can do without difficulty,” he said, before pointing out that this continues to be the case in China and India, which provides employment for millions of workers, especially women.

The project is to be launched in Teófilo Otoni, a city of 140,000 people in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, whose mayor plans to employ prisoners nearing release in the solar industry, Seilert said.

There are more energy alternatives in the Amazonian region. Experiments with the use of oil from the babassu (Attalea speciosa) palm tree abundant in the Amazon and neighboring areas, and from andiroba (Carapa guianensis), a tree with oilseeds, for electricity generation were presented at the symposium.

Railton de Lima, the inventor of the Eletro Roda, which he called a “voluntary engine for mechanical energy generation,” also developed a system for converting urban waste into charcoal briquettes to generate electricity, making it easier to recycle metals.

This technology is already used in several Brazilian cities, including Manaus. Of Lima’s 28 inventions, more than half are already being used in the market, and others are being developed for energy purposes.

Creativity, which helps to seek more suitable alternatives, is also found in poor communities.

“The idea of the right to energy is powerful” and stimulates solutions, said Passmore of the Mott Foundation. In the same sense, the diversity of peoples and communities represented at the Manaus meeting was “a very positive factor,” he concluded.