SERRA DO TALHADO, Brazil — Drought had turned the soil hard as brick and stolen all the water from the well.
Thirteen months, no rain.
In the past, women would be trudging down the mountain every other dawn to a river 18 miles away, returning with the moon on their sweaty faces, their buckets heavy, their chants to the rain god lost in the cliffs.
This year, no one has to fetch water or pray to spirits. The men are swinging hoes, the women spreading seed in furrows of moist black soil as rich as chocolate cake.
The reason: a wind turbine spinning atop a 90-foot tower next to the fields of corn and rice. The turbine generates electricity to power a pump drawing water from 300 feet underground up into a 780-gallon tank.
Chico Manoel Balbino, 73, the patriarch of Serra do Talhado, a colony founded by runaway slaves, marvels at the "wind machine." Throughout his life, the community has lived without electricity or running water. Always, he says, at the mercy of the fickle rain.
"When the rain stops, the wind wakes up, making the bird on the tower spin," Balbino says. "The bird spins every day. And we never go without water anymore."
Serra do Talhado is part of a giant leap forward for the developing world, where 70% of the population--2.4 billion people--lives without electricity.
For decades, sources of non-environmentally damaging, renewable energy like the sun, burnable organic material, wind and the Earth's inner heat got little attention from poor countries dependent on coal, oil and natural gas to fuel their growth.
Now the Third World is taking a closer look at "renewables." It's a development fostered by technological improvements that lower prices and driven by need as population growth rockets and pollution worsens. There's also money to be made by companies discovering new markets.
Brazil, a country of 155 million people, is an example. Twenty million Brazilians go without electricity or running water, and millions more rely on old generators that guzzle federally subsidized diesel delivered by plane.
It's even more dire in Brazil's northeast, where only 4% of rural properties have electricity and a severe energy shortage is projected by 2000.
"We have no oil, coal or gas deposits, and our hydro[electric]-capacity is tapped," said Everaldo Feitosa, director of Brazil's Renewable Energy Research Center in Recife, the coastal capital of Pernambuco state. "What else can we do, short of building a nuclear reactor we can't afford? For us, renewables are the only way out."
In 1992, the government began the Renewable Energy Rural Electrification Project. With help from the United States and the World Bank, wind turbines and solar panels went up in 800 villages and towns across the arid northeastern states of Ceara and Pernambuco.
It was so successful that it's been extended to five other Brazilian states, including 310 villages in the Amazon jungle.
Feitosa said the Brazilian experience can be replicated in any area without access to conventional power, regardless of climate or location. Mixing several types of renewables is the key.
It sounds easy. But it means contending with politics, profits and traditional energy interests that would rather make money the way they always have--without risk or new investment.
Many of the Third World's rural poor have been left in the dark ages by state-run utilities unable or unwilling to divert resources from voter-packed cities. And ever since Bell Telephone Laboratories developed photovoltaic cells in 1954, allowing the generation of electricity from solar energy, business groups around the world have waged war against technologies that they see as a threat to profits.
At U.N. climate conferences, oil giants such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Nigeria fight to suppress declarations calling for restrictions on fossil fuel emissions. Their fear: They will drive up the cost of using conventional fuels and make renewables more attractive.
But technology and need may be on the side of renewables. Projects in operation range from solar desalination of sea water in Cyprus and Jordan to geothermal plants in Iceland, wind farms in China and India, and solar cookers and refrigerators in Namibia and South Africa.
Renewables account for 18% of the world's commercial energy production, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization says.
That could reach 30% by 2050 if governments and investors finance projects in 61 countries, as called for at a U.N. conference on solar energy last September in Harare, Zimbabwe, UNESCO says.
Behind the urgency lies a tangle of problems.
Unprecedented population growth in the Third World is causing severe energy shortages, depleting resources and intensifying air and water pollution like never before.
Economic expansion is leading developing countries to follow the First World's lead in burning more oil and coal, pumping out yet more of the "greenhouse" gases that many scientists believe will cause global warming.