Rebecca Leaf, Engineer Heroine from MIT

I recently came across a striking set of stories about leftist women who attended MIT.  The school has had female graduates longer than any other major US university (their first was in 1873), and they’ve done remarkable things.  It turns out that Vilma Espin, the wife of Cuban President Raúl Castro, did graduate work there in 1955 in chemical engineering.  She then returned to Cuba to join the opposition to Batista,  met Raúl in Mexico, married him in 1959, ran the Federation of Cuban Women after the revolution, and died in 2007.

Then there was Lori Berenson, who attended MIT as a freshman in 1987, then went off to El Salvador to assist rebels there, and then to Peru to aid the Tupac Amaru, a violent communist group.  She was arrested (perhaps falsely) for planning to attack the Peruvian Congress, and just finished a 20-year jail term there and returned to New York.   She was actually in the same MIT living group that I was at, but it was years after I was there, and I don’t think I’ve met her.

Well, those aren’t terribly positive stories – the wife of a dictator and someone convicted of terrorism.   Yet I’m happy to relay a much more upbeat story, that of Rebecca Leaf, MIT ’82, and the founder of a non-profit that has brought hydroelectric power and clean water to tens of thousands of people in Nicaragua.

Rebecca Leaf, 1996

Rebecca Leaf, 1996

She grew up in Winchester, MA, an upscale suburb of Boston.  She came to MIT late, after having worked for some years as a potter. After getting a degree in mechanical engineering, she worked in the early 80s on developing new ceramics for heat exchangers.  This was at just the time when the Reagan administration was setting up the Contras, a group of mercenary terrorists, to fight the left-wing Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.  She visited there in 1984 under the auspices of TecNica, an international aid organization that sent American technicals to Nicaragua and South Africa to train locals and assist with industrial projects.   She fell in love with the country, and moved there.  By 1985 she was working at INE, the National Energy Institute, which oversaw electrification projects throughout that country.

That’s where she met a remarkable figure, Benjamin Linder.   He was a fellow American, and fellow mech E from the University of Washington, graduating in 1983.  He was a lot younger than her.   They shared a house but were not romantically involved.  Linder was a person of light spirit, inspired by the Sandinistas’ goals of aiding the desperately poor, but still fond of juggling, unicycling, and circus clowning.   Children followed him everywhere.

He found a hydroelectric project  that needed finishing in the northern part of the country near the village of El Cua.  It had been started in the late 70s with Swedish backing, but abandoned in the early 80s with the onset of war.  He moved up to El Cua and got it working by November ’85.  It was a small plant, only 100 kW, but it was the only steady power the town had ever seen.

He and Leaf saw an opportunity to build a larger, sturdier plant nearby at the town of San Jose de Bocay.  They worked up plans for it.  On April 28th, 1987, he and a local crew went up to inspect a weir that was being used to measure the water flow.  They were ambushed by Contras.  Linder and two of his companions were shot, then finished with bullets to the head.  His wallet, watch, and camera were stolen.

Leaf was back in Managua.  She was the first there to hear of his death, and it fell upon her to tell his parents in Oregon.  She couldn’t reach them, and had to leave the message with her own mother.

You don’t get to just kill Americans, no matter how dangerous a situation they may be in.  Even Israel discovered this when they ran over Rachel Corrie with a bulldozer in Gaza.  Linder’s family raised a huge stink, saying that CIA-financed thugs had murdered their son.   That led to Congressional hearings, wherein Connie Mack, a Republican congressman from Florida, told Elisabeth Linder to her face that her son had it coming.  It was an astonishing thing to say to a mother.  He was later elected US Senator for two terms, demonstrating once again why Florida is a state to be avoided.

But the Contra war was not popular in any case, and Congress refused to renew their funding the next year.  That led to the embarrassment of the Iran-Contra affair, where a rogue CIA unit tried to set up an black ops slush fund to kill people Reagan didn’t like.  When George H. W. Bush was elected 18 months after Linder’s death, he cut the Contras off.   The issue then became moot when the Sandinistas were defeated in a national election in 1990, and the Contras officially laid down arms.

Yet Leaf stayed on, even when all the ideological fervor had died down.  She was living in El Cua in dire poverty.   She could have had a decent life back in Massachusetts, but somehow designing industrial heat exchangers wasn’t as satisfying as bringing light to the poor.  She kept working on the Bocay hydro project.   She set up ATDER-BL, the Association of Rural Development Workers – Benjamin Linder:

Main office and mechanical shop. Click for link

ATDER-BL main office and mechanical shop. Click for link

It’s a humble operation, but successful.  The initial money came from Linder’s family, but she has raised it from all across the US.  They have a machine shop that can actually manufacture the water turbine parts, and can put up their own power lines, all with local skilled labor.  That even includes ex-Contras!  It took her seven years to finish the plant, because the war frightened most people away, and then the peace made the outside world lose interest.   But by 1994 she finally got the 185 kW Bocay project done:

Bocay Hydropower dam, 1994

Constructing the Bocay dam

They threw the switch on the 7th anniversary of his death.  There was a big ceremony attended by Linder’s family and all of his friends and colleagues.  Then in 1997 she received the Barus Award from the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology.

Since then she has gotten 30 other hydro projects built, ranging from a 2 kW dam for a coffee grower to a 930 kW project at El Bote that powers a good chunk of the province.  She has also gotten involved in watershed conservation.  So much of the jungle was being cut down for agriculture that the dams were all silting up because of erosion.  That led to clean water supply projects, something even more important for health than electricity.  In the last couple of years ATDER-BL has also been putting up photovoltaic panels for extra power, which now serve 1700 people.

Leaf in Bocay in 2015

Leaf in Bocay in 2015

Through all of this she has been remarkably self-effacing.  The two pictures of her in this post are the only ones I could find of her in all the Internet.   This may be her personal style, but it’s also clear that she believes that this kind of aid work only succeeds when the locals themselves take it to heart.  They built all this themselves, and they’ll be the ones to maintain it.   It can’t be a gift bestowed by white overlords.

Now, Nicaragua is in the middle of a renewable energy boom right now.  The country has lots of hydro and wind resources, and plenty of geothermal power from its active volcanoes.  Over half their power currently comes from renewables, and they hope to hit 90% by 2020.  International firms are dropping in to build huge projects that dwarf what Leaf has accomplished over the last 30 years.   Those aren’t supported by the people, though, and will fail when the next recession means they can’t pay foreign technicians.  That’s what has happened all over the developing world.

So here’s hoping that Leaf’s life-long efforts to get Nicaraguans to bootstrap themselves out of poverty actually stick.   She has done extraordinary good with no resources and in the face of murderous violence.   In Kendall Square MIT maintains an Entrepreneur Walk of Fame.   She’s exactly the sort of person they should be celebrating.

More:

Donations to ATDER-BL are managed by an umbrella organization, Green Empowerment, here under the auspices of the Ben Linder Memorial Fund.

IEEE Spectrum did a typically thorough overview of her work in the April 2015 issue here: How Nicaraguan Villagers Built Their Own Electric Grid by Lucas Laursen.

The New Yorker had an important piece on Leaf and Linder in their Sep 23, 1996 issue: In Search of Ben Linder’s Killers by Paul Berman.  He gets big points for tracking down ex-Contras in the dangerous and bandit-filled northern mountains of Nicaragua, but can hardly hide his distaste for Linder himself.  At one point he actually calls him a goody two-shoes.  Rather incredibly, he ends the piece by claiming that Linder resembles the Contra who may have killed him.   The Contra, Santiago Giron Meza, had later settled down and found Jesus.   How a reformed guerilla resembles a unicycling altruist engineer is mysterious.

Linder’s story is told at length in The Death of Ben Linder by Joan Kruckewitt.  She came to Nicaragua early, and gives a far fuller and more balanced view of him than Berman.

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4 Responses to Rebecca Leaf, Engineer Heroine from MIT

  1. JJ Brannon says:

    JL —

    Wait! Your former living residence had a red door and overlooked a park?

    So did mine!

    JJB

    • jlredford says:

      Yes, it was Fenway House, an anarchist co-op that has somehow survived for almost fifty years without burning itself down. It was probably the best fit for Lori Berenson of all the living groups at MIT, but even so she didn’t stay long.

  2. JJ Brannon says:

    I lived there 79-80.

    JJB,
    Anti-Statist to this day

  3. Jess Grant says:

    I’m researching Ben Linder for a screenplay. Thank you for the informative article. Leaf is certainly a hero by anyone’s standard.

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