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  Number 363 | Octubre 2011
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Mexico

Concerns about the wind corridor

Wind power generation is presented as a clean and beneficial alternative for society. But many questions persist about both the social and the environmental implications of this energy source. These questions haven’t been answered. othese questions haven’t been answered.on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca. A debate is needed on the degree to which wind power really deals with climate change.

Emiliano Castillo Jara

The use of renewable energy sources, including wind power, is being advocated to respond to the problem of climate change. German, Japanese, Spanish and US transnational corporations, international financial agencies and nongovernmental organizations that developed these technologies are promoting it, whereas Mexico has neither the economic nor the political capacity to do so. Developing renewable energy has become a race in which a handful of rich countries and their transnational corporations are looking to obtain profits by promoting the use of clean energy. Their intention is more about reinforcing dominant positions than protecting the environment. This is the case with wind power in Mexico, particularly in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the state of Oaxaca.

Social justice and rights

Despite its seemingly local nature, the construction of wind farms on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec carries international implications relating to one of the greatest challenges currently facing human beings: global climate change, caused largely by the use of fossil fuels. Wind power is considered a less contaminating way to produce the electricity crucial for lighting, producing goods and services, transporting people and merchandise and making electronic devices work, among other activities of everyday life.

But when analyzing wind power, we must consider issues of social justice and respect for the collective rights of indigenous and peasant communities living in the vicinity of these wind farms. On the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the definition of a new, less damaging way of living with Nature is at stake.

“They threaten our lives”

At the end of July, the Isthmian Peoples’ Assembly for the Defense of Land and Territory demanded the cancellation of inquiries, arrest orders and criminal lawsuits initiated by Spanish companies against those defending their ethnic rights and rejecting wind power development on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

The Assembly denounced the following companies: Preneal, Enel, Unión Fenosa, Iberdrola, Acciona, Demex, Renovalia, Gamesa, Eyra, Peñoles, Edf, Eoliatec and Femsa-Mcquaire, which “are dividing our peoples, threatening our lives and stealing our land.” The Mexican government was depicted as an accomplice and driving force behind the project, acting through such governmental bodies as the Agrarian Ombudsperson’s Office, the Agrarian Reform Secretariat, the National Agrarian Registry, the Public Registry of Property and the judicial branch. The Isthmian peoples and communities said they were ready to defend their lands from “dirty businesses working in the name of so-called clean energy.”

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec has a huge potential for commercial wind power generation. The region is considered one of the best in the world. Transnational companies, especially Spanish ones such as Iberdrola and Acciona, which are in charge of the Wind Corridor mega-project, are developing wind farms on indigenous and peasant lands.

The World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) are funding the project. Work started in 1994, but after 2005 it grew substantially due to increased foreign investment. The farms are already producing electricity, for the most part supplied to firms located in Meso-America, with very little reaching the population living on the isthmus itself.

The wind mega-project is being built to benefit the interests of developed countries and their transnational orporations: profits get transferred abroad while Mexico’s foreign debt is increasing due to loans proffered by international financial institutions. Mexico also has to pay for the patents on the main technological components used to build the wind farms, which belong to the developed countries.

Oil is disappearing...

The Wind Corridor promotes private sector investment in the generation and sale of electricity to the Federal Electricity Commission, the state’s electricity utility, which subsequently distributes it around the country. This gives private sector capital a big say in deciding why this energy is produced and for what. Today private companies such as Iberdrola generate a significant percentage of the electricity used in Mexico.

Plans exist to supply the electricity produced by the wind farms to Meso-American telecommunications, electricity and transport infrastructure. These plans, also financed by the World Bank and IDB, seek to unify energy markets in the region, increasing private investment in electricity generation.

We are facing a violation of Mexican national sovereignty because electricity generation is a strategic activity that the State must carry out to guarantee an electricity supply to the population. It’s also a long-term strategy, considering that Mexico currently depends on its national oil reserves both for energy production and for a large chunk of its public revenue, and those reserves won’t last much longer.

Results of the agrarian reform

The social and environmental impact of the wind farms can only be understood within the context of the 1992 agrarian reform, which allowed for the privatizing of the property rights of communal lands, in many cases belonging to indigenous or peasant communities. This privatization of land rights created large properties in the hands of individuals, commercial corporations and joint communal and private holdings.

This agrarian reform distanced the State itself from the regulation of land sales and rent. Since the reform, indigenous ejidal or communal property owners have been able to benefit from their land by granting its use rights to other individuals or businesses without having to get permission from any governmental authority. This frees the way for private enterprise to develop its different projects without either participation or interference by the State.

This change in land ownership also increased the poverty rate in the Mexican countryside, migration to the US and state backing for big agricultural businesses at the expense of the needs of small and medium farmers. In particular, traditional subsistence crops such as maize and beans have been neglected. The reform has further marginalized indigenous and peasant groups that now find it impossible to exert autonomy over their lands and natural resources.

Leased land and land theft

Transnational companies developing the wind mega-project need to change the ownership of these lands, ensuring that they pass from collective to private ownership with leasehold contracts. Signed contracts grant companies rights to the land for 30 years with the option to renew for a further 30 years and set minimum payments to the communities renting out their land, which in no case can compensate completely for damage caused by the wind farms. Some peasants receive as little as US$7-11 per hectare a year in rent.

Land theft has been the main reason that organizations such as La Venta Solidarity Group, the Juchitán Assembly for the Defense of Land and Territory, the Ranchu Gubiña Council of Elders, the Tepeyac Human Rights Center, the Union of Indigenous Communities from the Isthmian Northern Region and many others have come together to oppose the Wind Corridor.

Several of these groups existed before the construction of the Wind Corridor and were able to rely on their previously consolidated strength and links with regional, national and international grassroots movements. This helped give greater force and organization to the resistance to the mega-project, despite the cultural diversity of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the fragmentation of some groups.

A new way of plundering

The theft of indigenous and peasant lands to build mega-projects isn’t exclusive to Mexico. Grassroots movements and organizations in other Latin American countries also reject these projects because they see them as new ways to plunder natural resources, pollute the environment and continue imperialistic colonization.

Although each case is different, most of these mega-projects share two features: decisions taken beforehand and the failure to inform much less consult the community, which is usually indigenous or peasant, about their ways of organizing or their traditional knowledge of the local environment.

The coalition of opposition Mexican organizations has criticized the land-lease negotiations with public authorities and businesses. They say they take place without transparent and truthful information about the implications of the contracts. Some of the landowners have only a vague notion of what rights they will have once they’ve leased the land to the companies. They also have no idea what will happen to the wind farms once the contract ends.

Protests, accusations

Groups opposing the project have protested the harassment and threats by company representatives to get landowners to sign contracts. They have also charged that assemblies are held in indigenous ejidos using the signatures of people who have died or who don’t belong to the ejido, a community land-sharing system Public meetings held to inform people about wind power projects don’t achieve the objective of listening to community interests, which strains the relations among the communities, the companies and the Mexican government.

Not all ejido members oppose wind power; some just want fair payment for renting out their land to augment what they earn from their agricultural activities. This has caused conflict within communities between supporters and opponents of the wind mega-project.

What are their demands?

One of the main demands of opposition groups is annulment of leasing contracts, which would mean canceling the mega-project. They also demand access to truthful information about the impact on community land and the characteristics of contract negotiations. They know that the consultation of peoples, as laid out in articles 6 and 7 of the International Labor Organization Agreement 169 on Indigenous Peoples is fundamental to deciding on the execution of a mega-project such as this. These articles demand that peoples be consulted, as per their representative institutions, respecting their right to decide their own priorities.

The Mexican government authorities and transnational companies have ignored community demands, minimized the magnitude of negative impacts and tried to co-opt, intimidate and repress grassroots mobilization and protest marches. Their pretext is the need to attract foreign investment and construct a positive image of wind power in public opinion as a clean and efficient alternative.

Growing unease

There have been many demonstrations rejecting the Wind Corridor. The region’s peasants have been publicly complaining about irregularities in negotiations for signing leasing agreements since 1994, as the government was offering them the equivalent of US$32 per hectare, even after saying it had secured agreements that would pay the peasants a yearly rent equivalent to US$2,575.

They also protested about the impact on fauna and flora, particularly the loss of some medicinal plants that had traditionally been useful to the local people. They complained too about the government’s failure to keep its promise to pave streets and cover the cost of electricity for the drinking water system in return for use of ejido land where the wind farms were installed.

The tension between the communities and the companies and Mexican government remained latent between 1994 and 2005, when the mega-project began its territorial growth and land theft increased. By the next year, the grassroots resistance began to get much stronger, with demands being expressed through marches, mobilizations, forums and meetings.

Milestones of a struggle

Various actions have marked the communities’ resistance. They filed a public complaint with Mexico’s Federal Environmental Protection Agency on June 12, 2006, regarding ecological damage caused by the Venta I wind farm. On August 19, 2008, after having received no reply for seven months, community members from the municipalities of Juchitán de Zaragoza, Unión Hidalgo and Xadani demanded a court ruling on 120 suits demanding a cancellation of leasing contracts they’d signed with transnational companies.

On September 29, 2008, the General Assembly of La Venta Ejido, together with 150 workers decided to block construction work on the wind farm being built by the Spanish firm Acciona. Their aim was to get Acciona to admit liability and pay compensation for damage to land that lay outside the works’ construction site.

On January 22, 2009, there was a demonstration against the inauguration of the Acciona wind farm. And on August 12, 2009, peasants from the area of La Ventosa called on Iberdrola to respond to their demands for payment of 1.5% of the profits obtained from electricity generation and the equivalent of nearly US$3,900 a year for each hectare the company used.

Ecological damage:
Land, birds and scenery

Without doubt wind power is better for the environment than energy produced by fossil fuels, but it does cause damage that the transnational corporations and the Mexican government choose to ignore. Although the companies undertake environmental impact studies to ascertain that the region’s environment won’t be significantly damaged, these studies simplistically propose only the application of laws and economic compensation to resolve complex problems.

Among the main negative impacts noted by the protestors is the damage to land used for agriculture, one of the local population’s main sources of income. This is made worse by the notable lack of governmental support to small and medium farmers who have no guarantee they will be able to continue farming this land when the useful life of the wind farms comes to an end.

The massacre of birds has become another major concern because the wind farms are situated on an important global route for migratory birds. Although other economic activities cause more deaths, that is no reason to underestimate what is happening here, particularly as there’s no reliable data on the death rate of these birds.

Some inhabitants have complained that the wind farms have affected the rural landscape too. They are also protesting about possible health risks to people and animals living nearby from the noise caused by the wind farms’ turbines and equipment.

There’s a lack of
agreement and information

Society needs consensus to ensure an equitable distribution of the benefits of wind power development. It needs a national wind power project and quality information on the issue.

Social consensus is the way to avoid benefits being privatized while costs are socialized. The region’s communities must take an active part in decision-making so their interests, needs and world vision can be incorporated into any wind power project. This way they can recover their land rights while collective wind power projects are developed that will guarantee fair distribution of the benefits.

There’s virtually no quality information on the issue. The environmental impact studies on which wind farm construction
is based need to include truthful, detailed and thorough information on the positive and negative impacts. And even if it’s unclear just how damaging a particular impact might turn out to be, precautionary measures must be taken.

We need a national project

These developments need a national project. The Mexican State’s role in wind power generation is crucial to resolving conflict over land ownership, promoting research on and development of national technologies, regulating foreign investment and guaranteeing the country’s energy security. Where the electricity supply is concerned, the national population must take precedence over private industry.

The Wind Corridor doesn’t adhere to these three indices of justice. It’s a project that favors transnational companies’ economic interests and causes social and ecological effects that are unacceptable because they violate the fundamental rights of the people living on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and degrade local ecosystems.

With all this negative baggage, how can we say wind power helps lessen the negative impact of climate change?
If its implementation is based on hasty, irresponsible decisions guided by profit motives and scant information about its advantages and disadvantages, its contribution is zero.

Emiliano Castillo Jara majored in international relations at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

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