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Oaxaca's wind farm surge produces clean power - and protests

by Talli Nauman | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 6 June 2014 07:30 GMT

Ranch caretaker José Garnica and his son Gamaliel sit on the porch of their home in Oxaca's Isthmus of Tehuantepec, near a wind turbine for producing electricity and their pulley-operated water well. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Jorge Arturo Pérez

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Negotiations with indigenous landowners are proving tricky for companies building wind farms in southern Mexico

JUCHITAN DE ZARAGOZA, México (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The ever-breezy Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a narrow land bridge between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca, is turning into an international wind-farm mecca.

At least a dozen companies from around the world, anxious to take advantage of Oaxaca’s abundant clean energy opportunities and Mexico’s access to carbon-reduction credits, have installed more than 3,200 turbines, investing some $4 billion since the wind rush began here 20 years ago.

Several of the wind energy projects that have leased land in this largely indigenous-owned area are flourishing in the wake of consultations with residents. Other projects have experienced anything but breezy relationships with local landlords.

Community infighting, blockades, takeovers, protests, injunctions, and human rights cases have led to delays and even the suspension of one project charted to become Mexico’s largest wind farm.

The disputes have resulted mostly from a lack of information sharing and transparency, as well as failures to translate legalese complex legal terms into locally understood languages, ineffective negotiating skills, and infringement on traditional access to sacred sites, land and fishing grounds.

“We’re not opposed to clean energy,” says Zapotec indigenous activist Mariano López Gómez, of the Juchitán People’s Popular Assembly, an organization formed five years ago to defend indigenous territory and lobby for information about wind projects. “We just want respect for our indigenous communal way of life.”


Despite the problems, the $400-million Bií Stinú wind power generating station, built by a French electrical generating firm – EDF (Électricité de France) Energies Nouvelles – with support from the Climate Investment Funds, has proved a case study in overcoming some of those problems and meeting sustainability challenges in the area.

EDF Energies Nouvelles began setting up its current 82 turbines in April 2011. Japan’s Mitsui & Co. Ltd. became a 50 percent equity partner in January 2012, and the 164-megawatt wind farm went into production in July 2013 on a portion of a 1,500-hectare area that is licensed for that purpose.

Thomas Mueller, EDF’s Mexico country manager, says responsible negotiation with local people is what makes for good business here.

 “Negotiations aren’t easy; there’s a lot of give and take,” he said, noting that he directed his management team to ask that landowners pick members for a negotiating committee to resolve leasing and construction concerns.

A first committee didn’t function satisfactorily, nor did a second one; not until a third one was chosen did the project make headway, Mueller said.  

A team of straight-talking local people who hired on with his administrative team also has helped “overcome the odds on good terms,” while other companies have been stymied by resistance, he added. EDF policy calls for local-preference in hiring at Bií Stinú.


By contrast, a nearby wind farm project, Mareña Renovables, suspended its effort to build what it proposed as the largest wind farm in Mexico and one of the biggest in Latin America, after protests over local access to land and other issues.

A Mexican judge handed down an injunction in December 2012, preventing installation of the 102 turbines slated for Mareña Renovables by its investors Eolia Renovables of Spain, Mitsubishi of Japan, PGGM of Holland, and their financier Macquarie of Australia.

Members of two indigenous communities delivered a petition in January 2014 to the Inter-American Development Bank headquarters in Mexico, with 2,000 signatures demanding the multilateral lender rescind its $75 million financing for the 396 megawatt undertaking.

Macquarie, the spokesman for the consortium, has indicated to the Mexican Stock Exchange that June is its deadline for resolving the issue of its participation. It has declined to comment further.

A divided community remains in the dark about what will happen next, according to retired local teacher Romel Martinez Ruiz. “There is complete silence. There is no information from state of municipal authorities,” he said.

His Pacific coastal fishing village of 5,000, he said, first learned of the Mareña Renovables project when armed state police patrols blocked the daily trek by fishermen on the path to the shoreline and took dozens of objectors to jail.

Although Martinez belongs to the same political party as Oaxaca Governor Gabino Cué, he blames the ensuing conflict on the state government “for failing to advise the community about commitments it was making with Mareña Renovables.”

For his part, Cué has opted to abandon the statehouse and conduct official business at a different venue, since the seat of government is surrounded around the clock by indigenous organizations holding sit-ins. He periodically checks in there to listen to complaints.

The state’s confrontation between rich tradition and new technology makes governance “complicated and onerous,” he told an international audience at the state capital on May 11.


Mareña Renovables obtained a contract for its project from a former community assembly president, Alvaro Sosa López, with backing from 386 community assembly members. They signed over the surface rights to wind-farm developers in 2004 for a sum equivalent to about $8 a hectare per year, according to the Oaxaca-based non-governmental Human Rights Defense Committee, which goes by the acronym of CodigoDH .

The assembly, made up of mostly community elders whose languages pertain to their Zapotec and Huave ethnic groups, was at a disadvantage in making the decision, CodigoDH contends.

“The advantage the companies and authorities had in the contract can’t be explained without recognising that the region’s communal landholders are largely elders, with little knowledge of Spanish and low levels of schooling; many don’t know how to read or write, which made understanding of the contract hard from the outset,” the organization said in a report.

When landowners became alarmed that their subsistence fishing might be affected and that their time-honored artisanal sea-salt production facility could be displaced, some of them seized the town hall and set up their own government, the Assembly of the Indigenous Peoples of the Isthmus in Defense of the Land and Territory.

“The sea is our heart,” said fisherman and dissident assembly Secretary José Santiago Gutierrez. “Our food, my employees’ salary and the basis for everything comes from the sea,” he said.

Nonetheless Mayor Miguel López Castellanos proceeded to extend a land-use change permit to the company in exchange for more than $1.9 million, according to CodigoDH.

Failing in an attempt to impeach the mayor for that, the dissident community members maintain their hold on town hall, while ousted municipal officials hold forth at a family home. The mayor has filed arrest orders for 40 community members. “The community is completely divided,” says Martinez.

At Bií Stinu, however, where EDF has invested in roads, school furniture, hospital equipment and social events, the situation is different.

Mueller said his company was able to attract Mitsui’s investment partly thanks to support from the Climate Investment Funds made available through Mexico’s Nacional Financiera development bank. Nacional Financiera has been able to provide long-term, low-interest loans for 13.8 percent of Bií Stinú. The project also has obtained financing from other banks including Banco Santander, BANORTE, HSBC and BANOBRAS.

In addition, EDF is developing another 160 megawatts of capacity at a nearby Santo Domingo site, also with the participation of Mexico’s development bank.


Families living closest to the Bií Stinú windmills say they have no problems with the project.

 “It looks real good,” said dairy farmer Jorge López Argona, who lives under the towering new turbines. Sirenia Herrera Lazo, another nearby resident and a mother of two, said in her view the windmills “don’t make much noise, nor do they cause harm.”

Her husband’s brother, the proprietor of their small ranch, asked the company for electricity from the project but was turned down, she said. The company will help pay for electricity when families on leased land are connected to the grid, but providing direct hookups is too complicated, said electromechanical supervisor Irving López Toledo.

For now, the family has a solar panel for lighting and draws their water manually from a well pit in the yard.

Many families living at the base of windmills have no electricity in their homes, while the government’s Federal Electricity Commission transmits the turbine-generated power to privately-owned factories that have contracted with producers for the electricity.

Leasing land to wind farms provides steady income, giving many indigenous families their first chance in life to access credit, said Enrique Nieto, Nacional Financiera’s sustainable projects director. Families living on land leased to the wind project can continue to grow corn, sorghum and other crops and raise livestock, he said.

The Bií Stinú and Santo Domingo wind projects are expected to reduce greenhouse gases by the equivalent of 4.6 million tons of carbon dioxide by the start of 2018, according to the Nordic Environment Finance Corporation, which has agreed to procure carbon credits for both projects.

But local activists say projects such as the suspended Mareña Renovables windmills must not go ahead, regardless of any contribution they might make to reducing climate change.

“Our struggle is against voracious international companies using the mantra of climate change when for them everything is merchandise, be it the air, the water, the soil, the flora, the fauna or the traditions that we have,” charged Zapotec activist López Gómez.

To see more images of wind turbines and indigenous communities in southern Mexico, click here.

Talli Nauman is a journalist covering Mexico since 1987.

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