Clean Energy Plays Dirty in Oaxaca

Generating enough electricity to power a small city while offsetting several hundred thousand tons of carbon emissions sounds like an ideal source of eco-friendly energy. But tell that to the residents of La Ventosa in Oaxaca, Mexico. The construction of Latin America's largest wind farm on these communal campesino lands in the wind-whipped Isthmus of Tehuantepec is threatening their lands and their livelihoods.

March 23, 2009

Generating enough electricity to power a small city while offsetting several hundred thousand tons of carbon emissions sounds like an ideal source of eco-friendly energy. But tell that to the residents of La Ventosa in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The government and private developers promised locals that the relentless winds that whip this part of southern Mexico would be an economic boon for the town. And now, the $550 million project is converting more than 6,000 acres of local campesino and indigenous lands into Latin America's largest wind farm.

In January, Mexican President Felipe Calderón helped inaugurate the first phase of the project to great fanfare. But protesting local landowners and indigenous groups claim the wind-power generators will damage local livelihoods and bring few benefits to their communities.

The first 25 wind turbines went online as part of the Eurus wind farm, a joint venture between Mexican cement producer Cemex and Acciona, a Spanish energy company. Located on the outskirts of La Ventosa, the farm will eventually have 167 turbines, generating enough electricity to power a city with a population of 500,000. But the power generated by the project will be consumed exclusively by Cemex's operations in Mexico.

La Ventosa is in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where Mexico tapers to its narrowest point. The geography makes for famously strong, consistent winds. Supporters of the wind energy development say the poverty-stricken region would benefit from the presence of an innovative industry that provides jobs and profits for local residents.

It's not the first and certainly won't be the last wind-power project in Oaxaca: In the coming years, the state government hopes to generate over $5 billion in wind energy and related investments. Estimates of the state's wind-power potential range from 10,000 to 30,000 megawatts, or more than 100 times what will be generated by La Ventosa when the project is completed.

But not all of Tehuantepec's residents share the government's enthusiasm for the wind-based energy boom. The lands needed for the huge windmills are mostly owned by indigenous and campesino communities, who have increasingly come into conflict with the state government and private developers.

Community organizations like the Northern Zone of the Isthmus Indigenous Communities Union (UCIZONI) and human rights groups accuse developers of gaining access to lands through bribes and misleading contracts.

Javier Balderas, director of the Tepeyac Center for Human Rights in Oaxaca, says representatives of the Eurus project told landowners the contracts simply allowed for the study of winds on their lands, without mentioning anything about construction of the windmills. The contracts also included spurious provisions such as a 30-year lease on the land, with an option for another 30-year extension.

"The State was very astute about how they convinced the locals to sign," says Balderas. "They used local leaders who used their position in the community and understanding of the Zapotec language to get landowners to sign the contracts." Since not everyone in the region knows Spanish in addition to native Zapotec, Balderas charges that many landowners depended on scheming intermediaries who took advantage of the farmers – many of whom have never received a copy of the contracts.

The handful of transnational corporations with wind-power operations in Oaxaca pay less than $50 a month to locals with turbines on their land, while others receive even less. Some farmers received an additional one-time $650 signing bonus as enticement for the sweetheart deals.

The jobs promised by the government and companies also failed to materialize. The construction of the wind farm infrastructure generates a few hundred temporary posts, but after the turbines are erected a few months later those jobs evaporate. According to Balderas, a nearby 2,000-acre wind farm, known as La Venta II, run by a Spanish company employs just eight people.

If La Venta II is any indication, the upcoming turbine construction boom will be detrimental to local farmers. Community members signed contracts with La Venta II on the premise that they would be able to continue farming in the spaces between turbines. Out of the project’s 800 hectares, 400 was set aside for farming.

The foundation for each turbine requires placing 200 tons of concrete into the ground. According to an environmental study conducted by engineers from the Technical Institute of Tehuantepec, the concrete hinders the natural flow and drainage of water, causing the flooding of farmers' crops. The report even predicts that the local water table could eventually dry up, leaving the land unsuitable for planting.

Despite the seeming finality of a contract, some local communities have had success fighting bad contracts and recovering their lands. A group of landowners from the town of Unión Hidalgo recuperated their land after Preneal, a Canadian company, abandoned its contracts in the face of local opposition. Residents of Xadani started negotiations over 5,000 acres of a wind farm currently managed by Endesa, another Spanish firm. Balderas says, “It’s good to see that there are companies that don’t want to push a project if the community doesn’t want it.”

Zach Dyer is a NACLA Research Associate.

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