The Dark Side of Clean Energy: Industrial Wind Plantations in Mexico

Farmers and residents in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca have repeatedly stated that the construction of electricity-generating wind parks is focused more on profits, greenwashing and generating cheap electricity for the US, rather than serving their own communities or Mexico’s energy needs.

Source: Truthout

A palm hat worn down by time covers the face of Celestino Bortolo Teran, a sixty-year-old indigenous Zapotec man. He walks behind his ox team as they open furrows in the earth, a seventeen-year-old youth trails behind sowing white, red, and black corn, a ritual of ancient knowledge shared between local people and the earth. Neither of the two notices the sound of our car as we arrive “because of the wind turbines,” says Teran. Just fifty meters away, a wind farm has been installed by the Spanish company Natural Gas Fenosa. It will generate, at least for the next three decades, what governments and energy companies have declared clean energy.

Along with this farm, twenty others have been set up forming what has come to be known as the Wind Corridor of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, located in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.  The Corridor occupies a surface area of 17,867.8 hectares across which 1,608 wind turbines have been installed: The Secretary of Tourism and Economic Development of Oaxaca (STDEO) claims that they will collectively generate 2,267.43 megawatts of energy per year.

The Tehuantepec Isthmus stretches just two hundred kilometers from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, making it the third narrowest strip of land connecting the Americas after isthmuses in Nicaragua and Panama. In this area, mountains converge to create a geological tunnel which funnels extremely high speed winds between the two oceans. Energy investors have put their eyes to the region after the government of Oaxaca claimed that the region is capable of producing 10,000 megawatts of wind energy per year in an area of 100,000 hectares.

“Before, I could hear all the animals living in the areas. Through their songs and sounds, I knew when it was going to rain or when it was the best time to plant. Now though, it seems the animals have left due to the wind turbines,” Teran shared with sadness and rage in his voice.

What Teran does not know is whether the turbines, built in accordance with the Clean Development Mechanism (MDL in its Spanish acronym), as defined in the Kyoto Protocol, are generating alternative energy which will actually help to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of large corporations and industrialized countries. The main objective of these polluters is to prevent global temperatures from rising 2°C before 2100, according to the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC), better known as the COP 21, which took place in Paris, France from November 30th  to December 11th, 2015. “I don’t know what climate change is or about the COP. I only know that our ancestral lands are being covered by these turbines,” said Teran.

At the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, participating countries passed the UNFCCC in response to climate change. With this accord, states set out to maintain their GHG emissions at the levels reached in 1990. At the Third Conference of Parties (COP 3), held in Japan in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was approved by industrialized countries with the aim of reducing national emissions to an average of five percent below the 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. In order to help reduce the costs of this reduction, three “flexibility mechanisms” were designed: Emission trading, Joint Implementation (JI), and the aforementioned Clean Development Mechanism under which a large number of the wind farms in the Tehuantepec Isthmus have been constructed.

According to the Kyoto Protocol, these mechanisms are meant to permit industrialized countries and private companies to reduce their emissions by developing clean energy projects in other parts of the world where it is more economically viable and later include these reductions into national quotas. The second period of engagement of the Protocol is 2013-2020. In this period, countries in the European Union (excluding Iceland) have agreed to a collective emission reduction of twenty percent with respect to 1990 emission levels.

The Clean Energy Extraction and Energy Transition Financing Law states that Mexico will install technology to generate 25,000 MW of clean energy by 2024. “Mexico has an obligation to limit the electrical energy generated by fossil fuels to sixty-five percent (from the current eighty percent) by 2024,” the law states.

Teran continues sowing his corn while we ask him about the benefits he’s gained from the Wind Corridor and, a bit irritated, he responds: “They have not provided me or anyone in my family a job, and I don’t want anything to do with these companies or the government, I just want them to leave me in peace on my land; to let me live as I did beforehand.”

Wind Farms for Sale

Two-hundred kilometers connect the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic. Photo archive of the first consultation that occurred in the Isthmus, specifically regarding Southern wind farm.

Two-hundred kilometers connect the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic. Photo archive of the first consultation that occurred in the Isthmus, specifically regarding Southern wind farm.

The United States Department of Energy (DOE) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with the justification to help accelerate the use of wind energy technologies in the state of Oaxaca, developed an atlas published in 2004, which mapped the wind potential in the state of Oaxaca. The mapping confirms that the Isthmus is the region with the largest wind potential.

“This wind resource atlas is an important element of the Mexican strategy to ensure availability of the necessary information and to define specific renewable energy projects as well as tools access to financing and development support,” explains the document.

The paper organizers say they will not share specific maps related to the respective areas of wind potential, due to the confidentiality required in possible contracts signed between companies and the government of Mexico. Still, a decade later, with the arrival of more parks in this territory, it becomes clear which  of these sites are mainly located on the shores of Laguna Superior, an enormous coastal lake on the northeastern side of the isthmus.

For all the good intentions the United States had to cooperate with Mexico to invest in renewable energy, USAID made another document in 2009 called “Study of Export Potential Wind Energy of Mexico to the United States”, which confirms that the greatest potential of this energy is concentrated in the states of Oaxaca (2,600 MW) and Baja California (1,400 MW). In August 2015 the government of Mexico officially announced that the wind farm “Energía Sierra Juárez” Baja California, the first wind project between Mexico and the United States, will export energy to California. Both parties are waiting for an interconnection to export the energy produced in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

“This mapping is only one part of a series of mega-projects that are designed for this area. Not only is it wind energy, but also oil and gas, and also mining, an infrastructure for the movement of goods. Therefore this wind mapping is only a pretext to map the full potential of this whole geostrategic area, which functions as a type of catalog to offer it to businesses,” says biologist and coastal ecology and fishery sciences professor and researcher Patricia Mora, of the Interdisciplinary Research Center for Integral Regional Development of Oaxaca (CIIDIR Oaxaca) based at the Instituto Politécnico Nacional.

The wind corridor was designed from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed in 1994 by Mexico, the US and Canada, subsequently given continuity with the International agreement called Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), now remade into Proyecto Mesoamerica. The project’s main objective was to create favorable conditions for the flow of goods, oil, minerals and energy. “

“Clean energy is part of this context. It’s part of the continuity of the exponential economic growth of capital, it is not something alternative to it. It’s another greenwashed facet,” says the biologist.

Not so clean energy

To set the turbines hundreds of tons of cement that interrupt the water flows that are used. “It is worth mentioning that they are using the cement company CEMEX, who also has a wind farm in the Isthmus,” says Patricia Mora.

The population of Venta, where the first wind farm was built, was literally surrounded by turbines. Not Satisfied with the already installed complex, under the argument of self-sufficiency and with the capacity of generating 250 MW per week,  the Eurus park, built in 2009, was purchased with money from the Spanish company Acciona and the materials company CEMEX.

It seems that CEMEX is the role model of the MDL, a clean and responsible company that has registered several projects this way. In its 2013 report, the committee boasts of expanding their projects with MDL model. “Six new initiatives were registered as MDL in 2013, which include four alternative fuel projects in Mexico and Panama and two wind farms located in Mexico,  Eurus and Ventika among them.”

In 2015, the Eurus wind farm won the prize awarded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB Infrastructure 360​​°) in the category of “Impact on Population and Leadership,” which recognizes outstanding sustainability practices in infrastructure investments in Latin America and Caribbean.

In February 2015, community activists and social organizations of Venta denounced that”about 150 wind turbines of the wind farm Eurus and Oaxaca III, owned by Acciona, have spilt oil on the blades and main coil, which has polluted the underground and water and the farmers and ranchers that have ranches surrounding the place,” assured by the Defensores de la Tierra y el Mar. Both wind farms have 1500 MW turbines, which need 400 liters of synthetic oil, while the 800 MW turbines only need, 200 liters of oil per turbine per year.

The Costs of Clean Energy

The dominant development model in the production of electricity from wind power in the Tehuantepec Isthmus is stated as a  formula in which  everyone wins – the government, developers and industry. The model has been one of self-supply, in which a private developer of wind power generates energy production contracts for a wide portfolio of industrial customers (Coca-Cola, CEMEX, Wal-Mart, Bimbo, for example) for a certain period. In this way, companies can set prices lower than the market for the long-term and, separately, they enjoy the financial benefits of carbon trading, which, on one hand, allows them to continue polluting, and secondly, to speculate on the sale of these pollution permits to other companies. Developers can access financing schemes for “green” projects through organizations like the Inter-American Development Bank and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the UN.

The communities are also presented as winners in these projects for the development of self-sufficiency and the income they receive from the lease of their land. However, farmers like Teran, interviewed at the start of this article, are feeling far from included in the winner’s circle.

Why the Resistance?

November 2012. The consortium Mareña Renovables aims to build the largest wind farm in Latin America in the Barra de Santa Teresa, in  San Dionisio del Mar, Oaxaca. The Barra is a strip of land that forms the top and bottom lagoon which is connected to the sea in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. In this land, the indigenous Zapotec community Binni Záa and the indigenous Huaves Ikojts, together with the community of Alvaro Obregon, opposed the project.

What was first known as Mareña Renovables project (?)has changed its name and its form several times. The Spanish energy company, called the Preneal group, who had signed exploration contracts and obtained the permits from the state government, sold the rights to the project for $89 million to FEMSA, a subsidiary of The Coca-Cola Company and Macquarie Group, the largest investment bank in Australia. These companies quickly sold part of their stake to Mitsubishi Corporation and Dutch pension fund PGGM, signing at the same time a power purchase agreement with FEMSA-Heineken for 20 years.

They also sought to speculate with the reduction  of 825,707 tons of carbon dioxide a year, equivalent to the emissions of 161,903 cars.

“Mother Earth is sick, the disease is global warming. They want to profit with the same disease that they have caused Mother Earth. Under the pretext of reducing global warming, they come to our territories to control our forests, mountains, our sacred places and our water,” said Carlos Sanchez, a self-defined Zapotec community member who participated in the resistance against the installation of wind farm in Barra Santa Teresa Park and the installation of a park by Gas Natural Fenosa in Juchitan de Zaragoza.

Sanchez is also founder and member of the Totopo community radio station , created as a need to report on megaprojects in the region of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. During an intermission of his radio programming, we asked Sanchez about what the Zapotec people know about the CDM. “It is a discourse between businessmen. They are labels exchanged between companies to justify their pollution and are do not explain anything to indigenous peoples” he says.

“Could we, with our forests, also sell carbon credits, bypassing these companies? Who will buy? It is no coincidence that only those who understand these mechanisms are the only ones who benefit as employers and the state.” In addition, he states: “We do not even benefit from the energy produced. If you walk by the communities you will notice what the clean development they have brought consists of, and I challenge one of the owners of the companies to see if they want to live in the midst of these turbines. “

Following the demonstrations made by indigenous peoples, on 8 May 2013, the Secretary of Tourism of the state of Oaxaca, José Zorrilla Diego, announced the cancellation of the proposed Renewable Mareña in the Barra de Santa Teresa. Shortly after the announcement of the cancellation, the state government said the project would continue in other areas of the Isthmus.

Human Rights Violations and Persecutions

The organization of the community against the wind farm in the Barra de Santa Teresa was the first major resistance against the ways in which these companies are developing their projects on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Sanchez reports that, not coincidentally, it is in this period that companies have started hiring sicarios, or hitmen,  who have the backing of the state. “We see gunmen escorted to the state police. Some of us have been persecuted with absurd lawsuits, accusing us of kidnapping, attacks on the roads, and damage to other people’s private property. The radio station has undergone several attempts to close it , with the invasion of the police federal and Navy,” says Sanchez.

Sanchez reports that, since 2013, he does not go to public places. His mobility is restricted to the community. “We endorse the protection mechanism of the Ministry of Interior. But we have realized that their task of protection has been given to the state police, the same people who attacked us. I do not know whether they have come to protect me or arrest me. So I rejected this protection mechanism and started a small personal protection protocol, “says Sanchez. “The state supports the wind companies,” he concludes.

The Committee for the Integral Defense of Human Rights Gobixha (Código DH) Oaxaca demanded the immediate intervention of the federal and state governments to stop the wave of violence against supporters of the Popular Assembly of the People of Juchitan (APPJ), according to the Committee. But there was no response.

The company Gas Natural Fenosa rejects the information, ensuring that: “While certain groups have  filed  several allegations regarding violations of human rights of communities affected by the project, Gas Natural Fenosa says they are unfounded and are incompatible with the commitments made by the company’s Human Rights Policy. “

New Strategy, New Park, Old Problems

It did not take long for the government’s promise made in 2013, to relocate the project from the Barra de Santa Teresa towards another zone in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, to take shape. In 2014, the company Mareña Renovables, now called Eólica del Sur (Southern Wind), found a new place to develop clean energy and contribute to the goals of reducing greenhouse gases:in the Laguna Superior.

In the year  2016, the project foresees the installation of 132 wind turbines of 3 MW each in an area of ​​5,332 hectares, avoiding the emission of 879,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year, according to the company.

An independent report, titled Análisis de la Manifestación de Impacto Ambiental y del Resolutivo del Proyecto “Eólica del Sur” published on August 2015, released by researchers from different fields and universities points out various inconsistencies in the environmental impact study submitted by the company and approved by the Secretariat of Environmental and Natural Resources (SEMANART).

The first contradiction is in regards to the company that made the study. The company responsible is Especialistas Ambientales (Environmental Specialists). And according to the Constitutive Act of the company, it was possible to determine that the founding partner is the engineer Rodolfo Lacy Tamayo, current Undersecretary of Planning and Environmental Policy of the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources.

The report warned that there are many inconsistencies with respect to the surface of the Baja Espinoza Forest (Selva Baja Espinosa), which is to be cleared for the construction of this project. Evaluating the information available on the Environmental Impact Statement’s (EIS) own field research, researchers of the independent report wrote: “our analysis shows that the developer intends to cut 100% of the tree surface without proposing any measure of compensation.”

“This is particularly worrying…[because] The Selva Baja Espinoza [‘s role in] connecting the Priority Marine Regions: Continental Shelf Gulf of Tehuantepec, and Upper and Lower Laguna; and Terrestrial Priority Regions: Northern Sierras of Oaxaca Mixe and Zoque-La Selva Sepultura, ” says the document.

According to Eduardo Centeno, director of the Eolica del Sur company, the EIS is submitted in accordance with Mexican law and contains mitigation measures and preventive measures for the environment, including reforestation.

Another concern of communities is in relation to water pollution in the lagoon and sea area as a result of the oil that will drain on the beaches -300 liters per aerogenerador. The Biologist explains Genoveva Bernal of Semarnat, the institution responsible for approving the EIS, says the park will not affect the Superior lake at 3.9 km away. “With this distance it will not have an impact.”

According to Alejandro Castaneira, professor and researcher at the ENAH, who participated in the construction of the Report, the SEMANART authorized an environmental impact study that was wrongly produced. ” They say that parks are generating clean energy. Are we going to use clean energy to produce Coca-Cola and Lays Chips while poverty continues?” asks Castaneira.

Participatory Process?

After the events of 2013, Eolica del Sur and the State convened for the first free, prior and informed consultation, under Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for indigenous peoples, 22 years since the arrival of the first wind farm in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. This consultation was initiated in November of 2014, and completed in July of 2015 and is regarded as an essential element for the project to become effective.

On the one hand, both the federal and state governments, as well as the company, claim that the consultation fulfilled its role, which justifies the project, since most of the participants approved. On the other hand, there is enormous pressure from community members? for the cancellation of the same consultation because of the irregularities observed during the process.

At a press conference, Bettina Cruz Velázquez, a member of the Assembly of Indigenous Peoples of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Defense of Land and Territory, said that the consultation was carried out after local and federal permits and approvals of land use had already been given by authorities. This shows the federal government’s decision to strip Binni zaa Zapotec community of its territory. “The consultation is a simulation. They do not respect international standards,” says Cruz Velasquez.

A petition for relief was filed for the 1,166 indigenous Binni Záa Zapotec community members, in order to protect indigenous rights and defend their  territory against the wind project. On September 30th, a federal judge issued an order to suspend all licenses, permits, goods, approvals, licenses and land use changes granted by federal and local authorities, until the final judgment is issued.

“On the one hand, The state allows these projects, allowing all the state and federal agencies to expedite permits. Yet indigenous peoples are not aware of these legal proceedings, so they can’t  actually participate in decisions. The whole Isthmus territory has been divided between companies on the lack of awareness of the peasant and indigenous communities who live here, “says lawyer Ricardo Lagines Garsa, adviser to the Binni Záa community.

Who benefits from clean energy?

According to documents from the Commission for Dialogue with the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico, international experience has shown that remuneration paid by energy companies erecting wind farms on leased lands oscillates between one and five percent of the gross income of the energy produced by the turbines. “However, the case of Mexico drastically different if you take into account the much lower value compared to international standards: here, remuneration is between .025 and 1.53% [of gross income].”

“Because there is no organization that regulates the value of land in Mexico, energy companies pay landowners far less than the actual value, which can provoke tension in communities in which wind farms are set up,” states the human rights organization.

The criteria which have been used to justify the implementation of wind parks in Mexico as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as total energy production, are insufficient to determine the benefits, risks and broader implications of wind energy production, maintains the Commission for Dialogue with the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico:   “The criteria ignore or underestimate the complexity and cognitivist and ethical uncertainty of the risks and impacts created by wind parks on a large scale. They cannot be seen as a viable energy alternative if they continue to reproduce and deepen socioeconomic and environmental inequalities between countries and between social groups within individual countries.”

This story was made possible thanks to the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and produced in collaboration with Armando Carmona, editor of

Renata Bessi is a freelance journalist and contributor the Americas Program and Desinformémonos. She has published articles in Brazilian media: The Trecheiro newspaper magazine, Página 22, Repórter Brasil, Rede Brasil Atual, Brasil de Fato, Outras Palavras.

Santiago Navarro is an economist, a freelance journalist, photographer and contributor to theAmericas Program, Desinformémonos and SubVersiones.