November 8, 2007

Grassroots Resistance: Contesting Wind Mill Construction in Oaxaca

The government of Mexico, in conjunction with multinational corporations, the Inter American Development Bank and World Bank, has undertaken a massive windmill building project in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca. The construction of these wind farms – known in Spanish as parques eolicos – is being increasingly resisted by local communities, such as La Venta and La Ventosa, which are in and around Juchitan of southern Oaxaca. The Mexican government, the CFE (Comision Federal de Electricidad, or Federal Electricity Commission) and SIEPAC (Sistema de Interconexion Electrica de los Paises de America Central, or System for Interconnection of Electricity in Central American Nations) consider the wind farms to be essential components of Mexico’s southern regional development plan, the Plan Puebla Panama. As will be discussed in more detail below, the PPP is a massive development program that aims to integrate the economies of southern Mexico with Central American nations to bring trade, industry and “development” to the region.

At first glance, the mounting resistance of local communities and landowners to wind farm construction seems counterintuitive or even out of step with the prevailing global mood of increasing environmental consciousness. Wind energy is decidedly more “clean” than fossil fuels, and in an era in which global warming has finally moved to the forefront of international concerns, the decision to pursue a clean energy certainly seems laudable. Yet, if one scratches the surface of this “new” clean energy venture in Mexico, it becomes clear very quickly that, like most things in life, it is actually a juncture of the “old” and the “new.” Yes, the government of Mexico is being forward looking in its search for clean energy alternatives to greenhouse gas producing fossil fuels. On the other hand, it appears as though the implementation of this new energy infrastructure has been taking place, to date, through a familiar prism of multinational influence, intimidation and oppression. This is apparent in the deference given to multinationals in dictating the terms of wind farm construction, the treatment which local farmers and landowners are receiving from the CFE, and the uses to which this new “clean” energy will ostensibly be put; namely, to provide energy to industrial parks or other commercial centers, allowing the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer.

As will quickly become clear, the questions which local communities are now putting forward – to the government, the CFE and the international community – are important and fundamental ones: What is the purpose of the Plan Puebla Panama? If wind farms are being constructed on community held lands, why aren’t local communities beneficiaries of increased electricity production? Why, in this era of “new” clean energy is the Oaxacan government using familiar repressive tactics of the “old” Mexican regime? NAFTA and the formal opening of the Mexican economy was supposed to encourage transparency, accountability and democratic forms of government, but under Mexico’s deepening neoliberal regime, the opposite sometimes seems to be the case – particularly in Oaxaca in recent years. The growing resistance to wind farm construction in southern Oaxaca, then, is based on local landowners’ negative negotiating experiences with the CFE, discomfort with the broad freedoms seemingly granted to multinational corporations and an increasing concern about the possible environmental consequences of the wind farms themselves – particularly with respect to migrating and autochtonous bird populations.

Wind farms and the Plan Puebla Panama

It is impossible to understand the rationale behind wind farm construction without situating it within the larger context of the Plan Puebla Panama. The Plan Puebla Panama is a southern Mexico regional development project which aims to “develop” the seven states of southern Mexico and neighboring Central America. From the perspective of many local communities, of course, the only viable function of the PPP is to underdevelop the region. Initiated in 2001 by the Fox administration, the program has been funded largely by the Mexican government and the Inter American Development Bank, while the World Bank has been influential in funding the wind farms of southern Oaxaca. Early on, the plan was shrouded in secrecy and rumors and the enormity of the program has only become apparent with the plethora of both small and large scale development projects taking place throughout the region. These different development projects initially seemed disconnected from each other, but since have come to make sense as part of a larger blueprint for the future of the region.

The master plan of the Plan Puebla Panama hinges largely on the development of the infrastructure of southern Mexico and Central America, and connecting that infrastructure regionally so that the entire area can provide greater support to industry and trade. In terms of industry, the goal is develop maquila zones or industrial parks, similar to the ones that have existed for thirty plus years on the northern Mexican frontier. As will be discussed below, the construction of reliable electricity infrastructure is considered essential to the development of manufacture throughout the region. The logic behind the goal of attracting manufacturing plants is that it will improve the income earning opportunities for southern Mexican populations and bring them development through a deeper connection with modern apparatuses of production. This logic is advanced in spite of the ample evidence that exists demonstrating that the sole function of maquiladora parks is to provide cheap labor to foreign owned companies, and that higher income earning potential has certainly failed to bring any form of socially or environmentally sustainable development to the border region.

The second, though equally important, goal of the PPP is to develop the infrastructure of southern Mexico and neighboring Central American states so that it can support greater trade and transportation. There are two primary ways in which the PPP aims to do this. One is through the construction of an extensive grid of highways that connect the north with the south (including completion of the Pan American highway through the infamous Darien rainforest between Southern Panama and Northern Colombia) and east with west, ultimately hooking up all smaller highways with the Pan American Highway. A second infrastructural project involves the building of one or more “dry canals” to replace the increasingly outdated (and now under Panamanian control) Panama Canal. Dry canals are essentially railroads that connect with deep sea ports at either the Atlantic or Pacific ends. Potential dry canal sites are being investigated in Nicaragua, Honduras and the narrow Isthmus de Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, which is where the wind farms are located as well. In Mexico, they form part of a larger project within the Plan Puebla Panama called the Megaproyecto del Istmo de Tehuantepec (Megaproject of the Isthmus de Tehuantepec). (It should be noted that, with typical irony, many Mexicans have come to refer to the PPP as “Plan Pueblo Pagara;” meaning that the citizenry will be footing the bill for a very long time.)

The wind farms are clearly an important component of the PPP for the electricity that they are alleged to provide. They fit within the broader electricity generating program of SIEPAC. SIEPAC aims toward the construction of an entire electricity grid blanketing all of southern Mexico and integrally connected with the Central American countries. In addition to wind farms, hydroelectric dams figure highly in the project, with plans to dam the Usumacinta river which divides Guatemala and Mexico, and more than seventy dam sites being explored in the Chiapas region alone. The construction and management of the parques eolicos of southern Oaxaca are contracted out to foreign own companies, principally Iberdrola of Spain and Electricite of France. Cemex of Mexico apparently wants to be a part of the game but, as yet, it is unclear how big (or little) of a role that it will play. Thus while it is the Mexican run CFE that orchestrates and organizes wind farm construction locally – including engaging in negotiations with property owners and communities – the bulk of the work is farmed out to foreign owned companies. Given this division of labor, it becomes easy to see why there is a growing popular perception that the CFE works on behalf of foreign, rather than local and national, interests. SIEPAC itself receives funding primarily through the InterAmerican Development Bank, which has nominal requirements for public participation in order for an organization to receive funds, but which have been poorly implemented – if at all – to date under SIEPAC, and with respect to wind farm construction.

Not surprisingly, as the myriad development projects associated with the Plan Puebla Panama have continued, so has resistance. Communities throughout the southern Mexico and Central American regions are organizing increasingly effectively as the magnitude of the project has become apparent. Organizations that have come out in opposition to the PPP run the gamut from the internationally recognized and long-standing Zapatista movement down to little known and newly emergent organizations, such as the Grupo Solidario de la Venta that formed in explicit opposition to continued building of wind farms. The PPP has become increasingly associated with a downward spiraling globalization in which the rich get richer and the poor become systematically more impoverished. In Mexico, this impoverishment took its present, institutionalized and legal form under NAFTA, and PPP is seen largely as a continuation of that, particularly in terms of its effects on racially or ethnically marginalized populations, and the popular classes more broadly. Although the official language used to put the Plan Puebla Panama in place rings of the many tired epithets of “sustainable development,” at this point there seem to be few in this region who are buying into it. Twenty five years worth of free trade based “development” in Latin America has given these populations ample empirical evidence to dispute the claims of the neoliberal orthodoxy, and even World Bank reports increasingly acknowledge the failures of this development model.

Wind Farm Construction and Resistance on the Isthmus de Tehuantepec

The region that has been selected as the primary site for the building of wind farms is called the Isthmus de Tehuantepec, and it is located in the southernmost portion of Oaxaca. Like Chiapas, Oaxaca is well known for the high presence of indigenous groups in the region, and it is also one of the poorest states in the country. The wind farms are currently located in and around a set of rural towns – principally La Venta and La Ventosa – located within the larger municipality of Juchitan. Juchitan is famously the seat of COCEI, a unique and influential popular movement that emerged in the seventies combining socialists, peasants, students and indigenous groups. It is also the birthplace of famed Mexican artist Francisco Toledo.

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec is an extremely narrow stretch of land (which is why it has also been sited for a dry canal) and during the windy season, which lasts roughly from November through March, the wind blows so furiously that cars are sometimes knocked from the roads and, in one recent year, a wind tower itself was blown over. Existing parques eolicos are located on a narrow stretch close to the Pacific Ocean, while planned farms are located right on the sand bars of the ocean itself. As will also be discussed below, one of the more controversial aspects of the wind farm construction has to do with its existing – or potential – impact on migrating and indigenous bird populations. As the narrowest stretch of the MesoAmerican Corridor, it is an essential flyway for migrating birds – some of which are endangered species.

Wind farm construction in and around La Venta and La Ventosa of Juchitan consists of a set of seven different existing or planned “parque eolicos” or wind parks. The existing and proposed parks are numbered in a series, going from Venta I through Venta VII. The first wind farm was a pilot project constructed right across the highway from the small town La Venta, of 3,000 people, in 1994. This first project consisted of only seven windmills, and while it was supposed to be experimental, it was followed almost immediately by plans for Venta II. Venta II is located on the same plot of land and is thus directly adjacent to Venta I. To date, it is only about 80% complete because the farmers are disputing it. The goal of the Mexican government and the CFE is to eventually build 3,000 windmills, which would essentially cover the entire area of this narrow isthmus. Ironically, part of the oft-stated logic behind the Plan Puebla Panama is the greater integration of southern Mexico populations into the global economy. Such logic is disingenuous however; in La Venta alone, an estimated 10% of the population must work in the US in order to support the local community – a migration made necessary by the crushing effect of NAFTA on rural livelihoods and the failures of the trade agreement to deliver local jobs. Sadly – yet consistently – the windfarms constructed to date also fail to employ local workers and, instead, bring them in from elsewhere.

In spite of rising discontent among farmers, not to mention incomplete environmental impact assessments and possible violations of international law, the government of Felipe Calderon has plowed ahead with plans for the next in the series, Venta III, which is due to be constructed near the neighboring town of La Ventosa. Bidding for Venta III had been opened by the summer of 2007. Similarly, he flew to la Venta in late March of 2007 in order to conduct an inaugural ceremony for the wind projects; in preparation for his visit, the squatter camp of Tres de Abril that had been set up to resist continued construction of Venta II had to be forcibly removed with federal police.

Simultaneously, the CFE – or alleged representatives of the CFE (see below) – are moving ahead in their efforts to secure land for the development of more parks. Not only do they regularly approach and negotiate with individual landowners from La Venta and La Ventosa, but also from the surrounding communities of Union Hidalgo and Santo Domingo de la Blanca. Moreover, they are beginning to approach the beach communities as well, particularly San Dionisio, San Mateo and San Francisco, in order to begin lease negotiations there. In these areas, the windmills are scheduled to be built on sandbars, which would disrupt the natural redistribution of salty and fresh water, and the particular aquatic life that supports local fishing communities of the area. In short, in spite of mounting resistance from all of these communities, the government of Calderon, the CFE and the multinationals continue to plow ahead with plans for more and more windmills.

What then, precisely, are the concerns of local resistant farmers and landowners? The complaints of this newly mobilizing force can be divided roughly into two major categories for the purposes of this short article. The first category has to do with the negotiating practices of the CFE and, as a corollary, the terms of existing or planned contracts. A second concern has to do with the environmental impacts of the wind farms themselves. This latter concern includes, but is not limited to, a preoccupation with the impact on migrating and indigenous bird species.

First, it is important to point out that many landowners and ejiditarios of the local communities were originally very amenable to working with the CFE and leasing their lands. It is only based on their experiences with the CFE and the wind farms to date that resistance and disillusionment has mounted. In the beginning period of negotiations and construction, the CFE promised that the parks would bring more employment and greater development to the area. Neither of the two has happened since the owners of the wind parks bring in employees from elsewhere and the wind parks themselves by definition cannot bring greater “development” because they are more closely linked with extra-local (foreign and national level) interests than local interests. In short, the only “benefit” which the farmers received was the amount paid for the lease of their lands. It is widely reported that the initial amounts agreed to were later reneged on by the CFE, thus putting into motion the acrimonious relations that prevail between the institution and the local community today.

Moreover, as time has passed it has become increasingly clear that local farmers are paid a penance of what is paid to those who lease their lands for wind park construction in other parts of the world. Currently, a farmer is paid 12,500 pesos (or roughly 125.00 dollars) annually for the lease of a single hectare of land which supports a single windmill. According to Alejo Giron Carrasco, leader of Grupo Solidario de la Venta, that is 10 to 20 times less than what people are paid in other parts of the world.[1] While one might immediately conclude that the cost of living in rural Mexico is ten to twenty times less than what it might be in a “developed” economy, the fact of the matter is that NAFTA has sent the cost of living soaring, producing a growing disparity between real wages and purchasing power which these low rental prices reflect. Sadly, it is rural areas like La Venta and La Ventosa which have been hardest hit.

Additionally, it is widely reported that the people who go around house to house trying to negotiate contracts do not work for the CFE directly but, rather, are hired personnel who essentially act as harassing thugs. As one person relayed it to me, they exist in Juchitan under the office name of Maderas y Granos de la Laguna. Maderas y Granos is a cover name for this speculation company whose representatives go around trying to arrange contracts to allow the CFE and foreign companies to lease the land, all while saying that they work for the government. This assessment of the fraudulent nature of these “representatives” has been backed up by Ucizoni leader, Carlos Beal, in his article Los Negocios Sucios de la Energia Limpia (Dirty Negotiations for Clean Energy).[2] Perhaps even more ominously, there have been widespread reports of harassment and threats when landowners did not readily sign over their lands.

There are additional and seemingly systematic problems with the contracts and negotiations themselves. In the summer of 2007, members of the community of Union Hidalgo reported in a meeting in La Venta that the “representatives” had been coming around house to house trying to get individuals to sign over their lands. Some of them had agreed to the contracts, only to find that when the representatives returned with the “official” copies of the contracts and their own public notaries from Mexico City, many key terms had been changed, endless clauses added, and the term of the lease had been changed from twenty to thirty years. Under pressure and intimidation, the farmers might still sign with a Mexico City notary looking on. These types of egregious legal abuses, including lying about the social benefits of leasing and never following up or returning copies of contracts to landowners, seem to be chronic and widely reported in many landowners’ dealings with the CFE and its alleged representatives. The fact that these lands are leased essentially to foreign companies for a period of thirty years has additionally brought up the question of whether or not these arrangements are in violation of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, which prohibits the selling of land to foreigners. It increasingly seems that the proper authorities seem to skirt this issue by using the language of leasing – even if for a period of decades – rather than selling.

A second major concern which local communities have pertains to the environmental impact of the windmills. The possible deleterious effects of the windmills on bird populations is a pressing question here, but there are other concerns as well.

Briefly, approximately six million birds fly through the Isthmus de Tehuantepec each year. Estimates of the numbers of endangered species within this group run as low as three and as high as thirty-two. There have already been many anecdotal reports of high levels of bird deaths, determined primarily by the discovery of carcasses in and around the wind farms. Many of these are pigeons, but it is not yet known how many other bird species may be affected. Additionally the area around La Venta and La Ventosa are virtually saturated with wetlands areas and accompanying aquatic species. Because Mexican ornithologists – as elsewhere in the world – are still in the process of identifying which habitats are essential to protected species, the role that these wetlands or other areas may play in the survival of both endangered and other species is not yet known. According to a 2003 environmental impact report commissioned by the CFE itself, the greatest danger of the parques eolicos is to the bird population. While the report acknowledges that insufficient information exists to determine precisely the effects of the windmills on the birds, the wind farms were reported early on to be “highly risky.”

This is precisely the problem. Windmill construction has gone ahead without ascertaining precisely what the impact on indigenous and migrating bird populations might be. While scientific knowledge is always going through a process of accumulation and revision, it seems that with 100 windmills already in place, this would be a good time to stop and take stock of the impact on bird life before proceeding with the construction of 3,000 windmills. Residents who live in the area report that during the migrating season, you can’t even see the sky for all the birds flying directly overhead.

In addition to this thorny issue about the possible effects on birds, local landowners have other concerns that have yet to be answered by environmental impact assessments. While this may be the case because the use of large wind farms is fairly new and long term studies are not yet available, it doesn’t detract from the soundness and sensibility of questions that concern all of us: What might be the long term climatic effects of the wind farms? If they are being built in response to global warming, what effect might they inadvertently have to stir up the warm winds and skies that contribute directly to hurricanes and tornadoes (precisely the types of whether conditions that can afflict Caribbean and Central American nations) ? What might the effects of soil erosion be, and can these lands ever be cultivated again? What about bats? If the windmills kill birds they likely kill bats, and if bats are being killed what kind of plagues of insect populations loom in the future? If the windmills are already, as suspected, affecting bird populations, then what kind of chain ecological reaction is being set loose that we have no way as yet of understanding? Could that chain reaction have as disastrous effects as global warming itself?

Conclusion: Community Demands for Social Change

Local communities have a set of demands and concerns that are perfectly reasonable and at least as “forward looking” as green energy itself. Tellingly, in the form of a community that thinks in a truly “sustainable” manner, these demands speak to both environmental and social concerns. These demands can be summarized as follows:

There should be an environmental impact study (or studies) conducted by serious and neutral scientific institutions, and these studies must be conducted with the participation and input of the local community.

There should be more transparency about the benefits of the wind farms for the CFE and Mexican government. Why are they so eager to construct them, why are they being so accommodating of multinational interests, and what is in it for them?

For the obverse, what is in it for local communities? To date, they have never received electricity at reduced rates, nor have local populations been employed by the wind farms. If future wind mills are going to be constructed, there must be direct and tangible benefits written in contracts: schools, pavement, jobs, health care – in short, the “sustainable development” that is always promised but never delivered. The local community must be seen as more than a resource from which land can be extracted, because the local community is the land.

Conditions of going into a contract or lease agreement with the CFE would have to be completely different – with greater transparency, accountability, and legality. Those who do not want to lease their lands will have their decisions respected, and they will be free from pressure or harassment.

There must be an established space for ongoing discussion and negotiation (mesa de dialogo) so that affected communities can legally ensure that they are the recipients of public works.

There must be a permanently established conflict resolution forum that allows for any conflict to be resolved legally and fairly.

Community members should receive a discount in electricity prices.

On September 22 of 2007, the Grupo Solidario de la Venta and UCIZONI gathered together dozens of groups in La Ventosa for the third regional forum to discuss the matter. Along with laying plans for future steps to be taken, the groups issued a formal declaration of protest against the Plan Puebla Panama and ongoing wind farm construction. In addition to the demands listed above, organizations additionally maintained that the Calderon government has been violating the rights of indigenous peoples, causing both environmental and cultural destruction; that the intent of the PPP and wind park construction is to turn the Isthmus into an industrial corridor; that substantive information about the PPP be shared with local communities and they be engaged in a legitimately participatory fashion; that all neoliberal projects that destroy indigenous cultures and lands be halted immediately; and last, but not least, the release of political prisoners and an end to the militarization of the region under the pretext of drug war.

The full text of the Declaration, in both Spanish and English, can be found at the end of the original article at Zmag (use link below), along with additional information and contacts.

[1]“Transnationals vs. Birds and Farmers in Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec” March 3, 2007 at, retrieved June 15, 2007.

[2]El Solidario Antieolico: Mitotero popular e independiente del Frente de pueblos del Istmo en Defensa de la Tierra, Grupo Solidario la Venta, Movimiento Democratico de los Trabajadores de la Educacion, SNTE, CNTE, La Venta Mayo 2007.

by Sylvia Sanchez; November 07, 2007

[Click here for a fact-finding report about the similar struggle of the Adivasis in India.]

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