May 11, 2012

Protesters block work at Latin America’s biggest wind farm

Ben Backwell, Recharge, 11 May 2012

Political conflicts have prevented the start of work on Latin America’s largest wind farm, the 396MW Mareña Renovables project in Oaxaca, Mexico, which is being built by the turbine supplier Vestas.

Protesters from the San Dionisio del Mar communal assembly stopped 30 wind farm workers laying out routes for access roads in the Barra de Santa Teresa area.

The protesters say they have set up a permanent watch to make sure the contractors do not return.

The San Dionisio commune, which represents farmers from the Huave indigenous group, claims that a land-use contract signed in 2004 involved “deception and disinformation”, and that the number of turbines the consortium plans to install has been raised from an original 40 to 132.

“The dynamic of eviction, abuse, lies and contempt for indigenous people on the part of the company Mareña Renovables has become clearer and clearer,” it says.

Mareña Renovables says it wants to continue its dialogue with all stakeholders in the wind farm, saying it “is committed to managing this project with a view to sustainability and having regard to the interests of all stakeholders, including local communities”.

Vestas says it is working with its customer “to make sure that the execution of the Mareña project is done in a responsible and sustainable way from a social, environmental, economic and technological perspective”.

A source involved in the project says: “There are a number of political and social drivers at work.

“When you have periods of social unrest it’s serious, and this is what is affecting our project and other projects.”

Vestas is supplying 132 of its V90-3.0MW turbines as part of a turnkey contract that will see it provide the entire range of services to build the wind farm, the source says.

That will include civil and electrical works, supply, installation and commissioning.

The contract was Vestas’ biggest order so far this year and the company had been due to start turbine installation in the second quarter of 2012.

Project sources say there are two issues. The first is a conflict between the San Dionisio commune and the San Dionisio municipal government over the use of proceeds from a “substantial” payment made by the consortium to the municipal government for the wind farm‘s building permit.

The commune, which supports the centrist PRI party, alleges that the permit was issued without its approval by the municipal government – run by the left-wing PRD.

“This is a politically charged region and this issue is being used to achieve certain political aims,” says the source.

He says the consortium followed required procedures in paying the municipality for the construction permit and is also making land lease payments to the commune.

According to the source, the community is generally supportive of the project and the economic benefits it will bring, but there is little the consortium can do to solve the dispute between the commune and the municipality.

“We can try to facilitate discussion between the two sides, but we can’t resolve the conflict,” says the source, who adds that the Oaxaca state government is also mediating between the parties.

Mareña Renovables also faces a separate conflict over payments made to construct access roads at the other end of the Santa Teresa sandbank, where much of the project will be built.

The source says this dispute involves the distribution of payments for the roads within the community, with distinctions being made internally between full members of the commune and those who are not.

“It’s not our role to decide how proceeds are going to be used,” adds the source.

“We try to make things as transparent as possible, but we can’t force people to distribute proceeds equally.” Ultimately, he says, the consortium has other alternatives for access.

“The flip side of having lots of communities is that there are lots of options, and in the worst case we will go around the area affected.”

Both the consortium and Vestas are putting considerable resources into community liaison teams, which are working to help resolve the conflicts.

However, the source warns: “These kinds of issues are going to continue. It’s not going to abate in a couple of weeks.”

The consortium is unwilling to predict how long work could be delayed, but sources expect the dispute will be resolved.

The contract with Vestas includes various “remedies” to address delays of different lengths, but ultimately, force majeure is one possible – although unlikely – outcome.

The protests are the latest to affect wind projects in Oaxaca, where there is significant anger at mainly Spanish developers who are dominating the fast-growing sector.

Late last year, protests against Renovalia’s 225MW Piedra Larga project further north in Oaxaca led to a man being killed.

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