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Indigenous groups protest Mexico’s biggest wind-energy project

Mexican fishermen and indigenous groups from the southern state of Oaxaca protested Wednesday in front of the Mexico City offices of participants in a wind-energy project that would be one of the largest ever in Latin America, targeting Coca-Cola bottler and convenience-store operator Femsa (FMX), the Inter-American Development Bank and the Danish government, among others.

The few dozen protesters called for the cancellation of the Marena wind-farm project in a windy area of Oaxaca known as Tehuantepec on the grounds that construction and operation of the 132 windmill towers would hurt the livelihoods of local residents by damaging a delicate ecosystem in which fishermen eke out a modest living.

The energy project is part of a sustainability initiative by Femsa to provide clean energy for its operations and for that of its former beer unit, Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma, which is now owned by Heineken NV (HEIA.AE), according to Femsa’s 2011 annual report.

Femsa didn’t have an immediate comment on the protest, which was made symbolically outside the Mexico City office of the Coca-Cola Co. (KO), since Femsa’s corporate offices are in the northern city of Monterrey.

The group opposing the wind project also held signs and banners outside the Mexico office of the Inter-American Development Bank, or IDB.

The IDB said in a news release last year it had approved a loan of up to 1.1 billion pesos (about $72 million at the exchange rate at the time) to help finance the wind farm, which would have an installed capacity of 396 megawatts.

Mexico’s IDB representative, Mercedes Araoz, said in an emailed comment after the protest that “all operations financed by the IDB are subject to the highest environmental and social safeguards.” Regarding the Marena project, she said “after a rigorous due diligence process,” the project’s developers created a “social and environmental action plan to mitigate the project’s potential impacts, working together with the IDB.”

The protesters also went to the Danish Embassy in Mexico. Organizers said they want to bring pressure on Denmark because Danish company Vestas Wind Systems A/S (VWS.KO) is providing the wind turbines, and government entities are supporting the project. Requests for comment made by telephone and email weren’t immediately returned from the embassy.

Victoriano Lopez Jimenez, a 68-year-old fisherman from the project zone, said locals believe the heavy construction and the operation of the windmills will kill off aquatic life in lagoons near the Pacific Ocean where the turbines will be lined up along a land bar. “We are not asking for money,” he said while marching. “We are asking them to go somewhere else and to allow us our way of life so we can feed our families.”

One protest organizer, Martin Velazquez of the Mexican Alliance for Self-Determination, said the wind projects are sold to investors as clean, environmentally friendly projects. But he said Oaxaca’s experience has been that locals are displaced or must live uncomfortably close to the wind turbines with little compensation, while the environment is directly affected through the killing of birds and by construction activity.

Mr. Velazquez said local protesters have physically stopped the scheduled installation of the first Marena wind towers since January, but they fear that force could be used to allow construction equipment to operate. The project was originally scheduled to be completed by summer of next year.

President Felipe Calderon, who leaves office on Dec. 1, has been an energetic proponent of wind power, and companies such as cement-maker Cemex (CX, CEMEX.MX) and retailer Wal-Mart de Mexico (WALMEX.MX, WMMVY) have participated in wind-farm projects to generate part of their energy needs.