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U.S. backed renewable energy initiative hurts indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico

For more than a year now, Americans have heard of the failed Solyndra Energy company that declared bankruptcy in late 2011 and the wasted stimulus money that was granted to the company. Like this company, there are others who took off with taxpayer funds and headed to another country. Two of these companies are now in Mexico, and have angered the Oaxacan communities affected.

In a 2010 article, where congress harshly criticizes the use of stimulus money going to overseas companies, Investigative Reporting Workshop writes: “The Danish company, Vestas, said it was halting production at a wind turbine blade plant in Windsor, Colorado. The company said it would probably have to slow development of two other facilities planned for the same area. Gamesa, a Spanish wind turbine company, said it was laying off about half of the remaining workers at a Pennsylvania production facility.”

These two companies were recipients of state and federal incentives in 2009 via the U.S. stimulus that promised to bring jobs back to the United States. Instead, they packed up their bags and headed to the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Since then, Gamesa has built wind turbines for Enel Green Power (EGP) and installed a second plant in that state. While Danish Company Vestas Wind Systems has agreed to construct wind turbines for Mareña Renewables, the consortium leading the project. With the help of the stimulus money, these companies were able to grow their profit margin by seeking cheaper labor in Mexico and sealing a 10-year service and maintenance agreement with their respective companies.

When these projects are completed, they will be the largest wind farms in Latin America.

Perhaps more surprising is that this project is backed by the U.S. government. In a scathing article last year, Upside Down World wrote:

“In April of 2004, the United States Department of Energy (DOE) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored a study to accelerate the development of wind projects in the state of Oaxaca, which found that the best area for wind project development was in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the heart of the ancestral Ikoots territory.”

On Friday Energy Secretary Chu, known for his handling of the Solyndra scandal, announced that he will be stepping down from his post at the end of the month. President Obama praised Secretary Chu for bringing a “unique understanding of both the urgent challenge presented by climate change and the tremendous opportunity that clean energy represents for our economy.”

The AP reports that “During his tenure, Chu helped move the country toward energy independence, Obama said, citing Energy Department programs to boost renewable energy such as wind and solar power.”

An article by the Huffington Post reveals that U.S. company, Sempra Energy, is among the organizations “that have built huge wind towers that now crowd the Isthmus of Tehuantepec [in Oaxaca], leaving the local population feeling invaded.”

According to many reports in Oaxaca, this has been done without the consent of many residents there, namely the indigenous population. Most of the people living in that region speak their native dialects, do not speak Spanish and do not know how to read or write.

Many argue that these are the communities that companies like Vestas, Gamesa and consortium giant Mareña Renewables, have taken advantage of. And in similar fashion, have taken advantage of American taxpayers.

Far from the concerns for the environment that both the U.S. and Mexican government have wanted their citizens to conceive, this is big business and not just for the companies involved. The Huffington Post states, “So far in 2012, Mexico has posted a startling 119 percent increase in installed wind-power capacity, more than doubling the 519 megawatts it had last year, the highest annual growth rate listed in the magazine Wind Power Monthly’s ‘Windicator’ index. Mexico had only 6 megawatts when [President] Calderon took office in 2006.”

This project promises not only to help the environment by generating clean energy, but to help the state of Oaxaca and the country of Mexico. However, many fear that much of it will go into the pockets of government officials and the affected communities will see little, if any at all.

Half of the residents have tentatively agreed to allow Mareña Renewables to install wind turbines in their territory. Those that have not, are being coerced to sell or give up their property. Concerns from residents range from the impact that this project could have on the flora and fauna of the region, fishing and gaming, in addition to their communities. No social or environment plan has been established by these companies.

Carol Schachet, who works for Grassroots International, writes, “…protestors say that they were not told of potential environmental impacts of the projects when the companies initially informed them about development, nor that existing wind farms have negatively impacted the livelihoods of communities where they are located, including impeding their ability to cultivate their lands. In this regard, the Mexican government failed to fulfill its responsibility to create a process that permits and ensures the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities with regard to projects that directly affect them, as required by national and international law.”

Citizens opposing the project have asked human rights defenders in Oaxaca for assistance and protection due to increasing violence in San Dionisio del Mar, where the incidents have occurred. Many of the residents affected, have families living in the United States – especially in Los Angeles, where the largest Oaxacan community resides.