The chickens run between the rows of crops at Don Celestino Bartolo’s ranch, a farmer who wipes the sweat from his brow after sowing what may be his last harvest of corn. Rosalino, his son, milks his cows and points with sadness toward the place where they used to fish. A huge wind turbine stands there now–one of 117 installed by the company Gas Natural Fenosa.
Under the Zapotec name Biío Hioxo Energy, the massive wind energy project under construction in the municipality of Juchitan de Zaragoza forms part of a wind corridor in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The corridor encompasses part of the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco and Veracruz. The geographical feature of this narrow strip, linking the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, is the constant wind speed (between 20 and 30 meters per second), which has attracted investment in 28 parks projected for the region. Fifteen have already been completed.
The Bartolo family’s lands are just 150 meters from the construction of the Biío Hioxo Park. Farmers complain of damage to the environment and fear negative impacts on the soil, water, fauna and flora.
Rosalino, 24, is not a biologist or environmentalist, but he speaks knowledgably about the environmental and social impacts that this “clean energy” project could produce in midterm.
“The research we’ve done shows that wind turbines create a magnetic field, so they should be located more than a kilometer away from where people are, but we see that there is one right here less than 150 meters away.”
The 2008 environmental impact study conducted by the URS Corporation Mexico, contracted by the company Gas Natural Fenosa, warns that the city of Juchitan will have to store the remnants of hazardous substances resulting from the power generation process.
“During the maintenance of the wind turbine, oil changes will need to be made. Spent oil will be sent to be stored in a hazardous waste facility for subsequent transfer to a licensed landfill site.” The study affirms that all waste will be stored on the project site in specific areas.
While travelling on the dirt roads one can see wind turbines on many small ranches, while in other plots of farmland corn still stands against the flat landscape as blades and motors sit in the middle of the field, waiting to be installed. Gas Natural Fenosa, considered the largest in sales of gas and energy in Mexico, has offered $6000 pesos per year for three decades – “lifetime of the project” to farmers with one to six acres of land. This company will have the third most important wind farm in Latin America.
The end of the commons
The environmental impact study (EIS) highlights the exceptional climatic characteristics of the Isthmus, claiming that some parks have a higher performance and production of energy to similar installations in Denmark, the world leader in generating wind energy.
Many advocates of wind energy emphasize its importance for sustainable development. However, critics note that the social, cultural and economic costs of the communities that receive these projects are ignored. The EIS does not reflect consistent data on how indigenous communities use the land, nor does it mention sacred places, agricultural use or social exchange. However, it categorically states that these communities will not be significantly affected.
“The project will not generate an impact on indigenous peoples, their communities or their homes. Nor on their existing archaeological, paleontological, historical, religious and cultural resources within the project site.”
Contradicting the company’s position, Carlos Sanchez, a member of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Juchitán (APPJ), maintains that the most direct impact is that the the projects ignore indigenous communal property rights. “Of the 15 parks already built on the Isthmus, 10 are on communal land, a total of 68 thousand hectares. In the Biìo Hioxo Park alone there are seven sacred sites in 2000 hectares of communal lands.”
The APPJ filed an agrarian injuction for legal recognition of their indigenous lands in the town of Salinas Cruz, Oaxaca. They have not received a reply. “We demand the recognition of our comunal lands and we note that the 10 parks in Juchitán are illegal because they are on communal lands. Communities have no information on these projects. The projects do not have authorization from the Juchitán community to be executed,” says Sánchez.
According to 2003 data from the Department of Indigenous Affairs Oaxaca, 80 percent of the land is communal. “The Mexican State, mostly in the last 35 years, through the Department of Agrarian Reform granted land titles on communal land,” says Sanchez. “We’re experiencing alterations to the roads to our lands, agricultural areas, irrigation canals, and an invasion of our sacred places. We are concerned about our food sovereignty and our health. These projects threaten our way of life, our land, our sea and our water.”
In Juchitan, 50,860 people speak indigenous languages, representing 60 percent of the population of the municipality, according to data from the 2005 census. “Unlike other regions of the state, where speaking a native language results in marginalization, Juchitán is considered one of the few urban areas where an indigenous language is commonly used,” reports the study. Despite this, all communications about the project with indigenous communities has been in Spanish. “Many farmers signed contracts with companies to give up their land without knowing the implications,” says Sanchez.
The Biío Hioxo park sits on an aquifer, a wetlands ecosystem. The foundations for the wind turbines require excavating 2.8 meters. If groundwater is discovered at this depth, special care should be taken not to contaminate it, the study notes. The EIS further suggests that there will be no environmental impact if there is an alteration or change to the flow of groundwater into the larger lake. However, there is no guarantee of that happening in reality. “We know that companies have found veins of water that are being clogged with the cement foundation. They are also using a special liquid to slow the flow of water, yet we do not know exactly what kind of substance it is and how it works,” Sanchez states.
Changes in the Landscape
On the flat land, plantations, livestock and houses combine in the ecosystem that now hosts the Biío Hioxo park. The 117 three-bladed wind turbines have a hub height of 55 meters and a rotor diameter of 44 meters, and are placed in 14 lines with an average 150 meters between them on 2000 acres. Whirring wind turbines dot the horizon.
The problem of noise receives little attention in the EIS. When the blades rotate, encountering wind-created turbulance, it generates broadband noise. The study states that “on the grounds that make up the park there are no human receptors that perceive noise from the wind turbines at a distance less than 350 meters.” However, there are farmers who live for a few days on their ranches in times of planting and harvesting, or go every day to milk and feed their animals, at a distance of less than 100 meters from the turbines.
The study also adds that there will be cables, pylons, and high voltage towers that will produce visual pollution ofn the scale of big cities and is considered by the environmental impact as significant, unavoidable and cumulative across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
The Altered Soil, Flora and Fauna
“The land component will be affected during these stages of the project by the removal of vegetation and excavation and cleaning activities, the opening of roads, trenches and the accumulation of waste. These activities will alter soil characteristics, both in its composition by the loss of organic material and pH change, as well as changes in terms of its consistency due to engineering work,” the study finds. It does not contemplate the direct impact this will have on agriculture and livestock.
The study mentions that removal of vegetation for roads, installation of wind turbines and temporary infrastructure will cause habitat fragmentation and eliminate foraging and shelter for wildlife. Reportedly, birds and bats will be the main species affected, with high mortality due to noise, collisions and habitat fragmentation.
It has been 20 years since the first seven turbines were installed in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as part of the so-called “Pilot Project La Venta I,” an experimental project implemented by the Spanish company Iberdrola and the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE). The CFE sought to justify the viability of the wind corridor in the 1994 as part of what is now known as the Mesoamerica Project.
Fifteen of 28 wind farms planned for the region are already operating–more than 50 percent of 5,000 turbines saturate the Isthmus landscape. Their environmental and social impact makes their presence felt.