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Mexican communities reject Chinese solar farm in Yucatán

In February 2019, residents of the municipalities of Cuncunul and Valladolid, about 1,500 kilometres south of Mexico City, sued the Jinkosolar Investment Pte. Ltd., the Chinese company managing the Yucatán Solar Park project for violating their right to prior consultation on projects that affect their livelihoods.

A judge ruled in favour of the plaintiffs since the area’s indigenous peoples were not consulted prior to the installation of the solar farm. Nor did they have complete information about the project. Despite the ruling, the company is not giving up its efforts.

“As in other parts of the country, these types of projects are a government imposition, in collaboration with national and foreign companies,” Candelaria May, a member of the Assembly of Defenders of the Múuch ’Xíinbal Territory, told Diálogo Chino.

“We are concerned about the impact on the environment, the people who live here [and] drastic changes in the local economy as the price of goods and land rises,” he added.

Jinkosolar Investment Pte. Ltd, an arm of Chinese panel manufacturer JinkoSolar Holding Company, Ltd, won three contracts to provide 180 megawatts (MW) of energy to the state-owned Federal Elecricity Commission (CFE) in Yucatán and to the state of Jalisco in a 2016 auction. Eventually authorised in 2017, the Yucatán Solar Park was set to operate from September 2018 for 30 years, 15 of which are covered by a fixed-term power sale agreement with CFE. The project is now halted.

The Yucatán solar farm was set to have 313,140 modules generating 335 watts each over an area of about 250 hectares. Like practically the whole of Mexico, the area has a high potential for solar energy, advocates for the project say. It boasts average daily radiation of 56.49 kWh per square metre, way above the

In November 2016, the corporation requested a public consultation with the local indigenous and non-indigenous population and the Ministry of the Environment (Semarnat). Yet no such meeting took place, at least not with indigenous peoples.

Furthermore, the environmental impact assessment (EIA) presented by JinkoSolar in October 2016 indicated its project would have 98 impacts, of which 15 are considered beneficial and 83 adverse.

Solar in Yucatán threatens species

The main negative consequence of the plant will be the deforestation of 206 hectares, destroying plant and wildlife habitats, according to the EIA. Vulnerable native trees would be among those lost.

The glassywood (astronium graveolens) and zamia loddigessi or palmita (little palm), both of which are categorised as under threat of extinction by Semarnat, are at risk. Other affected species would include the vanilla planifolia and the American cedar (Cedrela odorata), considered to require special protection.

Deforestation also threatens the habitats of at least 123 species of vertebrates, 78 birds, 24 mammals, 17 reptiles and four amphibians – these last two groups being the worst affected. Some 26 species have conservation status and 20 are under special protection. Five more are threatened and two – the ocelot and the Tamandula anteater – are at risk of extinction.

To moderate the impacts of the solar plant, the company proposed to create a wildlife rescue program for protected species and to preserve 45 hectares for conservation areas.

Project planning model questioned

Local Mayan populations have condemned the environmental impact of the works, along with a lack of prior information or consultations before it began. These rights are guaranteed under the most important global treaty on the rights of aboriginal groups – the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169, which Mexico ratified in 1990.

This has been the bedrock of legal challenges to a number of ventures.

Emilio de los Ríos, an academic and independent consultant, criticised the lack of proper consultations and the land grabbing and speculation for projects that he says is taking place.

“There have been abnormal consultation processes, with irregularities in meetings,” he said, adding that meetings had been manipulated in favour of the project. “The use of the land is being imposed against the views of the people, which has caused a conflict. A model that goes against the people is what’s been favoured,” De los Ríos told Diálogo Chino.

Candelaria May said that the rejection of the solar project does not reflect a general rejection of alternative energies, but rather of the prevailing development model that does not consider other socio-environmental aspects.

“Renewable energy is an alternative, but not under the model they propose. If they did indeed have concern for the people, a responsible government would favour community organisation processes so that they develop cooperatives that produce and sell their own energy,” May said.

De los Ríos suggests an energy transition in accordance with the needs of the population “where people have decision-making power and a consensus is reached, weighing problems with benefits”.

For Mexico, expanding renewable energy generation is legally mandated in the 2015 Energy Transition Law, which stipulates that clean energy must account for 25% of generation by 2018, rising to 30% by 2021 and 35% by 2024.

Although it achieved the first goal, associations of energy producers and international organisations forecast that the rollout will grind to a halt, with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador having shown more support for fossil fuels than for renewables.

Rural communities may generate their own energy through off-grid renewable energy projects but they face several obstacles, including lack of capital and technical know-how.

Other renewable energy projects halted

Local communities have managed to stop other renwable energy ventures backed by Chinese capital, such as the 240MW Chicoasén II hydroelectric plant, located in the southern state of Chiapas. The plant, awarded to a consortium of three Mexican companies and the Costa Rican subsidiary of China’s Sinohydro was shut in 2015.

Opponents rejected the dam because of the risk of flooding, damage to local fish populations and the low price offered by companies for their land.

Unhappy residents have also managed to stop at least four other solar and two wind projects in Yucatán, again due to the lack of prior consultations and environmental impacts.

In November last year, Semarnat finally stopped endorsing the 150MW capacity Oxcum-Umán Solar Park, due to the risk of deforestation of 310 hectares of jungle and threat to seven species at risk of extinction.

Although opponents of JinkoSolar’s plant were successful with the court ruling, the company is trying to keep the project alive as a private venture that does not depend on a contract with the state-owned Federal Elecricity Commission (CFE).

Emilio Godoy is an environmental journalist based in Mexico.