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Brazil’s big cats under threat from wind farms 

Credit:  By Luciana Magalhaes and Samantha Pearson | Sept. 17, 2023 | wsj.com ~~

Weighing more than 100 pounds, big cats have long reigned over this hot and semi-arid region of Brazil, developing tougher paws for the scorched earth and reaching speeds of 50 miles an hour to bring down wild boar and deer.

But nothing could have prepared them for the 150-foot blades now slicing up the deep blue sky above them.

Jaguars and pumas are facing extinction in the Caatinga, Brazil’s northeastern shrublands, as Europe and China pour investment into wind farms, puncturing the land with vast turbines that are scaring the animals away from the region’s scant water sources.

Particularly sensitive to changes to their habitat, the jaguars and pumas abandon their lairs as soon as construction work on the wind farms begins, said Claudia Bueno de Campos, a biologist who helped found the group Friends of the Jaguars and has tracked the region’s vanishing feline population. They then roam vast distances across the dusty plains in search of new streams and rivers.

The weakest perish along the way. Others venture closer to villages, where locals have started laying traps to protect their small herds of goats and sheep, often their only form of survival in this impoverished region.

The wind power industry has doubled its capacity in Brazil since 2018, setting the country up to be the world’s fourth-biggest producer by 2027 behind China, the U.S. and Germany, according to the Brazilian Wind Power Association, an industry body.

But by helping to solve one problem—climate change—the wind industry risks creating others, warn conservationists. Indigenous groups recently staged protests in Brazil over the installation of turbines on lands they say are rightfully theirs, while environmentalists have also raised concerns that wind farms installed on compacted sand dunes on the northern coast could have damaged underground water reservoirs.

In the U.S., the industry has recently hit a series of setbacks, from supply chain issues to spiraling costs.

“Wind power is a fantastic proposal, and the northeast certainly has plenty of wind…but wind parks must also take into account what is happening here on the ground,” said Campos, who also works for the government-run Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity.

Killing jaguars or pumas—or most other wild animals in Brazil—carries a jail sentence of up to 18 months, but there is little enforcement, Campos said. “Normally, the villagers bury or burn the bodies—they find a way to make them disappear.”

There are now an estimated 30 jaguars and 160 pumas left in Boqueirão da Onça, or Jaguars’ Ravine, a protected area that is their main habitat in the Caatinga, according to Friends of the Jaguars. Since 2009, the number of jaguars in the Caatinga has fallen 40% while the number of pumas has dropped 20%.

While the big cats are still plentiful in the Amazon and Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, those in the Caatinga are unique, having adapted to cope with the intense heat. Jaguars have yellowish fur with black spots and are stockier than pumas, which feature a single brown to gray color. Jaguars are more sensitive to changes in their environment, biologists say.

The disappearance of the felines would throw the region’s ecosystem out of whack, leading to a proliferation of animals that serve as prey, such as wild boar, deer and armadillos, said Felipe Melo, a researcher at the Federal University of Pernambuco who has studied the impact of the wind power industry in the Caatinga.

As jaguars and pumas have been pushed into closer contact with communities, many villagers mistakenly believe they are growing in number—not facing extinction, making it harder to persuade locals to save them, said Campos.

“My god, the jaguars are everywhere now,” said José Barros da Silva, 72, who lives in Laje dos Negros, a small community in Jaguars’ Ravine. He lost five calves last year—worth some $2,500, equivalent to a year’s minimum wage.

“Only last week my son went to check on the herd and one of the cows had claw marks across its back.”

Few people in the town admit to having laid traps. But resentment is growing.

“One of my goats disappeared three weeks ago, I know it was a jaguar,” said José Ribeiro Marques, who has been eking out a living in the nearby village of São Pedro for the past 20 years.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “We raise our animals with such care.”

Much of Jaguars’ Ravine falls into an area of environmental protection that prohibits most forms of commercial activity.

Wind farms in Boqueirão da Onça. Conservationists say companies shouldn’t install turbines in long rows, which forces animals to make unnecessarily long detours. Photo: Dado Galdieri for The Wall Street Journal

Wind turbines are an exception. France is one of the biggest investors in the Caatinga. Utility company Engie has two large wind farms, and French oil major TotalEnergies signed a joint venture in 2022 with the Brazilian firm Casa dos Ventos, which operates in the Caatinga. Spain’s Elawan also began operating a new wind farm in the nearby town of Sobradinho last year.

Engie and Casa dos Ventos said in statements they had introduced conservation programs, among other efforts, to help preserve the local wildlife. Elawan and TotalEnergies didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Chinese groups have also invested heavily, with China General Nuclear Power Corp. operating a wind power plant just south of the conservation area.

Chinese investment in wind and solar power in Latin America and the Caribbean tripled to $3.8 billion between 2018 and 2022, with 55% of that cash going into greenfield sites, according to a recent study by Ipea, Brazil’s government-run economics research institute.

With 26 gigawatts of capacity, Brazil’s onshore wind power industry now ranks as the world’s sixth-biggest, accounting for 13% of the country’s electricity. Of all Brazilian power generation, 53% comes from hydroelectric plants.

Elbia Gannoum, head of the Brazilian Wind Power Association, said the wind farms aren’t to blame for the shrinking population of big cats, noting that regular visits to the otherwise deserted areas by employees of the wind power companies help deter illegal hunting.

“Yes, the wind farms force jaguars and pumas into different areas, but after the construction phase, they tend to come back,” she said, adding that conservation projects run by the companies should help to boost the big cat population.

Environmentalists disagree.

The abject poverty of the region means that local governments give wind farms the green light with few conditions, they assert.

Melo, the University of Pernambuco researcher, said that raising awareness about the importance of the Caatinga, home to more than 1,000 endemic species, is also a struggle since global attention is more focused on the Amazon.

While Melo and other critics of the industry don’t advocate a ban on wind power, they have called for limits on construction activity to reduce disruption. They say companies shouldn’t install turbines in long rows, which forces animals to make unnecessarily long detours.

At the edge of Jaguars’ Ravine in the village of Queixo Dantas, or the Chin of Dantas, people struggling to eke out a living in the dusty red earth see the wind farms as a blessing.

As well as paying local farmers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal as much as $500 a month to erect turbines on their lands, the companies also employed many local men during construction of the sites.

While villagers had hoped for new health clinics or better roads, life has still changed for the better, said José Carvalho Batista, citing a new fence the companies had just paid for to protect a local cassava plantation.

“They made it possible to live out here.”

[See also:  For Caatinga’s last jaguars and pumas, wind farms are the newest threat]

Source:  By Luciana Magalhaes and Samantha Pearson | Sept. 17, 2023 | wsj.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

The copyright of this article resides with the author or publisher indicated. As part of its noncommercial educational effort to present the environmental, social, scientific, and economic issues of large-scale wind power development to a global audience seeking such information, National Wind Watch endeavors to observe “fair use” as provided for in section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law and similar “fair dealing” provisions of the copyright laws of other nations. Send requests to excerpt, general inquiries, and comments via e-mail.

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