Mexico’s Wind Farms Brought Prosperity, but Not for Everyone

Source: By VICTORIA BURNETT, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Many landowners in La Ventosa, Mexico, a windy town in the southern state of Oaxaca, leased their property to Spanish companies for wind turbines. Some residents living in their shadow see a changed landscape but no financial benefits. Kirsten Luce for The New York Times 

LA VENTOSA, Mexico — At night, Juan Piñeda López hears the hum of a wind turbine that churns 300 yards away from his adobe house. Sometimes he catches the stench of lubricant that spews down the turbine’s mast.

Beyond that, Mr. Piñeda said, the forest of turbines that has sprung up on the plains here in the southern state of Oaxaca in recent years barely affects him.

And that is the problem.

Eight years after Mexico embraced the fight against climate change, setting off a wind rush in Oaxaca’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec, people in poor, indigenous communities are divided over the benefits of the green revolution.

Some are even turning wind projects away. More than 1,000 residents of Juchitán de Zaragoza, a mainly indigenous Zapotec city about 20 miles from Mr. López’s home in La Ventosa, have blocked plans to build one of Latin America’s biggest wind farmsclose to the city.

The case underscores the need to balance the scramble for clean energy with the concerns of those whose lands produce it, said Beatriz Olivera, an engineer who for several years led the climate change campaign for Greenpeace Mexico.

She added, “We want wind energy, but not at any price.”

In La Ventosa, a quiet town of 4,000 residents and winds so powerful at times they can blow over a truck, the energy boom has left its imprint. More than a dozen small construction companies that build infrastructure for the wind farms have sprung up in the past eight years. On many streets, smart two-story houses mingle with scruffier dwellings.

Iberdrola, the Spanish energy company that owns the wind farm behind Mr. Piñeda’s house, has paved roads and built drains, part of social projects in the region that have cost more than $1 million, a company spokesman said.

Cosme Vera, a farmer who rents 100 acres to Iberdrola for $2,900 a month, has renovated his farmhouse and bought air-conditioners for the bedrooms. Mr. Vera, 69, said that his annual rent from Iberdrola was four times as much as what he makes from growing sorghum. “My job now is to go to the bank once a month and pick up the money,” he said.

Not everyone has prospered, though. Wind farms create a burst of employment during construction, but much less after that, experts and residents said.

Shojanes Pinera Gutierrez, 9, left, lives with his grandparents and extended family in a poor community under the turbines. CreditKirsten Luce for The New York Times 
 Those who own no land get no rent — including Mr. Piñeda, a farmhand. His street is unpaved, and his two-room house has no running water. He fell so far behind on electricity payments that the provider cut him off eight months ago.

“We thought that everyone would benefit, whether they had land or not,” said Mr. Piñeda, 52.

He waved a hand to mimic the wind. The fruits of the turbines “blow past and leave nothing,” he said.

Objections to the wind farms go beyond a spoiled vista, experts said. In one of Mexico’s poorest regions, they have deepened inequality.

Mexican and foreign energy companies have paid off local power brokers to bring landowners on board, according to lawyers and activists. Yet in some cases, money they had donated for social projects evaporated in the hands of municipal officials.

“We’ve had years of wind projects, but poverty is the same,” said Andrea Cerami, a lawyer with the Mexican Center for Environmental Law in Mexico City.

Liliana López, 40, who was picking bougainvillea outside her house, near Mr. Piñeda’s, said that the wind farm had been “good for the village but not for us.” Her husband and sons worked in Oaxaca City, she said, because they could not find work closer.

Like other residents, she listed the rumored ill effects of the wind farms: people left with rashes and coughs, depleted groundwater and cows that will not calve. Prices of basic goods — from food to wheelbarrows — have risen, the residents said. Neighbors have become covetous, said Ms. López, adding, “Everyone wants a piece of the pie.”

Since 2004, investors have plowed $9 billion into wind farms in Mexico, said Leopoldo Rodríguez, the president of the Mexican Association of Wind Energy. The energy capacity of Oaxaca’s wind farms, which lie within a 20-mile radius of La Ventosa, shot from 160 megawatts in 2008 to 2,360 megawatts in 2015, enough to power hundreds of thousands of households every year. Capacity in Oaxaca is projected to rise to more than 5,500 megawatts by 2018.

Those goals hit a setback in October after members of the Zapotec indigenous community in Juchitán were granted an injunction to stop Energía Eólica del Sur, a consortium that includes Macquarie Mexican Infrastructure Fund, part of an Australian investment bank, from building a 400-megawatt wind farm on rural land outside the city.

Lucila Bettina Cruz Velázquez, an activist who opposes the project, said that some residents feared the wind farm would harm cattle, migratory birds and bats, and that they did not want turbines to hem in the city.

Liliana López, 40, picking bougainvillea outside her home in La Ventosa. She said that the wind farm had been “good for the village but not for us.” Her husband and sons worked in Oaxaca City, she said, because they could not find work closer. CreditKirsten Luce for The New York Times 
 “They come to change our landscape,” she said. “To cut down our trees. To disturb our farming.”

The lawsuit argued that the government failed to adequately consult Juchitán’s indigenous people about the wind project, an obligation under a 2014 hydrocarbons law. The government broke this rule by giving permits to Eólica del Sur during the consultation, it asserted.

Human rights lawyers and academics said the consultation was flawed in other ways: The rules were unclear; not all of the documents were translated into Zapotec; and activists had been threatened by people allied with local politicians or with the consortium.

A representative of Eólica del Sur in Mexico City did not respond to requests for comment. Katya Puga Cornejo, director of social impact assessment for the Mexican Energy Ministry, said that officials held more than 40 public meetings over eight months to debate the project.

The wind farm was approved with a show of hands at a meeting in July 2015, she said.

The fate of Eólica del Sur now lies with the courts. One judge found in favor of the government in June, and the indigenous group appealed. A final judgment could take weeks or months, according to Ricardo Lagunes, a lawyer involved in the case.

Some residents, including Jose López de la Cruz, 52, hope the project will be revived. Mr. López, an engineer in La Ventosa who has worked on wind farms since 2008, lost his job, along with 70 other workers, when the project froze.

“People are very poor,” he said. “Many were expecting income from Eólica del Sur.”

Either way, the case could be a watershed, environmental lawyers and renewable energy experts said. From now on, they believe, communities in Oaxaca will bargain harder with the government and energy companies before agreeing to projects on their land.

Carlos Tornel, an energy consultant in Mexico City, said that resistance to wind projects could spread to other regions. If the government did not heed local concerns, it could harm its goal of increasing wind capacity to 19,000 megawatts by 2028, he said.

Mr. Piñeda, the farmhand, was skeptical that people like him would start to receive a bigger share of the green-energy pie. Some “güeros” had stopped by recently to find out what improvements they might offer, he said, using the Mexican word for fair-skinned people.

“Like you, they asked questions,” he told a visiting journalist. “But then they went away, and nothing has changed.”