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What does ‘clean energy’ mean for indigenous communities in Mexico’s Isthmus of Te

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

By Miriam Taylor, Witness for Peace Mexico Team

Driving through southern Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the countryside unfolds like a glimpse into the not-so-distant future. Wind turbines turn busily as far as the eye can see, no fossil fuels required. As one of the windiest places in the world, this seems like an ideal way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a promising step toward combating climate change.

But in the global clamor for access to the burgeoning renewable energy market, winners and losers have already emerged. The local communities of the Isthmus region, largely indigenous, have at best been bribed, coerced, and misled into conceding their land rights to wind farm companies. At worst they have been ignored outright, and the federal and state government have granted land permits without free, prior and informed consent, and communities are fighting back.

Currently, the construction of the projected twenty-eight wind farms in the Isthmus region is half-finished. The construction companies are mostly Spanish: Iberdrola, Acciona, Endesa, Gamesa, and Gas Natural Fenosa, with international investments by corporations ranging from General Electric to Energy France and Mitsubishi. It is estimated that in terms of wind energy, the region has a production capacity of between 5,000 and 10,000 megawatts, which is enough to provide 18 million people with electricity. This energy, however, will not be available for consumption by the people who live in the Isthmus. It is destined for businesses such as FEMSA (a Coca-Cola subsidiary), Wal-Mart, Heineken, CEMEX, and Bimbo.

After the Mexican Revolution in 1917, the land rights of peasants were enshrined in the Constitution under Article 27 through the ejido system of communal land ownership. Although the federal government later instituted programs that would enable communities to privatize their land, the majority have opted not to do so, thus making land permits granted without previous consultation illegal.

In addition to Article 27, the rights of indigenous peoples are further protected by the Constitution through an amendment to Article 2, which states, “This Constitution recognizes and protects the right to self-determination of indigenous people and communities and, consequently, their right to autonomy, so that they may… (V) maintain and improve their habitat and preserve the integrity of their lands…” These protections, however, have proved ineffectual in practice. Pedro López Orozco, member of the Alvaro Obregon’s Peoples Assembly, commented in a recent interview with The Americas Program, “We as indigenous people have seen a high level of corruption in the three levels of government. For the State, the law is dead.” In addition to communities being left in the dark about projects, additional environmental impact studies are needed to determine what the effects of the wind farms would be on the local population, ecosystems, and water resources. The Isthmus is a migratory bird corridor, and records show a marked increase in bird deaths caused by wind turbines.

The turbines also require lubricants and other substances that have made their way into both the sea and fresh water aquifers. Fishermen have noted that fish have begun to leave areas close to the turbines, presumably due to their vibrations. And although research shows that wind farms have little effect on human health in sparsely populated areas, the Isthmus is home to 3.8 million residents, many of whom live within the area affected by the noise pollution generated by the turbines, which has been found to be 4,500 feet upwind and 7,000 feet downwind. Then comes the issue of payment. The vast majority of the inhabitants of the Isthmus live off subsistence farming and fishing. Renting their land for the construction of wind turbines has the potential to be positive for these communities and could provide sorely needed income in a country where an estimated 75% of indigenous people live in poverty. Corporations, however, have paid paltry rent sums that are only a fraction of what they would have had to pay in countries such as the U.S. or Denmark. Landholders report payments of 138 Mexican pesos (or US $12) per hectare per year, which is substantially less than they would make selling cow’s milk produced on that same land, for example.

Communities of the Isthmus have resisted continued marginalization since the beginning of this process. In the municipality of Juchitán in 2006, a group of neighbors decided to start a community radio project, Radio Totopo, using very basic equipment that would inform citizens about developments in the wind farm project in their native Zapotec language. In March of last year, Radio Totopo was attacked by state police and hired hitmen and much of its equipment was destroyed. Many of those who run the radio have received death threats or have been physically assaulted by groups they say were hired by the wind farm companies in order to intimidate them. As a result of the community collaboration in the radio project, the Popular Assembly of the People of Juchitán was formed. For several months members of the assembly took turns manning a physical barricade fashioned out of scrap metal, wood, and tarp that prevented access to the construction zone for a wind farm project planned by Mareña Renewables, a consortium of Dutch, Australian, and Japanese investment interests. The barricade withstood attacks by local, state, and federal police, the army, hired hitmen and paramilitary groups.

On January 1stof this year, another local municipality, Álvaro Obregón, took things one step further. In the spirit of the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, the community’s general assembly invoked the United Nations ILO Convention 169 and the 1996 San Andrés Accords, declaring itself an autonomous municipality. Inhabitants renounced all relationships with the state and federal government and affiliation with all political parties. However, the current mayor of Álvaro Obregón, Saúl Vicente Vázquez, does not recognize the validity of the move and has taken steps to de-legitimize it. The situation in the Isthmus has many layers, but is quite straightforward. The Mexican government has promoted the growth of alternative energy sources in the country using mechanisms like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and pro-corporate development projects such as the Mesoamerica Project. Doors were opened to international investors, banks, and multinational corporations, which benefit from the wind farms in myriad ways.

Corporations from developed countries can take advantage of the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, which enables them to invest in clean energy projects in the developing world and use the carbon credits from the project toward emissions reductions targets. They also collect the profits generated by the project itself. Businesses that consume the electricity can also receive Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) that they can count toward emissions reductions targets or sell as carbon offsets to other entities. But the land belongs to the people who have lived, fished, and farmed there for centuries. If they were included in the process with open access to information, were given a fair share of the profits produced by the wind farms, and if corporations could ensure the protection of the environment, the Isthmus has the potential to be a model of the future of renewable energy. Instead it’s become yet another example of neoliberalism disguised as sustainable development, and the people of the Isthmus are committed to stopping it.


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