Conflict in Mexico over wind power land deals

MEXICO: The arrival of a large number of foreign wind developers in a low-income rural area in Mexico has caused conflict among the region's subsistence farmers.

Livelihood threat. Subsistence farming is at risk
Livelihood threat. Subsistence farming is at risk

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Wind development in Mexico has focused on southern state Oaxaca, where Mexico's landmass narrows and a natural funnel formed by two mountain ranges brings strong and reliable winds for more than half the year. The Isthmus has just over 500MW in place.

Bettina Cruz, a community activist and trained agricultural engineer based in Oaxaca town Juchitan de Zaragoza, says: "There are many campesinos (subsistence farmers) who signed land contracts with the foreign companies because of the government's abandonment of farming," says Cruz.

"There are now groups of people who are with the companies and groups of people who are against," she says. "It has created divisions between families and neighbours. There have been fights with rocks and firearms."

The campesinos of the region are indigenous people who often speak Zapoteco rather than Spanish and who may not understand the contracts they have signed, Cruz says.

"The companies tell people that they will have their land expropriated by the government if they don't cooperate," Cruz adds. "Many of them sign contracts without realising that they are for 20 or 30 years and include automatic renewal clauses."

Cruz also accuses the firms of refusing to give the campesinos a copy of the contract they have signed, a practice that occurs in many contexts in Mexico.

"We are arguing for a moratorium on all new wind farms until the profits can be distributed fairly," Cruz says. She signalled one possible model as that seen in Ixtepec, a town where much land is held in common and where the non-government organisation, the Yansa foundation, on which Cruz serves as an adviser, plans to build a wind farm which will pay residents 50% of profits from the electricity generated.

Cruz also argues that the short distance between wind towers, just 100 metres, affects the farming of maize, a staple crop that Oaxacans use in several basic foods.

The Mexican press has reported land conflicts in the region going back at least five years, long before ground was broken on many of the projects.

The Mexican Wind Power Association (AMDEE), meanwhile, has publicly argued that there has also been unscrupulous behaviour by small landowners as well as unscrupulous negotiators, nicknamed "coyotes", who have no land themselves, but who try to sell rights over the same property to multiple wind firms.

A presentation on the AMDEE website argues that long-term contracts are actually a benefit, offering income streams that can be passed on to dependents. The association even has an office which helps small landowners to register their existing holdings, a valuable resource in rural areas where title documents are often missing and any bureaucracy is a steep challenge.

Some uncertainty has also been added to the mix by the change of government in Oaxaca, due to elections on July 4. The Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) that had ruled the state for decades has been replaced in the governorship by the National Action Party (PAN) which also holds the nation's presidency.

The PAN is a pro-business party, but came to power at state level in a broad coalition of leftand right-wing parties. The coalition may face divisions on how to move forward.

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