In theory, renewable energy should enable democratic, local ownership and control; almost any community has some kind of renewable capacity. This logical fallacy was made legitimate through the almost fabled Danish 1970s anti-nuclear movement that promoted renewable energies as ‘peaceful’ alternatives and that successfully forced the government to support community renewables.[i] However, across the world, the growth of the renewable sector has not followed Denmark’s lead, but instead has expanded through neoliberal and imperialistic ideology. Wind should be thought of as a resource in a particular place in the same way we might think about copper or coal, the extraction of which impacts local communities.
Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the corporate wind power projects of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, South Mexico where, particularly since 2008, private (overwhelmingly foreign) companies have developed approximately 20 projects, a total of 1,751.47 MW or 10m Mexicans. The wind resources were divided up between the energy companies behind closed doors a long time ago, (see map produced by the Mexican Wind Energy Association) and land has continued to be designated to companies year on year[ii]. Basically, the winds in this part of Mexico are exceptional, so companies can sell their wind to the grid at a profit without need for a subsidy[iii], generating carbon credits for Coca Cola and Walmart to continue with more of the same.
Far from facilitating community-led projects, recent energy reforms have encouraged international wind developers to take advantage of the rich wind resources.
The law changes have wholly neglected to consider communities as potential owners and operators of projects and have made it easier for already dominating multinational companies to develop more humungous, exploitative wind projects that have expropriated their land and have divided and created conflict in already marginalised indigenous communities.[i] Land is often illegally obtained through settling of contracts individually rather than through the communal self-governing community bodies that exist in most of Oaxaca and leased from the locals for up to 30 years during which time companies may sell the land use rights to third parties, without locals’ permission, leaving communities at risk. Most importantly, even if they are still technically allowed to use the land in some cases, they have nil control - and their land is used to collateralise debt – so if the project goes bad, who knows what might happen to the land. Exploitative contracts might pay a farmer between <a href=http://www.commoner.org.uk/N13/14-Oceransky.pdf> $400 and $770 per hectare per year</a> which pales in comparison with the millions of dollars companies extract from this wind resource and demonstrates communities’ tendencies to think of deals as land leases rather than access to wind resources.
Whether in Mexico or elsewhere, when economically poorer, often rural communities are able to sell electricity to the grid and have control of their resources, they become economically empowered through the revenue they receive, offering opportunities for democratic local development, in whatever communities choose.
Evidently, how Mexicans and Westerners do this is going to be very different. Indigenous people have endured colonialism since 1492, and finally need to be able decide what happens to their land. This is after all to deal with climate problems caused by non-indigenous rich people whom they've never met – apart from with a gun to their head; or maybe a backpacker; or maybe all the cultural hegemony that threatens to wipe out their culture regardless. Whereas in the UK you might be able to find the money and expertise to set-up a small wind co-op or Community Interest Company (CIC) with others from your local area, in Oaxaca communities usually lack the legal, technical and financial resources even for small energy projects. What they do have though, are hard fought post-revolution agricultural self-governing bodies that provide an incredibly favourable socio-political structure for the development of community-owned wind farms.[ii] Many of these indigenous governance mechanisms are far more developed and directly democratic than decision-making structures we have in the UK.
In order for local people in Oaxaca to collectively own and operate their own wind farm, a new socially motivated model is being worked out by The Yansa Group in the form of the first large-scale community-owned indigenous wind power project in Latin America, which will be located in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, Mexico. Supported by Yansa, the 100MW ($200m) project will be registered as a UK Community Interest Company to ensure its revenue is used for social ends and will be owned and developed by the local comuna, the recognised democratic agricultural body that operates the majority of Ixtepec’s land.
Unlike all the other corporate projects in the area, creating the project does not involve the lease of community land rights. It will be financed through bank loans and impact investors by means of low-interest and concessional loans that do not give investors equity ownership or shares; therefore the community has control.
Half of the profits will be reinvested back into the Ixtepec community via a Development Trust and other mechanisms which are completely under their control; the other half will go towards Yansa for financial security and supporting new community projects elsewhere. The community reinvestment is important as most of the 30,000 people in the town are not members of the comuna; and most of the members are old men. Thus, Yansa is enabling the creation of various for a – including women’s and youth - to encourage marginalised groups to be involved and make sure this isn't a poor excuse for a community project.
Ixtepecans are very hopeful that this project is established; it will generate enough revenue to significantly change the social landscape of the town in the areas they choose, revive the under-subsidised farming tradition and create long-term jobs through democratic mechanisms.
Renewable energy currently has an incredibly positive image: an infallible, pure and ‘clean’ solution to climate change. But there is nothing ‘clean’ or sound about the way in which these technologies are being developed in many countries. If indigenous communities aren’t allowed to use their resources to actively lead and shape their own renewable projects then climate change mitigation and adaptation just provides another excuse for colonialism. Let's not forget, there is probably a reason indigenous peoples were left with some of the windiest regions of 'New Spain'.
Abramsky K (ed.), (2010), Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in a Transition to a Post-Petrol World, AK Press, http://p2pfoundation.net/Sparking_A_Worldwide_Energy_Revolution
Dunlap, A. ‘The Coming Elections in Mexico’, June 4, 2015 http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/06/04/the-coming-elections-in-mexico
Hoffmann, J. (2012), The Social Power of Wind: The Role of Participation and Social Entrepreneurship in Overcoming Barriers for Community Wind Farm Development: Lessons from the Ixtepec Community Wind Farm Project in Mexico http://www.lumes.lu.se/database/alumni/10.12/Thesis/Hoffmann_Julia_201224.pdf
Oceransky, S. (2008-9), The Role of Ownership and Decision-Making Models in Indigenous Resistance to Wind Projects in Southern Mexico, issue 13 http://commoner.org.uk/N13/14-Oceransky.pdf
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