June 17, 2009

Wind is 'dirty business' for farmers in Mexico

(As it is everywhere.)

By Chris Hawley, USA Today, 17 June 2009:

The windmills stand in rows like an army of Goliaths, steel towers taller than the Statue of Liberty and topped with blades as long as a jetliner’s wing. The blades whoosh through the humid air, carving energy from a wind that rushes across Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec on its journey from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Nearly every day, another tower rises out of the countryside. ...

But the energy gold rush has also brought discord, as building crews slice through irrigation canals, divide pastures and cover crops with dust. Some farmers complain they were tricked into renting their land for as little as $46 an acre annually.

Opponents of Mexican President Felipe Calderón fear the generators are the first step toward privatizing Mexico’s energy sector. And some residents are angry that the electricity being generated is not going to homes here in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Mexico, but to power Walmart stores, Cemex cement plants and a few other industrial customers in Mexico.

“It has divided neighbors against each other,” said Alejo Giron, a communal farmer in La Venta. “If this place has so much possibility, where are the benefits for us?” ...

One day in 2006, a truck with a loudspeaker showed up in the town of Santa María Xadani.

“It went around saying there was going to be a program to help farmers, and that we should show up the next night for a meeting,” said farmer Abel Sánchez.

At the meeting, representatives from Spanish firm Endesa handed out soft drinks and explained that they wanted to rent land for their wind generators, Sánchez said.

It was a complicated deal. The company would pay 1.4% of the profit, plus $300 a year for each tower, with the money divided among the hundreds of landowners, a contract obtained by The Arizona Republic shows. Each landowner would get an additional $4.60 an acre annually, and the company would pay $182 per acre of land damaged during construction. There was a signing bonus of $37.

In exchange, property owners would have to get permission from the energy company before selling their land or striking deals for development.

One good cow can produce $90 of milk a month, so most farmers were unimpressed, Sánchez said. But the company representatives made it sound like a government program, he said, and there seemed to be little to lose. Many small landowners signed up even though they couldn’t read.

Meanwhile, construction began on other wind parks. Many landowners were shocked at the disruption. To support the huge generators, crews built gravel roads 50 feet across, hammered in pylons and poured 1,200 tons of concrete for each tower. Pads of gravel 100 feet long and 50 feet wide were dumped onto sorghum fields and grazing land to support the cranes.

Farmer Salvador Ordaz now has two roads cutting through his 16 acres of pasture and says part of the land is unusable because of dust and blocked irrigation lines. He has had to cut his herd to 10 cows from 30. “When you think of windmills, you just think of this one tower,” Ordaz said. “But it affects a lot more land than that.”

Some companies are paying 50 cents to $1 per square yard annually for damages and have promised to remove much of the gravel once construction is complete. But Sánchez and about 180 other farmers in the towns of Xadani, Union Hildago and Juchitán decided they wanted none of it. They sued Endesa and two other Spanish companies, Preneal and Union Fenosa, saying the companies had misled poorly educated landowners and tricked them into signing lopsided deals.

Endesa and Union Fenosa did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Preneal declined to comment.

Pasqualetti said the payments are a fraction of the $3,000 to $5,000 that energy companies pay annually to farmers in Iowa. “The evidence would indicate (Mexican landowners) are not getting what they should be getting,” he said.

In October, Preneal relented and canceled its contracts with the dissenting landowners. Endesa and Union Fenosa did the same in March.

“It’s clean energy but dirty business,” said Claudia Vera, a lawyer at the Tepeyac Human Rights Center who helped the landowners with their case.

Opposition has spread to other towns, sometimes opening up old racial and political feuds.

In San Mateo del Mar, populated by Huavé Indians, residents voted to keep out the energy companies, re-igniting territorial disputes with neighboring villages dominated by Zapotec Indians, said local activist Roselia Gutiérrez.

In La Venta, proponents and opponents have broken along political party lines, with Institutional Revolutionary Party members supporting the contracts and the more liberal Democratic Revolutionary Party opposing them. On the national level, the Democratic Revolutionary Party has accused Calderón of using the wind farms as a test case for privatizing Mexico’s oil and electricity sector.

Demonstrations in La Venta have halted construction six times at the Eurus wind farm, owned by Acciona Energy. Graffiti in the town blasts company officials and members of the local ejido, or farm cooperative. “Get out, Wilson!” says one. “La Venta belongs to the ejido members!” says another.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Tehuantepec printed fliers depicting the Spanish companies as invading Spanish galleons. “No to the robbery of our territory! No to the wind power projects!” they say. Hundreds of protesters demonstrated when Calderón came to inaugurate a project in January. ...

Many residents say they’ve benefited. ...

Others wonder how long the good times will last. Once construction is finished, Acciona has promised to remove the gravel pads and reduce the access roads from 50 feet wide to 20. The land-damage fees it pays will shrink dramatically then.

“People are not thinking about the long term,” Giron said. “Those generators will be making millions of dollars for the company, and they will be limiting what you can do with your land for 30, 40 years. Soon, whatever they’re paying won’t seem like very much money anymore.”

wind power, wind energy, wind farms, environment, environmentalism, human rights, anarchism, ecoanarchism, anarchosyndicalism