In their attempts to mitigate one of the most defining crises of the modern era, climate scientists, policy makers, and renewable energy companies are scrambling to innovate and develop ever-more efficient ways of sourcing energy, and with a plethora of positive results.
As of 2016, the cost of generating energy through wind and solar dropped such that it became competitive with oil and gas as a viable energy alternative, largely due to an influx of global investment. Meanwhile, just this month, the UK announced that a substantial increase in wind and solar power helped to generate 47% of its energy, breaking the UK record for clean energy – undeniably good news for the future of global energy, as renewable power sources are one of our strongest tools to combat climate change.
Nevertheless, renewable energy currently enjoys, somewhat falsely, an infallibly clean image. In theory, renewable energy should enable democratic, local ownership, however across the world the growth of this sector has expanded through the same aggressive and acquisitional ideals that are the benchmark of expansionist capitalist industries and have plagued communities in territories ripe for the extraction of renewable resources.
Many of the human rights issues in the renewable sector are congruent with those in other industries that have large land footprints, agriculture and mining being the most obvious examples. As we hover in the arrivals lounge of climate catastrophe, however, it is imperative that the rapid development of environmental solutions is not made at the expense of marginalised and vulnerable communities.
The Coronavirus pandemic has shown the world that businesses can make rapid and drastic changes where necessary, but these changes are currently absent in the pursuance of climate actions which respects human rights.
Recognising this ethical void at the core of renewables, a new groundbreaking report seeks to rectify this by asking companies to account for their actions with respect to human rights abuses. The Business and Human Rights Resources Centre (BHRRC) Benchmark Report establishes the first set of indicators against which companies in the renewable energy sector will be evaluated.
The benchmark measures some of the world’s largest wind and solar companies against 13 core indicators which align with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UN Guiding Principles), the principal global standard for preventing and addressing human rights abuses. Unanimously endorsed in 2011, they were put in place to implement the UN’s ‘Protect, Respect, and Remedy’ framework, which, in short, denotes state and corporate responsibility to respect human rights, and right of access to effective remedy for victims of abuses.
The report outlines how renewable energy companies currently approach human rights, and the findings and recommendations it contains will be used in future years to gauge progress towards goals.
In sum, and perhaps not surprisingly, given what we already know about the methodology and absence of core values in the sector, the renewable energy sector has been found severely wanting across all measured indices.
Across each of the five subsections of renewable energy – wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, and bioenergy – there were 197 reported allegations of human rights abuses, including killings, intimidation, land grabs, unsafe working conditions, and poverty wages, to name but a few.
Of the 16 companies analysed in the benchmark, only 7 had taken steps to embed human rights due diligence into their policies, just 4 had committed to the UN Guiding Principles, and none scored any points for awareness of, or commitment to, land rights. This is in spite of the fact that allegations of land rights abuse number among the most frequently reported allegations, and the fact that the 16 companies analysed – the biggest in their sector – carry out operations requiring thousands of hectares of land in every region of the world.
The region with the highest number of allegations of human rights abuses is Latin America, with 61% of all allegations globally; 114 since 2010. Though this figure seems disproportionately high, it will come as little surprise to anyone with a familiarity with the contention surrounding renewable energy and violation of indigenous land rights in the region.
Recent energy reforms in Latin America have encouraged international developers to exploit rich wind and solar resources in the region, as well as the communities to whom the land belongs, neglecting to consider these as stakeholders in new projects and thus propagating the continuing disenfranchisement of traditional groups which has been present as a modus operandi since time immemorial.
For instance, has a particularly troubled recent history of state and multinational companies attempting to steamroll the rights of indigenous communities to implement large wind and solar projects. In 2010, Mexico was among the top 10 countries for renewable energy investment, having increased its investment by 810% from the previous year to reach $6bn USD. What this climate-forward veneer obfuscates, however, is the divvying up of land resources behind closed doors, and the illegal attainment of land through the settling of contracts individually, rather than through communal self-governing community bodies, and without local permission.
In the Yucatan in particular there has been an upsurge of projects in recent years, all of which act as illustrative cases for the need for a diverse approach focusing on marginalised communities. The development of projects in this area are estimated to require more than 12,000 hectares of land close to protected areas, local populations, and sacred and archaeological sites. Most notable is the Yucatan Wind and Solar Park, a misfired brainchild of the Mexican government and JinkoSolar Holding Company, one of the 16 companies analysed in the BHRRC benchmark. As a consequence of this project, JinkoSolar were sued by residents of Valladolid and Cuncunul for contravening the rights of indigenous communities prior to consultation, and the permit for the park was revoked earlier this year.
For this one story of success for indigenous rights, however, there are a slew of communities which have been left critically at risk as a result of the development of renewable projects. Having endured a history of entrenched colonialism, indigenous peoples are being made to reckon with exploitative renewable energy projects in an attempt to mitigate a climate crisis caused by the very same people who colonised their land, and who, however indirectly, are doing so again.
To combat further possible contravention of human rights, the benchmark sets out practicable recommendations for future action, resting on several key pillars, including collaboration with peers in the renewable sector to achieve the goals laid out.
Among the most crucial recommendations for communities in a Latin American context is the focus on implementing policies directly pertaining to the rights of indigenous people. The report sets out what companies should know instinctively: that projects must include engagement with individuals and communities, and discussions at every stage must include all stakeholders, including women.
Terminating the egregious land-grabs which have hitherto flagrantly ignored the rights of these communities is an essential step in ensuring that renewable energy companies honour the fundamental rights of Indigenous communities. Where local communities are able to control their own resources and have equitable stakes in renewable energy products, they become economically empowered and are able to facilitate local development in whatever way they choose.
The key point is that they have the freedom to reinvest in their own communities, and that marginalised groups, including women and children, are able benefit first-hand from renewable energy.
The renewable energy sector will remain fundamentally flawed as long as companies continue to profit from the exploitation of the land rights of traditional communities, thus the future of energy consumption must rely on the generation of spaces in which a productive dialogue can take place.
The new BHRRC benchmark will go a long way to ensuring that the new energy sources of the Anthropocene are put in the service of creating ecologies and politics which do not merely perpetuate the self-defeating inequalities of the past.
For The Yucatan Times
Shannon Collins is Environment Correspondent at Ninth Wave Global, undertaking and writing investigative features for a range of international media outlets.
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