Wind Farms in the Yucatan: When Renewables Are a Zero-Sum Enterprise

YUCATAN, México – Historically isolated from the rest of Mexico, the Yucatan peninsula has a distinct topography and a unique array of ecosystems, each home to its own variety of plants and wildlife. Notwithstanding, and in keeping with how industry thinks and breathes, the last few years have seen an exponential increase in using land in the area for the development of industrial infrastructure. It is little surprise, therefore, that this brings about an enhanced ecological threat, not just to the landscape and wildlife but also to its people.

Land use can, of course, take many forms, some more obviously controversial than others. In the recent past, vast pig farms have plagued the region and its immediate hinterlands, and at the other end of the scale, broad environmentalism tends to welcome the likes of solar and wind farms. Notwithstanding their perceived sustainability and the absence of fossil fuels, with some renewables, not all is as it may seem. 

Non-conventional energy sources, especially renewable ones, have enjoyed a ‘clean’ image vis a vis their environmental impacts, but renewable energy sources are not always the panacea they are popularly believed to be. Solar energy, for instance, is the largest of the renewable energy sources, but in order to generate a utilisable amount of power on a national scale, large tracts of land are required for the installation of photovoltaic cells. These tracts of land are also preferably located in the vicinity of population centres to reduce distribution losses.

Moreover, the production and installation of solar technology brings its own brigade of problems. Some of the minerals required for cutting edge solar technology, such as tellurium, are in incredibly short supply. Globally, most tellurium used today is indirectly mined as a by-product of milled copper and iron, however increasing requirements for renewable energy sources, such as those in Mexico, mean that mining companies are looking to deep-sea mining of ocean floor deposits to meet the demand, which, needless to say, hails its own catalogue of long-term environmental issues.

Local implementation of climate policies is often an obscure process, and presents not simply an environmental issue, but also a fundamental human rights issue. The world over, there is a history of governments and local authorities extinguishing indigenous land claims, seizing spatial control in a disempowerment of native communities rooted in colonial history.

The resurgence of historical prejudices in illustrative cases of authoritarian control, in Latin America and elsewhere, have refused to abate with an increased interest in greener energy solutions, in spite of protection of the rights of indigenous groups to make decisions about their land, under the ILO Convention 169. The International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169 aims to facilitate a dialogue between a country’s government and the Indigenous communities of that country, protecting the rights of communities to maintain freedom over the development of social and economic institutions. Crucially, ILO 169 requires that governments should respect the importance of cultures and spiritual values regarding a community’s relationship with the land and listen to the needs of communities.

Indeed, in Mexico, in the lead up to his election in 2018, Lopez Obrador’s political project was the alignment of the presidency with the will of the people, and the creation of a social movement which, while wholly transformative, fell somewhere short of revolution. As his term has progressed, however, it seems that the harmony and unity promised by the campaign have given way to the centralisation of government power, and a growing unease about the failure of the promised transformation. The issue at stake is the right to influence decisions about state-imposed projects which will upend the socio-economic and environmental balance in rural communities. It is a conflict in autonomy between the centre and its outliers; a capital and the regions.

When a national government and its provinces are at a cross purposes in this way, the already-contentious issue of land rights and renewable energy takes on a more treacherous edge. For instance, among the slew of seemingly innocuous clean energy projects on the fast track to implementation across Central and South America was the Yucatan Solar and Wind Park, initially authorised in 2017. The wind and solar park was set to cover 250 hectares of land and contain 313,140 modules. The project was authorised as a collaboration between the Mexican government and JinkoSolar Holding Company, who, in 2019, completed the construction of a 66-hectare photovoltaic plant in San Ignacio, Progreso. Mexico is JinkoSolar’s second-largest export market, representing more than 10% of the company’s total revenue. It is hardly surprising, then, that despite a ruling against the Yucatan Solar Park, the company is still trying to keep the project alive as a private venture that does not depend on a contract with the state-owned Federal Electricity Commission.

In May 2020, however, the Supreme Court annulled the permit for the solar and wind farm, citing a contravention of Indigenous communities’ rights to prior consultation, after residents of Cuncunul and Valladolid, 1500 kilometres south of Mexico City, sued JinkoSolar. The Second Chamber of the Mexican Supreme Court unanimously found a judgement of opposition against the project, and mandated that social and economic impacts on Indigenous communities must be evaluated in collaboration with the communities themselves in order that they receive ‘fair and equitable benefits’. Notably, the same court denied an injunction against the construction of a cyanide plant in Durango, which has been a subject of liturgical contention since 2018.

The expansion of renewable energy sources is legally mandated in Mexico under the 2015 Energy Transition Law, (Ley de Transición Energética) which mandates that 30% of Mexico’s energy must come from renewable sources by 2021, and 35% by 2024. Mexico’s recent commitment to the law, however, has been shaky at best. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s support for the fossil fuel industry, despite his early promises, has threatened to halt progress towards these goals, making moves at the expense of a renewable energy programme. Though rural communities may generate their own energy through off-grid renewable energy projects, a lack of capital and technical knowledge often inhibits the widespread success of such grassroots ventures.

In light of this, a moratorium against such a large renewable energy project could seem counterintuitive. In fact, the truth is precisely the opposite. The rejection of the solar park project does not signify a rejection of renewable energy as a whole; rather, environmental concern was one of the two key prongs of the defence against Jinkosolar.

Local Mayan populations have condemned the litany of environmental threats posed by the project, including deforestation and direct threat to endangered species, such as the ocelot and the Tamandula anteater, both of which are at risk of extinction.

The second prong of the defence against the solar park project stems from a more deeply entrenched discontent with the violation of the rights of Indigenous communities to prior consultation on projects that affect their livelihoods. Communities were not consulted on the installation of the solar farm and were given incomplete information on the project. It is on these grounds, and in keeping with ILO 169, that the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in favour of a resolution which respects the “prior and informed consultation of Indigenous peoples” and condemned the lack of field analysis and consultation conducted in the leadup to the solar park project.

This is certainly not, however, the first instance in recent Mexican history of a government imposition upon rural communities which pays no regard to the drastic effects such changes would wreak on the local economy and ecosystem. For today’s Yucatan citizens, the Tren Maya and its consultative debacle has further served to widen the fracture between government policy and local feeling. Due to stretch across the states of Yucatan, Campeche, Tabasco, Chiapas and Quintana Roo, the Tren Maya highlights the disconnect between what the central government in Mexico City is touting as the introduction of essential new infrastructure, and what communities want for themselves.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that environmental initiatives must necessarily be community driven and interwoven with the fabric of the lifestyles of the people they purport to protect. So whilst the halting of the Yucatan Solar and Wind Park represents a small victory in Mexico, it is by no means indicative of a trend. There needs to be more work done to ensure that the climate policies are consistently implemented in line with the fundamental human rights of indigenous populations. Taken in conjunction, what the Yucatan Solar Park and Tren Maya reveal is a fundamental lack of consideration for Indigenous communities, a lack of respect whose roots reach far back into the past towards anachronistic and dangerous colonial attitudes.

In the list of challenges Latin America has to face up in the early twenty-first century, how to genuinely partner with indigenous communities and their sovereign land could not be higher up the list. 

For The Yucatan Times
Shannon Collins

Shannon Collins is a freelance writer, contributing to a variety of publications. As well as working with environmental organisations, she is pursuing a MA in English Linguistics at University College London.