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Report
Farmers and Scientists See Risks in Wind Energy
By Diego Cevallos

Mexico intends to erect as many as 3,000 wind turbines on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec by 2030. Peasant farmers have doubts about the project's benefits for the local community, and scientists warn about potential hazards to birds.

MEXICO CITY, Feb 26 (Tierramérica).- With the blessing of development agencies, transnational corporations and environmentalists, the Mexican government is breaking ground for a big wind energy project. But peasant farmers and bird experts aren't too happy about it.

The government's aim is for wind-generated electricity -- which now represents just 0.005 percent of the energy generated in Mexico -- to reach six percent by 2030.

Achieving that goal involves setting up more than 3,000 turbines in Mexico's windiest zone, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the southern state of Oaxaca, as well as several other wind farms around the country with dozens of turbines.

But erecting the windmills, tall towers with a 27-meter blade span, requires negotiating with landowners, most of whom are farmers. Some have complained that they were taken advantage of when the first wind farm was created in 1994.

Meanwhile, bird experts warn that many species are at risk of being killed by the giant blades, which could cause an environmental chain reaction across the continent, because various are migratory species.

"Everything is bent towards facilitating the wind farms, but there is not much interest in the birds, which in the long term could bring much broader problems," Raúl Ortiz-Pulido, spokesman for the Mexican office of the BirdLife International, told Tierramérica.

The scientist acknowledged that the bird issue is taken into account in the development of each wind energy project, but "in an incomplete and incorrect way," he said.

It is not the same to assess the effect of a project where a few turbines will be erected as it is to assess the impact of several projects together where there will be dozens of turbines, like the site planned for the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Ortiz-Pulido said.

It will be overall effect that will have an impact on the birds, he said.

But the authorities assure that the plans take the environmental question seriously.

"In any project there are people for and against it, but in the long term the experiences in other countries have shown that wind projects bring many benefits to the communities and there are no significant environmental effects," says Marco Borja, who heads a project to evaluate wind energy resources in Mexico for the state-run but independent Institute for Electricity Research, with the support of the Global Environment Fund (GEF).

In the last two years the government drew up norms to promote wind energy, and since December it has submitted to public review a new regulation for the use of wind energy from the environmental perspective. This could enter into force in March.

For even greater incentive, they obtained a non-repayable credit from GEF for 25 million dollars, granted through the World Bank. That is in addition to what the Institute for Electricity Research receives, and what the GEF has obtained from the United Nations Development Program -- for a total of nearly 30 million dollars.

The aim is to encourage an energy source that is growing worldwide by more than 30 percent a year, reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

In the environmental standards for wind farms now being debated, the officials propose eliminating the environmental impact studies that other projects require. This requirement would be replaced by a "preventive report", which is of a lower category and reduced scope.

In the introduction of the new norm, which by law must be open for public discussion for 60 days (with the deadline being the end of February), it is recognized that wind turbines can have "impacts on avian fauna".

It states that the head of the project should make an "inventory of species that utilize the area, detailing their relationships to determine the repercussion of the displacement of some of them, mating seasons, nesting and raising of young."

But some scientists say it would not be enough for the Isthmus area. Six million birds fly through Tehuantepec each year, including 32 endangered species and nine autochthonous species.

"We're academics, not activists. We don't know how to make our warnings reach the authorities," said Ortiz-Pulido.

In La Venta, part of the Juchitán municipality in Oaxaca state, is where most of the official plans for wind turbines are concentrated. The impoverished region is home to 150,000 people, most working in farming and livestock.

There, the farmers are also upset with the official plans.

"The landowners were fooled with fixed arrangements, ridiculous payments for rent (for installing the turbines) and impediments to farming. We won't allow any more plans to be carried out," Alejo Girón, leader of La Venta Solidarity Group, told Tierramérica.

The first wind project, La Venta I, began operating in 1994, and in the past two years continued with La Venta II. Now the government of Felipe Calderón has announced that it will open bidding for La Venta III, and others will follow, like the Oaxaca and La Ventosa projects.

They are projects in which transnational corporations like Spain's Iberdrola and France's Electricité have shown great interest, as have local firms like Cemex cement company, which are considering wind turbines for their own energy needs, and in some cases sell their surplus to the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE).

Finalizing these plans means convincing the landowners, to whom CFE pays for each one of the 100 turbines already installed in La Venta less than 300 dollars a year, which is 10 to 20 times less than what their counterparts in other countries receive, says Girón.

"The wind projects created almost no new jobs and they don't benefit the residents. Here nothing changed. We remain poor despite the fact that the CFE promised that this would change," Feliciano Santiago, municipal secretary of Juchitán, told Tierramérica.

* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent.

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