Change in the Air
Wind turbines tower over indigenous villagers who turned out to see then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón inaugurate a $550 million wind project in the state of Oaxaca in 2009.
It was the start of new cleaner energy drive for an oil-reliant nation, but one that has upended lives in the region's native farming and fishing villages.
The battle between new energy and traditional communities is being played out amid the steady gusts that sweep across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a narrow strip in southern Mexico that separates the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and is one of the windiest places on Earth (map).
Outsiders increasingly covet the power of those air currents as energy that can be captured by modern turbines and transported to nearby factories and distant cities. Largely thanks to Oaxaca's unique geography, Mexico's wind power capacity expanded to 1,350 megawatts in 2012, according to reports from a national wind industry conference in Mexico City last month, marking nearly a 140 percent expansion in capacity in a single year. Stands of the turbines now fill Oaxacan horizons, with more planned as developers pour millions of dollars into wind farms. While bringing development to the isolated area, the turbines have disrupted pastoral lifestyles and divided villages over leasing fees and other benefits promised to local communities.
The projects have arisen with strong support from Mexico's central government. Before leaving office in December, Calderón was seen as an active proponent of wind power. The projects also have the participation of well-known Mexican companies, including cement maker Cemex and retailer Walmart de Mexico. (See related blog post: "Ten (Short) Reasons to Be Excited About Wind Power.")
Local groups that oppose the developments say the companies have turned communities against each other as they negotiated land leases. Some also complain the developers cheated villages by not paying fair prices and abandoning promised development projects. The protests have given rise to project blockades and occasional violence, including several injuries last weekend, when police confronted protesters blocking company officials from reaching the site of a large project. Late last year, opponents scored a major victory when a judge delayed construction of that wind farm, which would be the largest in Mexico.