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The 'wind rush': Green energy blows trouble into Mexico

Green energy's big success is a rude awakening in the isthmus of Mexico.

By Erik VanceCorrespondent / January 26, 2012

Wind power is sweeping the globe: It's clean energy, but it does have some dirty business aspects that hit the developing world particularly hard. This is part of the cover story package in the Jan. 30 issue of The Christian Science Monitor magazine.

Reuters photo

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San Mateo del Mar, Mexico

The Isthmus of Tehuantapec, Mexico's narrowest point, is a powerful wind tunnel of air currents whipping through the mountains that separate the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

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Here, on the Pacific side, the wind shapes everything from the miles-long sandspits of Laguna Superior to the landscapes of the indigenous people's hearts.

Howling constantly through thatched roofs, the wind is powerful enough at times to support a grown man leaning back as if in a chair. Gales average 19 miles per hour, slapping waves over the bows of fishing skiffs and sandblasting anyone standing on the beach.

The wind is "sacred" in this village, says indigenous Huave fisherman Donaciano Victoria. "We believe that the wind from the north is like a man and the wind from the south is like a woman. And so you must not disrespect the wind."

North, in the town of La Venta, one woman says that when she leaves the isthmus, she's struck by how still the rest of the world is.

Others have noticed, too: There are few places like this on earth.

This isolated region of the state of Oaxaca is one of the world's most continuously windy spots. And because wind is a valuable commodity in a world seeking alternative energy, a "wind rush" – reminiscent of the gold and oil rushes of other eras – has swept into the isthmus.

Wind energy companies have swarmed to the area with big plans for wind farms to power the likes of Coca-Cola plants and Wal-Marts and a push to acquire huge tracts of land to do so. The "rush" for land farmed by locals since ancient times has divided the impoverished indigenous population over money, land rights, and changing values. Villagers' distrust of outsiders has led to increasing unrest throughout the Pacific edge of the isthmus for several years. Most recently, around the Laguna Superior, it has included a paralyzing blockade of one village by another and, in October, a deadly shooting at a demonstration.

"Oaxaca is the center of communal landownership. There is probably no worse place to make a land deal in Mexico," says Ben Cokelet, founder of the Project on Organizing, Devel­op­ment, Education, and Research.

And yet, with such an overwhelming wind resource, it was bound to attract development. The rush for Tehuantapec's wind energy is a green-tinged twist in the age-old story of resource extraction: The quest for "clean" energy isn't always so clean.

Farmers shocked at size of turbines

Mexico's potential wind energy capacity is enormous: 71 gigawatts, which is 40 percent more than the nation's entire installed electricity-generating capacity, including coal, gas, and hydropower. That potential was behind Mexican President Felipe Calderón's promise at the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Convention in Cancún to double solar and wind energy production from 3.3 percent of the nation's energy production to 7.6 percent in just two years (a goal Mex­ico is on track to hit later this year).

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