As India looks at cutting carbon, a wind farm scandal

The world’s third-largest maker of wind turbines is accused again of cheating tribal people to set up wind farms in India, highlighting the pitfalls of carbon-offset projects in developing countries.

By , Staff writer

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    Village life goes on beneath modern wind turbines generating energy, in the Duhle district, a rural area in India.
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The world’s third largest maker of wind turbines, Suzlon Energy Ltd., stands accused again of cheating tribal people off their land in order to set up wind farms in India, highlighting the dark side of a new industry that harvests profits from green energy and carbon offsets through projects in developing countries.

In an April cover story, The Christian Science Monitor reported how Suzlon built wind turbines on tribal lands in Maharashtra state, resulting in local unrest. Investors in the clean power project then offered to sell resulting carbon offsets to eco-conscious companies and individuals.

The company’s land dealings have caused another political uproar, this time in the state of Kerala. Opposition politicians brought proceedings to a halt in the state assembly late last month, charging that the government was ignoring reports by lower-level officials that tribal lands had been illegally transferred to a Suzlon affiliate through forgery and deception.

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The state government says it is finishing up its own investigation into the matter, which will be completed in a few weeks.

Suzlon also faces court action over the land deals. Company spokesman Anoop Kayarat says the case affects only a few wind turbines, which the court has allowed to continue operating while waiting for petitioners to state their case. He offered no further details and did not respond to additional e-mailed questions before press time.

Tribal people face difficulty getting land

Many tribal people in India have limited education and political power. They subsist on forest gathering or farming marginal lands and have faced difficulties obtaining title to lands they have been promised.

Kerala law forbids tribal people from selling their land to nontribals, in an effort to protect them from predatory developers. A 1999 law also prevents the government from taking their land except under certain conditions – which don’t include such industrial purposes, according to opposition politicians.

However, a firm associated with Suzlon somehow managed to acquire tribal land – at least 224 acres – so the company could erect wind turbines.

When district collector and the local Tribal Project Officer investigated, they found that “huge tracts of land belonging to the tribals in Attapady were transacted frequently by middlemen and even titles of land were forged in many cases,” writes the Business Standard newspaper.

Duped

Media reports allege that the middlemen duped the tribals into signing away their property through a variety of lies, such as that it was a lease not a sale, or that the land would go toward agricultural upgrades, road widening, or telephone poll construction.

Eventually, the real estate firm tied to Suzlon acquired the land and sold parcels to investors. Investors also paid Suzlon to build its turbines and operated them on the land.

Like in Maharashtra, media reports have questioned whether investors are really interested in generating wind power or are more interested in the difficult-to-acquire land. A report by Tehelka magazine notes that a 2005 Geological Survey of India revealed rich gold deposits in the Attapady region:

"The natives suspect this sudden love for wind energy might be an early sign of a gold rush. Judging by the number of jewelers who have acquired land in the region, there may be some truth to this."

The India-based company delighted the residents of Elgin, Ill. last week with plans to build a distribution warehouse and training center in the Midwestern city.

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