Located in the south of Mexico, the Isthmus of Tehuántepec crosses both Oaxaca and Veracruz. The Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are divided by only around 200km, making this Mexico’s narrowest point. Development projects have been operating in the area since the early 20th century, and PBI has accompanied human rights defenders protecting land and territory – and facing threats for their opposition to such projects – since 2011.
“The isthmus, commercial route for the world”
In 1907, General Porfirio Díaz opened the commercial route which connects the ports of Salina Cruz (Oaxaca) with Coatzacoalcos (Veracruz): it was publicised as “The isthmus, commercial route for the world”. With the opening of the Panama Canal international traffic moved to other coastlines, but the dream of connecting these two ports was never abandoned: the government of Enrique Peña Nieto called it the “Salina Cruz Special Economic Zone”.
The current government is promoting the “Multimodal Interoceanic Corridor”, a project which incorporates the “modernisation of the Isthmus’ railway […] to be able offer services for cargo, transport, storage, packaging and various logistical services; infrastructure will be strengthened in the highways, rural roads and the airport network; and a gas pipelines will be built to supply businesses and domestic consumers. […] free zones will be created to attract investment from the private sector”.1
As well as being a very attractive location for international traffic, the Isthmus of Tehuántepec is the region with the greatest potential for generating power through wind energy in Mexico. Today, the population of the town of Unión Hidalgo is facing down the construction of a new wind farm called Gunaa Sicarú (Central Eólica Gunaa Sicarú), with approximately 300 wind turbines.
Business interests vs the needs of local peoples
Despite President Andrés Manuel López Obrador affirming that authorisation has already been obtained from indigenous communities for the Development Plan for the Isthmus of Tehuántepec (Programa para el Desarrollo del Istmo de Tehuántepec, PDIT)2, various communities and social organisations claim that it was a simulated consultation:
In the Isthmus of Tehuántepec we experience a serious contradiction: on the one hand, rich land; on the other, many of its people, mostly indigenous, live in poverty. This situation is a result of the pillaging promoted by governments for the benefit of transnational companies. The best example of this is the wind farm megaproject, where more than four billion US dollars have been invested, but this substantial investment has not benefited the local people while it has generated immense profits for European electricity companies.3
The communities visited by the 2019 International Mission to Observe and Document the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in Oaxaca, organised by the Oaxaca Consortium (Consorcio Oaxaca), expressed the same opinions. (PBI Mexico, together with other national and international organisations, accompanied the Mission.)
- Unión Hidalgo
“If they build the Trans-Isthmus Corridor, they’re going to ask us for more energy… the roads that used to be ours now have checkpoints. People who used to live from hunting and collecting firewood no longer have access to that land,” said one community member in Unión Hidalgo. He spoke with us in the public information meeting for the regional environmental impact statement (manifestación de impacto ambiental, modalidad regional), which PBI attended at the request of organisation Código DH.
The community members already understand the impacts of wind farms. In 2004, private owners signed land-rental agreements with the company DEMEX; this was followed by the construction of the first wind farm in Unión Hidalgo, “Piedra Larga Fase I” and Piedra Larga Fase II”. The signing of those contracts and the resulting construction were conducted without respect for communal land management, and without free, prior and informed consent. The residents did not receive any information in their native language (Zapotec), nor did they receive information on the social, environmental and economic impacts the project would bring. Opposition was immediate, but amid evictions and acts of aggression by Oaxaca State Police, DEMEX’s project went ahead.
Now, Unión Hidalgo is confronted with the construction of the new Gunaa Sicarú Wind Farm. Community members claim that the land and territory would be seriously affected because the project will incorporate approximately 300 turbines, to be installed in natural reservation areas with a significant presence of fauna, palm groves and aquifers. The community has suffered harassment, criminalisation, threats, acts of intimidation and attacks, as well as the closure of roads leading to agricultural and pastoral lands and the burning of palm trees (which many families depend on for their subsistence).
Óscar Marín Gómez, the region’s communal property representative, identified the major challenge: communal lands are being handed over to wind-farm and mining megaprojects through leases. In addition, Marín Gómez emphasised that the damage the wind-farm companies had caused to more than 30,000 hectares of land must be evaluated before granting further concessions. He also pointed out the need to investigate the corruption that permitted those concessions in the first place.4
- San Dionisio
The General Assembly of the Town of San Dionisio del Mar describes the Barra Santa Teresa Wind Farm (Parque Eólico Barra Santa Teresa) on the sandbar of the same name as:
“the second-biggest in the world. And of course it will have extremely serious consequences for our municipality: attacks on our primary source of survival, which is fishing; attacks on the primary food of the ethnic groups of the region, the Huave (Ikojts) people; and massive destruction of the flora and fauna in this area[, p]rimarily mangroves and marine birds; profanation of the ancestral and religious ceremonial sites in the area; visual and noise pollution for the neighbouring settlement in Pueblo Viejo.”5
The Assembly’s iron-willed opposition has stopped machinery passing to begin building this project since 2012.
“The enemy isn’t among us; it’s over there, waiting for us to divide ourselves,” says Isaúl Zelaya López.6 And it is the social fabric which is one of the aspects most affected by the wind farms’ arrival. Despite the fact that San Dionisio is one of the few towns which has successfully avoided the farms’ construction, it has cost them conflict with their neighbouring town, Santa María del Mar, and the political instability of nine years without a mayor.
The residents of Unión Hidalgo have likewise suffered rejection and vilification by their neighbours who have rental contracts with the wind-farm companies. “For me, progress is when unity and brotherhood grow, when women can govern beyond our hearths […] women are the basis of this town. Development is when I can walk safely at night,” say the women of the Unión Hidalgo collective Indigenous Women Defending Life (Mujeres Indígenas Defensoras de la Vida).7 The group established a community kitchen to contribute to rebuilding the town and its social fabric.
PBI will continue to accompany the communities of the Isthmus of Tehuántepec as they search for progress.
1 National Development Plan 2019–2024 (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2019-2024), pp. 53-54. PBI’s translation.
2 “In a consultation conducted through regional assemblies, authorisation for the project was obtained from the region’s peoples: the Biniza or Zapotec, Ayuuk or Mixe, Zoque, Ikojts or Huave, Chontal, Chinantec, Mazatec, Popoluca, Náhuatl and Afromexican” (National Development Plan 2019–2024, p. 54). PBI’s translation.
3 Declaration “The Isthmus is Ours”, signed by various social, trade-union and community-based organisations in Oaxaca. PBI’s translation.
4 Statements made at the public event, “The importance of the communal defence of land”, commemorating 55 years of the Presidential Resolution on Communal Property in June 2019. PBI attended at the request of the organisation ProDESC.
5 Press release, General Assembly of the Town of San Dionisio del Mar, 17 August 2012.
6 Statement made during the 8th Anniversary of the General Assembly of the Town of San Dionisio del Mar. PBI attended at the request of Código DH, which accompanies the Assembly.
7 Statements made during the International Mission to Observe and Document the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in Oaxaca, on 18 October 2019.