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Wind | Breath | Sacred Life Force

Spanish Wind Farms on Indigenous Land

The Zapotec [natives] of Southern Mexico [...] referred to the wind as peé. No one can see the wind, but the Zapotec were sure it existed because they could feel it on their faces, see it bend trees, and hear it howl during storms. They recognized the similarity between that wind and the equally invisible breath that flowed in and out of their bodies [giving them life]. [...] Wind was a sacred force; for them, breath was the difference between life and death. [And so], peé came to mean "wind", "breath", and "sacred life force".

–The Creation of Inequality (Flannery & Marcus)

Horizon of turbines. Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca.

For decades now, governments and energy companies have used a rhetoric of “clean” or “green” energy to favor and push megaproject developments that guarantee the continuation of exponential economic growth under the guise of “environmental friendliness”. Wind farms, specifically, have come to be known as the “champion” of green energy–the giant turbines cover rolling hills and plains for miles in areas known for their constant winds, continuously turning without tire and generating thousands of watts of energy for far-away factories and busy urban landscapes. But lost in the praise of wind-generated energy is concern for the enormous quantity of land taken over by the wind farms, and the impacts of their presence on the communities they tower over and the ecosystems they disrupt. It’s not just a few turbines powering a small, local community–as could be a reasonable use of this technology–it’s thousands of turbines covering a span of hundreds of miles of land, connected to enormous power stations and transported (using fossil fuels) to giant corporations on the other side of the world. 

One of the regions most speculated for wind energy is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where the mountain ranges of North and Central America converge at one of the narrowest strips of land connecting the Americas, and naturally creating a geological tunnel that pulls strong winds between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. The region was established as the “Wind Corridor” under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in order to create more favorable conditions for the flow of goods and raw materials between Central and North America, and, according to former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, “diminish the economic and social backwardness of these regions”, referring to the prevalent Zapotec population to whom the isthmus has been home for thousands of years. 

​Mexico is committed (and obligated) by both law and debt to “limit the electrical energy generated by fossil fuels to sixty-five percent (from the current eighty percent) by 2024”, according to the Clean Energy Extraction and Energy Transition Financing Law, and the industrial development of the isthmus continues to be their number-one priority to meet this quota. At least twenty-one wind farms have been installed in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the last twenty-one years, and major infrastructure projects for the transportation of this energy and other raw materials are currently underway. 

The corporations and industrialized nations which invest in these projects claim that wind energy is the ideal form of reducing carbon emissions, but, like other forms of “green” energy generation, wind farms are proving destructive in their own ways. 

Mural of Life, at Totopo Community Radio. Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca.

For the indigenous people of Mexico,sembrar maiz is a life-giving ritual of shared knowledge between the people and the earth. For thousands of years, Zapotec farmers in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec listened to the sounds and songs of their animal neighbors, and knew when to plant their fields and when to harvest, when the rains and dry heat would arrive. Now, the sound of the thousands of surrounding turbines drowns out these important signs of the changing seasons. The birds can no longer be heard greeting the morning sun, nor can you hear the rustle of the wind through the trees or it’s howl in the evening–only the constant hum of the turbines, day and night, without pause. 

Celestino Bortolo Teran is the only farmer from his entire community that did not agree to lease his land to the wind companies. Surrounding his family’s land is miles of wind turbines, installed by Spanish company Natural Gas Fenosa. Theparque eolica[wind park] generates energy for major companies like Bimbo, whose products are part of the numerous diet-related health issues prevalent in the Mexican population, and who claim “environmental friendliness” for their use of renewable energy.

Celestino, on his family's farmland near Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca.

Investors and government agents consistently promised that the megaprojects would bring economic and social benefits to the community–enough compensation for the lease of their land that they would no longer have to work so hard to survive; they could stretch hammocks from turbine to turbine, and their children would have computers. However, the wind farms have not provided jobs for the community, nor have they adequately compensated the farmers for leasing their lands. Many people still don’t even have access to basic services like electricity, plumbing, and running water, and their lands have become nearly impossible to farm. 

In the construction of the wind farm, huge amounts of soil, rock, and plant life were displaced to make way for the enormous underground cement blocks that hold the turbines in place, and the network of roads to access them. The destruction of the natural landscape has indirectly displaced animal populations, and completely changed the natural flows of groundwater, leaving some areas too dry and others too wet, meanwhile contaminating the soil with the chemicals found in their cement bases. An environmental study conducted in 2008 [contracted by the very energy company that invested in the project] concluded that the wind farm “is a clear example of sustainable development [and] does not generate significant impacts on the environment”. According to the report, the biggest concern is birds colliding with the turbines, but local communities and environmentalists report that ecological impacts are, in fact, present, and threaten the existence of the important ecosystems of the region–endangering specifically the native species–as well as the livelihood of the people who inhabit the land. Long-term impacts of the presence of the wind parks were never included in consideration of development, only potential profits.

Wind turbines line the horizon, surrounding Celestino's milpa, where he and his family are growing corn.

Turbines form the horizon, trash lines the highway. Leaving Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca.

Under the guise of reducing global warming, governments and corporations continue the colonization of indigenous ancestral lands to control the forests, mountains, valleys, the sacred places and the water, for their own monetary benefit, inflicting devastation and impoverishment on the human and ecological communities which inhabit the regions they claim for industrial development. Ecosystems of the isthmus continue to be indirectly disrupted and fragmented by the presence of the turbines, leaving them with increasing risk of disappearance.

Shortly after winning the 2018 presidential election, Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that developing a trade corridor in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec would be one of seven priority infrastructure projects for his government. The project is said to be a “trigger” for economic and social development in the region, to bring economic prosperity to the “neglected” region of the country and the nation as a whole. But indigenous communities continue to be dispossessed from their ancestral lands, denied access to accurate information and the right to determine in what ways their lands are developed, and for who. Biologists now warn that with the disappearance of moisture-retaining ecosystems, the region could become an uninhabitable arid desert.

Wind turbines surround the cornfields of the Zapotec campesinos.

Someone's house and property, abandoned, surrounded by wind parks and cut through by the highway.

Istmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca

Images from May 2018


This project was completed as part of an independent learning contract with The Evergreen State College, titled Documentary Photography in the Face of the (American) Capitalist Hydra, sponsored by professor Peter Bohmer. The program is a follow-up of an earlier study abroad in Oaxaca and Chiapas, titled Alternatives & Resistance to Global Capitalism, with professors Peter Bohmer and María Isabel Morales.

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