Green Fatigue

Windmills in Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec Screw Over Landowning Farmers

At first glance, the Arizona Republic's business-section article today on windmills in La Venta, Mexico, looks like more happy news about "clean" energy.

It's headlined, "Living off the wind," and shows a bucolic scene of cows grazing near towering windmills. A graphic about the ultra-windy Isthmus of Tehuantepec is titled, "Gold mine of wind." And the writer, award-winning reporter Chris Hawley of the paper's Mexico City bureau, opens his story with a few flowery sentences about turbines standing "like and army of Goliaths" and blades whooshing through the air, "carving energy" from the wind.

The theme of Hawley's story -- buried deep in the article's long lead-in -- is that these Goliaths are pummeling the Davids, and that the "gold mine" isn't likely to enrich area farmers.

Like many of Hawley's articles, this one gives examples of how starkly different things work in Mexico compared to the United States. The landowning farmers first learned of the project in 2006 after a "sound truck" showed up, blaring propaganda that something good was coming to help residents. Next, representatives of a Spanish firm showed up and talked hundreds of farmers into signing contracts that denied them full use of their land for shockingly low amounts of money (at least, by American standards). The contracts gave the farmers:

...1.4 percent of the electricity profits, plus $300 a year per tower, with the money divided among the hundreds of landowners, a contract obtained by The Arizona Republic shows. Each landowner would get another $4.60 an acre annually, and the company would pay $182 per acre of land damaged during construction. There was a signing bonus of $37.

Farmers were stunned at the rapid, massive scale of construction that ensued.

Hawley goes on to explain that once the construction phase winds down, the land is deemed no longer damaged and the $182 per acre goes away. About 180 farmers are crying foul, suing the firms that "tricked them into signing deals."

"It's clean energy, but a dirty business," says a lawyer for the farmers.

Of course, the windmill companies say they've been fair to the farmers:

"The truth is, if the people felt that what we were paying wasn't fair, we wouldn't be here," said Eurus project manager Ignacio Querol.

Yeah, right. The story just got done explaining that this area is the "Saudi Arabia of alternative energy," so Querol's obviously full of hot wind.

The farmers are probably lucky they're getting paid at all.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.