Indigenous people confront the energy industry, from Oaxaca to Standing Rock

Wind farms on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca state. (Photo from Wikipedia)
Wind farms on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca state. (Photo from Wikipedia)

Our feeds are filled with news of the Standing Rock Sioux protesting to protect water rights and heritage sites against the Dakota Access Pipeline. But few realize that similar situations — under even more difficult economic and legal realities — have been playing out for more than a decade in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca.

In early October, Bettina Cruz Velázquez, a courageous indigenous land rights activist from the region, visited Seattle and spoke to a local group convened by Pangea Giving, a Seattle-based nonprofit supporting grassroots human rights organizations around the world.

Cruz talked about the land rights struggles between large wind energy companies, backed by Oaxacan state and local governments, and the indigenous people who own the land that these companies are eager to use.

Cruz defends land rights in indigenous Binnizá (Zapotec) communities where multinational wind energy corporations have built large wind farms to meet Mexico’s sustainable “green” energy goals, and have plans to sell this expanded capacity to new mining concessions and large corporations like Walmart. Oaxaca produced 77% of Mexico’s wind energy in 2015.

Cruz and the umbrella group APOYO (Original People of the Oaxacan Ithmus in Defense of Territories), make it clear they are not opposed to clean wind energy.

“We also want to live in a clean, protected environment on our ancestral lands,” Cruz affirmed during her talk in Seattle. “However, we are opposed to the way in which wind turbines are being installed here without any free, prior and informed consultation of our indigenous communities, as per Mexican and international law.”

“To date there have been no unbiased, third party environmental, economic and social impact studies and no inclusion of the people who live here related to land use decisions,” she added. “The results are negatively impacting the land, the health of the people, farm animals and fisheries; the local economy; and indigenous culture.”

Cruz points out that Spanish is not the first language for many rural indigenous Mexicans and many are illiterate. Community and small landowners farm or fish for a living and, lacking formal education, do not understand the term wind technology. Wind energy companies hire their own consultants to “educate” the indigenous communities with meetings in Spanish. They make false promises to facilitate lease or purchase contracts of indigenous land at ridiculously low prices. Many companies later violate even these contract terms, leaving indigenous people with no land, nor way to make a living.

Bettina Cruz during her October visit to Seattle. (Photo by Teri Akin)
Bettina Cruz during her October visit to Seattle. (Photo by Teri Akin)

In her efforts to educate local communities about their full rights to consultation in their native language, Cruz has herself faced serious risks. In 2012, she was jailed for false charges related to a demonstration at which she was not even present. After three years, the charges were finally dismissed. She continues to receive personal threats, most recently in the week prior to her Seattle visit.

When asked why she became involved in this fight for economic and social justice, she replied, “…it became clear to me that my people had no voice; that outspoken indigenous landowners were being intimidated and killed by hired hit men; that some local officials were bribed by the large energy companies to trick community landowners into selling or leasing their land for as little as 800 pesos a year; that even these contracts were violated; that meetings and studies, under the guise of ‘prior consultation,’ were carried out by the energy company consultants and there was no protocol for implementation of true indigenous involvement, and no state or federal active support for a legal process to achieve this.”

In June of this year, the Mexican government enacted a new law establishing three “Zonas Económicas Especiales” that will have special legal status offering even more incentives and public subsidies to large private energy companies. One of those zones will be on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, including the part of Oaxaca where Cruz works.

The federal government has also recently opened up the second land auction for establishing more wind farms in the area. Thus, there is now even greater concern among Isthmus indigenous people regarding their land rights.

With ongoing land use contract manipulation and violations, indigenous people simply lose their way of life and ability to make a living.

When I attended the October Seattle event to hear Bettina Cruz speak, I asked myself how this matters to those of us living here in the Pacific Northwest.

Without indigenous involvement in consultation, and with ongoing land use contract manipulation and violations, indigenous people simply lose their way of life and ability to make a living. When they lose their income, what can they do? Often, they migrate illegally to work in the U.S. and send remittances back home to sustain their families. Some become so desperate for work that they submit to work for the drug cartels or become prostitutes.

When Mexicans at all levels prosper, they avoid having to earn money through illegal means and can live in their hometowns, creating familial security and stability. Mexico and the U.S. are neighbors and always will be. Disregard for land and water rights all over the continent are thus felt not only in Mexico, but also in Washington State and throughout the U.S.

By learning about shared North American regional issues, such as Bettina Cruz’s courageous and persistent efforts in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, those of the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota, and our own Washington state tribal nations’ fight against fossil fuel transport, we can engage with like-minded people to work together on both sides of the border to see indigenous people and their way of life as part of the solution, not as part of an “access to resources” problem.


  1. Patti,

    This is great. Good of Seattle Times and the Globalist to take it on!!!
    Thanks. Leslie Grace

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