In my latest (open access) article for Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space I explore the political economy of wind park development in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, and the struggles of Indigenous groups against such wind parks. Today, Juchitán (a municipality in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec) is a major site of wind power investment led by multinational corporations including Acciona Energy, Iberdrola, Mitsubishi, Gas Natural Fenosa and EDF Energies Nouvelles. Oaxaca state as a whole has 90% of the developed wind energy capacity in Mexico and billions of dollars has been now been invested there into this sector. Projected development projects would make Oaxaca home to the largest concentration of wind turbines anywhere in the world. It already possesses the two largest wind farms anywhere in Latin America. In terms of wind power generation, the Isthmus has been scientifically measured as one of the best locations on earth for generating wind power. From a mainstream perspective, therefore, the development of wind parks simply valorises the region’s natural factor endowments. However, from a historical materialist perspective that I adopt in the article, my analysis includes the appropriation of nature by capital, relations of power that seek to impose a model of development, and the role of Indigenous groups in resistance to this process.
My aim in writing the article is to tease out what this example implies for thinking about environmental justice and issues of clean development. Why is this important? When many people think about wind-based energy they think of its clean credentials, especially say, compared to fossil fuel-based energy. To highlight a struggle against wind farms therefore seems potentially ambiguous. Are wind parks not part of the renewable forms of energy that it is necessary to move towards in the global fight against climate change? To untangle this issue, I offer a number of arguments linked to space, knowledge and power.
Firstly we need to understand that wind farms in Oaxaca do not simply exist in isolation. Rather they are part of a broader project of ‘place-making’. The vast majority of wind parks in Oaxaca are registered though the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). A variety of academic literature now exists that is highly critical of the CDM. This ranges from questioning the promised gains of technology transfer, the reality of delivering sustainable development within the CDM and more broadly the inherent governance issues and the ‘politics of knowledge’ (stemming from uneven power relations and western, market principles) that clean development embodies. Another strand of critique that has been launched at the agenda of ‘clean’ development is that it amounts to ‘carbon colonialism’. This refers to the way Northern countries have used emission trading schemes to continue their domination of the Global South. I contribute to this argument by arguing that that wind parks in Oaxaca constitute a form of ‘capital-centered development’. Capital-centred development means that capitalist social relations remain the horizon of development and that capital accumulation ultimately remains the main goal of development projects. This view of development does not acknowledge plural ways of being and grants minimal agency to subaltern social groups to shape their own needs. I argue that this reveals the epistemic violence embedded within the current framing of environmental justice as place-making projects. Epistemic violence refers to the process whereby hegemonic knowledge regimes serve to silence and disempower the Other. Concretely it involves the dominance of Northern epistemologies over those of the Global South, which in turn are disregarded and erased. Already we can begin to see that this is not a critique of wind energy per se, but the place-specific sites of wind power generation and the broader social relations in which these projects are embedded.
Thus, for example, in the context of Oaxaca, plans for the roll-out of wind energy are part and parcel of a much wider package of policies designed to achieve economic development (narrowly defined). This is a place-making project that fundamentally seeks the wholesale restructuring of the political economy of the region. This broader panorama needs to be remembered when we consider the issue of wind park development as the latter is part and parcel of a larger set of territorial reconfigurations and place-making that is promoted by the national state to transform Oaxaca into a space for capital accumulation. For example the ‘clean development’ strategy within Mexico is also tied to a broader model of ‘ecological’ capitalism that has been rolled out over the last decade or so in southern Mexico, incorporating the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco and Veracruz. This model is a major state-driven project in collaboration with international capital, involving the (attempted) remaking of place and territorial identity. This model of ecological capitalism is a contradictory matrix of policies involving protection of biodiversity, extraction of natural resources, promotion of monocultures and eco-tourism (which also comes with major infrastructural projects). Moreover, it is a model that speaks on behalf of Indigenous people, continuing the long lineage of rural social control over Indigenous people and governing them in the name of ‘development’, often leading to agrarian dispossession or what has become known as ‘green grabbing’, whereby formerly collective land-rights become privatised and transferred to corporate entities.
Furthermore, in terms of knowledge and power I argue we need to look at the hegemonic ‘conception of the world’ in which the CDM operates which is clearly through marked-based mechanisms. For example, the premise of carbon offsetting is reliant upon the monetisation of carbon in order to render other commodities equivalent to it. This gives carbon dioxide equivalence (CO2e) an objective existence while obscuring the social relations involved in the process of creating that market. This market-based approach to carbon reduction removes place-based questions of historical accountability for carbon emissions. The CDM is also inexplicable without recourse to a notion of uneven development. In other words, without geographically inscribed differences in development between those countries assigned as Global North or Global South. As Bryant et al. reveal, ‘it builds on the sociospatial divide between developed and developing countries’ and is thus ‘dependent on the differentiation of global space into “fixed” internal and external spaces’. Furthermore, low carbon energy projects are predicated upon global differences in land and labour prices. For the countries of the Global South, who maintain rural areas where land values are low and labour-power is cheap, they are first in line for a remaking of their space. Contrariwise, for the countries of the Global North, technology transfer to the Global South allows other business activities to continue as normal. In other words, clean development facilitates a process of continued ‘accumulation by decarbonisation’. Within this power geometry, subaltern groups are largely at the mercy of global flows despite their minimal historical responsibility for rising carbon levels in the earth’s atmosphere. Even when consultations are conducted, the structured political settings for this remain hugely unequal.
My chief argument therefore is that embedded within the very policy proposals of the CDM is an epistemology of development that continues the ‘coloniality of power’ predicated on a unilinear model of development. The Global South is thus spatially constituted as an ‘outside’ in need of development. Development is rendered synonymous with the furtherance of capitalist social relations of production. This continues the colonial lineage in Latin America of devaluing Indigenous knowledge and ways of life in the name of modernisation.
Despite the fact that equity is a core component of environmental justice, wind parks in Oaxaca have not improved this situation. Electrical generation from wind parks in Oaxaca is enough to power over one million homes, yet local people are not the beneficiaries. Rather, the electricity is purchased by transnational corporations such as Wal-Mart, Grupo Bimbo, Coca Cola and CEMEX, from a parastatal company. Oaxaca, meanwhile, has the second lowest rate of electrification in the country. This problematic resource distribution is not unique to the case of wind parks in Oaxaca: a similar story has been found regarding most CDM projects within Latin America. A chief conclusion is that these projects have facilitated land grabbing and the speeding up of Latin American agriculture’s integration into global markets, built on the dispossession of local communities. Much like with earlier environmental concerns about polluting industries, we find a mirrored situation in which these CDM projects are set up in communities where people are poorer and land is cheap. Cheap nature, after all, is essential to the continued accumulation of capital.
In sum I argue that hegemonic conceptions of environmental justice are serving to reinforce colonial relations of power and dominance, with a failure to address capitalist expansion as part of the problem. It is also making the everyday, lived environments of certain subaltern groups manifestly more unjust and precarious in the name of modernisation. Any just and sustainable solution cannot be based on dispossession of the poor at the expanse of advancing corporate power as is currently occurring in southern Mexico. Rather, the situated environments of subaltern groups and their right to self-determination must also be addressed if environmental justice is to have meaning. How competing demands for environmental justice at the local scale are to be resolved within a broader global framework is a complex issue.
In the case of Juchitán, however, it seems clear that the answers are not ‘blowin’ in the wind’.