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Is Mexico's Wind Sector Repeating Fossil Fuels' Mistakes?

View of a windmill farm in the Tehuantepec Isthmus region, Mexico, on July 27, 2017. PATRICIA CASTELLANOS / AFP / Getty Images

By Sam Edwards

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico is one of the windiest places on earth. Hemmed in by two mountain ranges, the flat strip of land between the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico is a natural wind tunnel. A single gust can flip over cars. It's the perfect place for turbines.

The unique geography of the isthmus has brought it mixed fortunes. Union Hidalgo, once a sleepy, agrarian town, is among the predominantly indigenous communities in the area that began experiencing a "wind rush" in the 2000s. Some dubbed it "La Nueva Conquista" — the new conquest — as large, often European, corporations hurried to harness the isthmus' natural power.

Like so many in this area, Guadalupe Ramirez's home in Union Hidalgo is dwarfed by seemingly endless rows of wind turbines.

In 2009, Ramirez, an indigenous Zapotec housewife-turned-activist now in her 60s, signed a 30-year lease for her land to be used for a wind power project. She has been fighting ever since to ensure others are better informed than she was before making a similar deal.

"We want people to be informed of what will come [with new wind parks], to know that it won't just bring benefits but also many problems," she told DW. "When people have all the facts, it won't be so easy to convince them."

Ramirez and other activists argue that Mexico's wind farms bring little or no economic benefit to the local community. They also compete for space with small-scale farming, the main source of income for many in the town.

The principle problem, though, lies with the fraught consultation process. Under Mexican law indigenous communities should be given a deciding vote on projects but in practice, activists say, the information they are given beforehand is often incomplete or misleading, and those opposed to new developments sometimes face harassment and intimidation.

Ramirez is now placing her hopes on an ongoing legal battle that could shape the course of clean energy in Mexico by halting the latest controversial project before construction begins.

Clean Energy at a Price

The Gunaa Sicaru wind park is planned to be built next to Union Hidalgo. Run by French energy giant EDF, it would provide 252 megawatts of power. But first it needs approval from locals through an ongoing public consultation. And as for many multinational-backed wind parks in Oaxaca, that's proving a challenge.

In a country historically reliant on oil revenue, wind power and other renewables could bring a transition to cleaner energy. But Alejandra Ancheita, director of NGO ProDESC, warns green power must not replicate the environmental harm and mishandling of local communities typical of the global fossil fuel sector.

"Renewable energy projects can't be justified solely on the basis they are creating clean energy," Ancheita told DW. "It's not 'clean energy' if it isn't developed with a strict respect for the local communities where the project will be built."

ProDESC's legal team represents a group of Union Hidalgo residents in an injunction against EDF and local authorities, alleging violations of the consultation process. The NGO claims the local authorities and EDF failed to provide accurate information on the project's impacts and distributed misleading translations from Spanish to Zapotec.

Community Conflict

Ramirez and other local activists say oil runoff from the turbines that already dominate the landscape pollutes waterways, while the sound of the wind farms — many of which are close to towns — disturbs residents and local birdlife.

But while Ramirez and others fight to prevent further damage to their land, some in Union Hidalgo support the development, particularly those who can earn a steady income from leasing their land.

"It's creating a lot of division in our community," Ramirez said.

According to a report by the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), conflict in the community escalated in 2018, after critics of the project were condemned as "enemies of development" in the EDF consultation meetings.

ProDESC and ECCHR said in a formal letter last year, that the company needed to do more to prevent conflict in the community.

EDF told DW it had met its obligations in the consultation process for Gunaa Sicaru but it was the Mexican authorities who ultimately bore the responsibility for ensuring residents were informed and free to make a decision. EDF has received no reports of threats against critics of the Gunaa Sicaru project, the company added.

The Oaxaca state government did not respond to DW's request for comment.

Future of Clean Energy

Mexico, one of the world's top 15 carbon emitters, has committed to producing 35% of its electricity from clean energy by 2024. Renewables have drawn significant interest from investors since a reform opened the sector to private investment in 2013. Both the solar and wind sectors reported record growth last year.

But observers fear the future of renewables is uncertain under President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrado. Lisa Viscidi, from think tank The Inter-American Dialogue, told DW that regulatory changes under the current administration are undermining incentives to invest in the sector. Winning consent from communities in Oaxaca has been another significant challenge. A 2019 report authored by Viscidi on Mexico's first clean energy auction found several projects had been delayed due to a failure to get the community on board.

Alternative Development

The challenges of wind energy in Oaxaca are not unique.

The transition to renewables will be an "epochal shift" in most countries, says Cymene Howe, an anthropologist with Rice University in Texas and author of a book about wind energy in Oaxaca. That's because energy infrastructure will move into parts of the planet untouched by fossil fuel industries.

"[It will be] a fundamental shift in how we imagine landscapes, what land is to be used for, who lives there and who has responsibility," she said. "This is a new frontier."

In Union Hidalgo, Ramirez says the conflicts over wind parks have already forced some people to move elsewhere searching for work or new land to farm. She fears that if Gunaa Sicaru goes ahead, the town will soon be bordered on most sides by wind turbines and unable to grow.

"No one is coming here to force us off our land. [But] one day we'll have to leave ourselves because we won't be able to handle being surrounded," Ramirez said.

For her, it is not about stifling wind power development, but empowering locals to shape it — for example through community-owned wind parks that would funnel profits back into the local community.

"Development can take many forms," Ramirez said.

Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

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Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.