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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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By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.