It’s a good week in Latin America when not a single story emerges of a nefarious land grab from indigenous communities, the pillaging of a cultural site for industrial land, or the death of an activist trying to prevent either.
We are almost as used to the stories themselves as we are to the kinds of companies and industries typically involved. Agri-business, oil drillers, fracking companies — these are all enemies that, in an age of environmental progress, we find it somewhat easy to condemn. We recognize that these unsustainable and destructive practices are no longer the future, and the ever-growing rap sheet of human rights abuses only serve to further antagonize us against this common enemy.
But when the perpetrators involved represent a future we are striving for, the common will to condemn is placated. The abuse of vulnerable communities and protected land is not a phenomenon exclusive to non-renewable energy giants, in fact the list of offenses attributable to green-energy projects is documented and extensive. The urgency with which we are pursuing a clean-energy powered future, in Mexico especially, is beginning to undermine itself, with its narrow focus too often neglecting sustainable development, as well as the issues of inequality and poverty.
As of 2017, Mexico was among the top 10 countries in terms of investing in renewable energy solutions with US $6 billion spent that year, up 810% on the previous year. Mexico is leading Latin America full throttle into a future championed by clean energy, but the region itself is also the largest source of human rights abuses within that sector. Of the 197 allegations of such abuses reported by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) since 2010, 114 have originated in Latin America, making up 61% of allegations globally.
In Oaxaca, the Eólica del Sur wind farm has been facing multiple allegations of abuse since construction started in 2012. According to the BHRRC, protesters and dissenters found themselves facing threats and intimidations and some claim to have received credible death threats. The link between the project and local authorities has also become more muddied with time, municipal police using violence and force against those opposing the farm.
On one such occasion, the indigenous activist Rolando Crispin López was shot and killed when municipal authorities allegedly opened fire on a group of protesters.
Projects in the Yucatán have also been exposed as abusing the rights of indigenous communities by developing carelessly on sacred land. A solar farm in Valladolid was suspended after a judge decided that the company involved had repeatedly abused the rights of indigenous people and also failed to take into account the location of a protected cenote.
Further allegations expose an even more insidious category of abuses, ones that rely less on the hammer and nail approach and instead deny the tools for understanding the projects to those they affect. Numerous accounts from residents surrounding SunPower’s Ticul A and Ticul B solar farms suggest that the consultation process, designed to democratize the issues and open the discussion up to the community, was purposely deceptive regarding the planned land usage, that dissenting opinions were not adequately recorded or responded to, and that there was a complete absence of independent specialists.
The UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous rights stated that those first contracts “undermined the freedom of the consultation process and caused divisions and tension within the community.”
This is a constant pattern that has been repeating itself not just through Mexico, but through Latin America and beyond; communities are constantly denied access to adequate information, forcibly silenced through violence or the threat of it, and often just simply ignored. The tensions and rifts exacerbated by actions exerted from power are doing little to unite communities behind the pursuit of zero-carbon energy solutions, in fact achieving the opposite.
This is a worry well understood by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, which this week released a pioneering benchmark that begins to articulate a cultural framework for the respect of human rights in the renewable energy sector. Professor of climate justice Mary Robinson summarizes in the report that “a narrow focus on short term return on investments regardless of the harm to people and the environment has led fossil fuel companies to lose legitimacy and social licence to operate.”
With the benefit of hindsight and a comprehensive case study such as this one, the clean energy sector should be willing to grow sustainably in harmony with existing communities else, as Robinson claims, “it will only slow our expansion to a net-zero carbon future.”
The BHRRC offers guidance to energy companies on how to meaningfully protect and champion human rights throughout their projects, including codifying policies that secure human rights, regularly consulting with affected communities and individuals in operational areas, and exploring shared ownership models which extend the benefits of certain projects to the communities they incorporate.
But expecting energy companies to take these steps all by themselves may be unrealistic, and in a sector that still relies heavily on private investment, vested interests, and shareholder support, a willingness from investors to encourage human rights will be an equally essential tool. Investors should be holding energy giants to account by following up on abuses, encouraging a two-way dialogue between companies and communities, acting as a conduit between aggrieved workers and the companies at fault, and be wielding their influence to urge policy makers toward a transition to clean energy that doesn’t exploit those with the least power.
These are ideas expressed by the BHRRC that recognize the power structures already at play and use them to propel the green revolution.
This is the thrust of the BHRRC’s new benchmark; it understands that energy conglomerates and their beneficiaries exert power that often goes unchecked and that has destructive long-term consequences for indigenous communities, but suggests a way in which the industry can find a way once again to be accountable.
The climate crisis is looming and the instinct to lurch into harmful practices is tempting, but a truly sustainable future must go hand in hand with a just and equitable society, because a green revolution without ethics is not green at all.
Coherent environmentalism must be intersectional, recognizing and championing human rights, class, gender and race, while also understanding that the hands of eco-energy are far from clean.
Jack Gooderidge writes from Campeche.