SOURCE: Climate Home News
DATE: October 23, 2020
SNIP: Indigenous communities in Mexico are suing the government over plans by a Total-owned company to install more than a million solar panels near their homes.

The 674-hectare site earmarked for the solar farm, between the Mayan-speaking villages of San José Tipceh and Plan Chac, in the southern state of Yucatán, is partly located on indigenous communal land. To make space for the photovoltaic panels, project developers plan to clear 600 hectares of trees and other wild vegetation.

Residents fear deforestation of the site will create a “heat island” and worsen water shortages – potential side effects identified in the environmental impact assessment. Dependent on small-scale agriculture and bee farming, people in both villages have opposed the plans, saying the project will hurt their livelihoods for little reward.

“The contracts only benefit… the Americans who designed the project. The villagers are only left with the crumbs,” Abraham Chi, a resident of the nearby town of Muna, told Climate Home News. “If there was a benefit for the community, I doubt there would be anyone opposing it.”

The solar farm, which is divided into two sites, known as Ticul A and Ticul B, would see the installation of 1.18 million solar panels to generate 300MW of electricity.

Opponents to the project are taking their case to a district court in the state of Yucatán, where they will argue their rights to consultation were violated – and environmental concerns have not been addressed.

The case has become emblematic of failure to engage communities in the development of large energy projects on indigenous land, fuelling land conflicts.

The project is being developed by Vega Solar, a subsidiary of the US solar giant SunPower, of which oil company Total is a majority shareholder.

Surrounded by thick bush used for hunting and known locally as monte, the villages of San José Tipceh and Plan Chac are within 500 metres of the solar park site.

Aurelio Mugarte, a Mayan speaker from San José Tipceh with rights to the communal land, questioned the green rationale for the project.

“How can this about addressing climate change? How can they be planning to destroy hundreds of hectares of trees that give us oxygen to fill our lungs?” he said. “We honestly foresee that if the project happens, San José will become a ghost town. Everyone will be forced to leave, even if they don’t want to.”

In the hot season, temperatures reach a sweltering 40 to 50C. If the site is cleared of trees, residents fear temperatures could soar higher still.

Antonio Borges, of Plan Chac, hasn’t left the area since he was born 50 years ago. On his plot of land, he grows radishes, cucumbers, pumpkins and coriander. Others in the area produce corn and beans. About 80% of the harvest is sold across Yucatán state.

A group of residents, including five landowners, is taking legal action against Mexico’s energy and environment ministries, accusing them of “serious violations” of their environmental and cultural rights under the International Labour Organisation (ILO) 1989 Indigenous and Tribal People Convention.

The convention establishes the obligation to consult indigenous people in good faith and guarantees their participation in the decision-making process of energy projects affecting their land and resources.

The plaintiffs say they did not give prior, free and informed consent for the solar park. Those opposing the project faced intimidation and technical material was not translated into Mayan, excluding some residents from the conversation, they say.