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Dossier Dispossession and Resistance in India and Mexico

Identity and Resistance at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca

, by GARCÍA BELTRÁN Yolanda Mexicalxóchitl

This brief article deals with the start of the resistance of the people from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, facing the arrival of wind energy enterprises that to date have installed 27 parks [1] to generate energy through the wind and, also, superficially explores the role of the indigenous identity in this conflict.

MEX / Tehuantepec. Photo : Hermenegildo Santamaria

To put the problem in context it is necessary to explain that only two of the parks belong to the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE – Federal Electricity Commission) and, thus, only these are Mexican in origin. With the presence of Vestas from Denmark, Iberdrola, Gamesa, Gas Fenosa and Acciona from Spain, Electricité de France from France, and Enel Green Power from Italy, amongst others, all of the parks have foreign investors and belong to private enterprises. The energy produced by these is sold to several companies including Bimbo, Soriana, Walmart Group, Femsa Group, Cervecería Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma, Cementos Mexicanos and the CFE itself, amongst others, a situation that has caused controversy and opposition amongst the inhabitants of the communities in the region, who do not directly benefit from these projects.

The involved villages are Juchitán de Zaragoza, Santa María Xadani, Unión Hidalgo and Álvaro Obregón, inhabited by the Zapotec, as well as San Dionisio del Mar, San Mateo del Mar, San Francisco del Mar y Santa María del Mar, which are Huave villages [2]. La Venta, La Ventosa, Santo Domingo Ingenio, El Espinal, Asunción Ixtaltepec and Ixtepec, which are mestizo villages [3], are also involved in the issue. The arrival of the parks has had an impact in different areas that may be classified as ecological, economic, social, cultural and political. Inhabitants have denounced the activity of wind turbines as the vibration, noise and night lights that emanate from these projects has had repercussions not only on their daily income but also on their food, social interactions around the dynamics of this trade and age-old traditions.

Delineating the issues

The root of the problem lies in the fact that these projects are settled on ejido lands [4], causing friction inside the communities between those who sympathize with the projects and those who don’t. There have even been complaints of irregularities, coercion and illegal strategies to pressure the inhabitants into signing off the lease of their lands, as has been demonstrated in interviews with the co-proprietors and ejido owners who argue that, taking advantage of their indigenous condition, the companies use violence and intimidation, especially against those who don’t speak Spanish.

In some other cases, the strategy has been different where companies try to impress the inhabitants with gifts such as TVs or computers, or else promise them a standard of living similar to the European areas where there are wind turbines [5]. The payment offered for the lease of the lands is low, as can be seen in the contracts. The price is set around 263 USD per hectare a year [6], which may vary if a road, power substation or wind turbine has been built on the land.

In brief, through the perspective of the conflict it is possible to suggest that there are four main causes for the rejection of these projects and identity is immersed in all of them. The region of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec is an area in the country where ethnic identity has great weight and its local inhabitants constantly allude to their condition as Zapotecs (binizaa) or Huaves (ikoots) as fundamental in their way of seeing the world and in their everyday lives, rooting their resistance within a larger cultural milieu.


The fact that they are indigenous populations has contributed to the sense of grievance (Moore, 1996) having an ethnic dimension, which can be explained historically. It is not the first time Zapotecs and Huaves have felt that they have been made vulnerable, especially by government institutions and officials that at other times have created economic and industrial plans for the region without consulting the inhabitants (as was the case during the authoritarian regime of Porfirio Díaz [1876-1911]). There has been a wish to build a canal connecting the Gulf with the Pacific, and recently Alejandro Murat, the governor of the state of Oaxaca, declared he is planning to create “his own Panama Canal” which would require the purchase and expropriation of thousands of hectares, including communal, ejidal, mestizo and indigenous lands throughout the State, including the Zapotecs and Huaves (Jiménez, 2017). Thus, there is no representation of the governed and legitimacy of those governing.

Similarly, at least in the eyes of the inhabitants, there has been a criminalization of the indigenous condition, that is, the state apparatus constantly identifies indigenous people as responsible for impeding progress and modernization, as well as promoting vandalism and violence to this end. The peoples of the Isthmus have dealt with this prejudice for years, leading to a consciousness that has emerged from different historic situations and conditions: that they have been able to resist because of their strength.

The resilient tradition of the Zapotec people is well known. Since pre-colonial times they were characterized for being a strong and warrior-like people, having taken over a large part of the lands in the central and southern part of Oaxaca, as well as resisting Aztec domination (Beuchat 1918). In 1853 the Isthmus was even called a territory, that is, a region independent from the State of Oaxaca, a status it would hold until 1857 (El Sur, 2013).

Lack of an indigenous consultation

Although currently there are 27 wind energy parks operating in the Isthmus, only one consultation has taken place as established by the Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO). This convention acknowledges this procedure as a right for all indigenous peoples and it must take place in a free and informed manner. Originally, the lack of consultations has been interpreted as an affront and a demonstration of the fact that the State is willing to ignore them and not vindicate them as legitimate owners of the land they inhabit. However, at the same time the State compels them to obey contracts that are unequal economically, environmentally, culturally and socially, where they get few or no benefits and are considerably affected.

Due to the social pressure exerted to enforce respect for this convention the Mexican government attempted to promote the first consultation in October 2014. By this time almost twenty parks had already been installed. The inhabitants saw this as a mockery, especially when they realized the consultation was plagued by irregularities that limited the open participation of the population, and sought to accelerate the procedure to get approval for the Project called “Eólica del Sur” (Wind Energy of the South). Human rights observers such as the civil society organization Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales (PRODESC – Project for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), denounced the tense environment of the consultation, as well as the threats and intimidation of those who rejected the wind energy park.

Foreign Enterprises

The fact that they are foreign enterprises, especially Spanish, has contributed to increase the sense of “grievance”, considering they represent “a new conquest” [7] that will dispossess them of what little they have left. The fact that, in the best scenario, the inhabitants of the Isthmus will be compelled to work as laborers in the wind energy parks is seen as humiliating; the higher posts are always taken by people of the same nationality as the company. However, the job offers generated by the wind energy sector are scarce, since once the wind turbines have been mounted, only a few watchmen are needed. In the opinion of an inhabitant from Santa María Xadani [8] the only job available for his fellows is to take away the bodies of the birds and bats that crash against the wind turbines during the night.

The state and federal governments have been questioned by social and environmental organizations, as well as by the press and academics, for not promoting wind energy technology in Mexico for the benefit of the communities where these parks are installed since, on the contrary, they have hampered some alternate energy projects such as a community wind energy park proposed in Ixtepec by the Yansa foundation (Thomas, 2015).

For whose benefit?

The destination of the generated energy is another point that tends to cause opposition, since it is sold to private companies. In summary, those who benefit are those who can pay, that is, transnational companies, while the lower classes continue to pay high amounts for a service that is generated on their own lands. There even are communities in the Isthmus that have no power (Cruz, 2017). In short, being indigenous and poor is perceived as a threat to the interests of the State and large enterprises that seek to make unlimited use of the natural resources of the region, not taking into account the inhabitants, whose opposition becomes an obstacle that generates conflicts. It would be worth asking, would the opposition be as strong if free energy was guaranteed for the Isthmus region?

Further, inequality is made evident in some respects such as the power cut suffered by the municipality of Juchitán de Zaragoza on March 2016 because of a 4.7 million peso debt even when, ironically, it is the municipality that generates most of the energy in the country (Chaca, 2016). Similarly, new protests took place in August 2017 after it was made public in June that the Municipal President, Gloria Sanchez, had signed an agreement with the state governor to exempt the wind energy companies from paying taxes (Matias, 2017), money that could have been used to benefit the locality.


As a product of these four aspects, resistance strategies have emerged that seek to address the problem from the standpoint of indigenous communities, in order to create autonomous spaces where they govern themselves or mobilize against what they consider unjust. These strategies are varied and range from the creation of community radio stations, which spread the relevant information as well as facilitating communication, to the legal sphere where they have found support in civil organizations such as the Centro de Derechos Humanos Tepeyac (Tepeyac Human Rights Center), which between 2012 and 2013 managed to cancel approximately 200 lease contracts, signed by farmers who were renting their land for the installation of wind projects [9]. Another example of this would be an appeal lodged in the city of Salina Cruz in Oaxaca last July by the Committee for the Defense of Land and Territory created by inhabitants of the town of Unión Hidalgo, part of the most important wind corridor in the region, as a precautionary measure against the arrival of more wind energy parks and the expansion of two existent ones. Recently, the state government announced the arrival of the ’Gunna Sicarú’ project owned by the company Electricité De France (EDF) and the expansion of the ’Bii Hioxo’ park and ’Oaxaca Mexican wind farms’ in the same town. This was opposed by the inhabitants, especially women, after considering that they have not received any benefit from existing parks, neither had they been consulted as required under ILO Convention 169 (Manzo, 2017).

Simultaneously local inhabitants and groups have held marches, rallies and encampments in strategic points, and managed to block access to the wind energy parks stopping their energy production. In summary, for the indigenous groups, the resistance has become a way to revalue and vindicate themselves as key and important actors in the region and has contributed to the creation of networks of solidarity and interaction. In conclusion, their opposition is sustained to a large extent by drawing on elements of their identity as, probably, if this identity changed, the strategies of opposition and resistance are likely to change as well.


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Beuchat, H. (1918). Manual de arqueología Americana. Spain: Jorro Editor.

Brave, H. Y. H. M. y DeBruyn, L. (1998). American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research. The American Indian Holocaust: Healing Historical Unresolved Grief, No 2 (Vol. 8). p. 60-82.

Chaca, R. (2016, October 20). CFE deja sin luz a palacio de gobierno de Juchitán. El Universal.

Cruz, E. (2017, April 3). Viven sin luz 2% de los istmeños. Matutinazo.

El Sur. (2013, June 9). Guidxizá, una mirada a nuestros pueblos. El Sur.

Jiménez, H. (2017, July 16). Va Oaxaca por su propio canal de Panamá. El Universal.

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Matías, P. (2017, August 23). “Si el pueblo paga ¡eólicas también!”, claman zapotecos ante Congreso de Oaxaca. Proceso.

Moore, B. (1996). La injusticia: bases sociales de la obediencia y la rebelión. México: UNAM.

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PRODESC. (2014). Comunicado reporte de la misión de observación en Juchitán, Oaxaca. Mexico: PRODESC.

Thomas, L. (2015, October 11). Avanza proyecto de parque eólico comunitario en Ixtepec. El Universal.


[1This data was obtained from newspaper archives in different Mexican papers and their web versions. More information can be found in the web page of the Asociación Mexicana de Energía Eólica (Mexican Aeolic Energy Association) that lists 27 operating parks, without taking into consideration those who have been suspended, are in the process of being built or in the planning stages. The suspended parks are Igúu and Eólica del Sur (previously called Mareña Renovables). The park in the planning stages is Gunna Sicarú

[2Indigenous communities that reside in Oaxaca

[3Mestizo refers to communities of mixed indigenous and Spanish origin

[4Ejidos lands refers to communal peasant land tenures and have their roots in the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17

[5Interview with an inhabitant from Tehuantepec, Oaxaca. September 26, 2014

[6Information that I verified in my field work when I got a copy of the lease contract for the Igúu park

[7Interview with inhabitant from Santa María Xadani. April, 2015

[8Interview with inhabitant from Santa María Xadani. September, 2014

[9Interview with an inhabitant of Tehuantepec. September, 2014


Yolanda Mexicalxóchitl García Beltrán – She is a doctoral candidate in Social Sciences at the Univeridad Autonoma Metropolitana Unidad Xochimilco (UAM-X). She works on areas relating to conflict and socio-environmental mobilization, particularly in the context of indigenous people.

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