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Wind resistance: can Colombia overcome opposition to get its green energy plan back on track?
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Wind resistance: can Colombia overcome opposition to get its green energy plan back on track?

A few years ago, as age began to take its toll, Rosa Velásquez decided it was time to leave the restaurant she owned in the coastal town of Cabo de la Vela and move back home for a peaceful retirement.. However, when she returned to the tiny rural community of Jotomana, on the arid plains of Colombia’s northernmost tip, she found the place she and her ancestors had called home for generations littered with giant wind turbines.

Towering white turbines punctuate the horizon a few miles from Cabo de la Vela. The region, in the northern state of La Guajira, is home to all of Colombia’s windfarms and its largest Indigenous population, the Wayúu.

“We live among turbines. The companies like them, but I don’t. Where am I to go if this is my territory? What are my grandchildren going to do once I die?” asks Velásquez, a Wayúu herself, as goats roam around her property under the blistering sun.

La Guajira, Colombia’s second-poorest state, has become the focal point and battleground of the government’s proposed energy transition, a push to develop renewable energy sources and reduce its dependency on oil and coal to tackle the climate crisis.

Four big wind turbines loom over a small building in some scrubby open landView image in fullscreen

According to La Guajira’s chamber of commerce, the state has solar radiation levels 60% higher than the national average and wind speeds double the global norm. Private companies and Colombia’s mines and energy ministry had sought to capitalise on these factors – even before Gustavo Petro’s leftist government set out its ambitions for a “just energy transition”.

The renewables sector could see investments reach $2.2bn (£1.75bn) this year, much of that being funnelled into the region. La Guajira has 17 renewable energy projects in development, with plans for dozens more to follow – including many offshore windfarms.

The Bogotá-based development organisation Indepaz, which has long tracked the development of renewable energy in La Guajira, has found 57 windfarm projects in various stages of completion.

When Colombia’s energy ministry began fostering the renewables industry in 2019, under Petro’s conservative predecessor Iván Duque, it was hoped such projects would make up 15% of the national power supply by 2023.

However, those ambitious plans have not yet materialised. By the end of last year, less than 2% of Colombia’s power came from non-conventional renewable sources, such as wind or solar.

Six men in h-vis jackets working along a road, with three turbines looming over themView image in fullscreen

In Colombia, the development of windfarms is a cumbersome process, with most projects facing severe obstacles and long delays. In July, the energy ministry admitted that 82% of windfarm projects in La Guajira were behind schedule.

Industry bodies share concerns over the pace of development. SER Colombia revealed in January that 65% of projects across the country forecast to begin operations this year were delayed, many significantly.

Bureaucracy means that small renewable energy projects in Colombia typically take three to six years to become operational, according to SER Colombia.

The delays are so bad that several companies have scrapped their plans altogether. The Italian energy company Enel announced last May that it was “indefinitely suspending” the construction of its 200MW Windpeshi project – which stagnated for months with just 35% of the work completed – while Colombia’s Celsia is contemplating the sale of its two stalled projects in La Guajira.

Resistance from Indigenous communities is one reason for the delays to the region’s windfarms, says Aníbal Mercado, head of the regional Wayúu council, known as a Pütchipü’üi or a Palabrero. He blames the failure by companies and the government to enter into dialogue with local people and understand the complexities of La Guajira.

A man looks at the camera while children play. Wind turbines loom behind him View image in fullscreen

“The rights of the communities have been violated,” he says, blaming the authorities for not explaining the effects, protecting local small businesses, and not respecting land rights or the “spiritual and cultural aspects that sustain these communities”.

Irene Vélez, a former mines and energy minister under Petro, says one of her concerns while leading the government’s energy transition efforts was that officials and industry failed to appreciate the need for a good understanding of local communities to operate successfully in the region.

“From the beginning, I insisted that these projects’ difficulties weren’t technical but social,” says Vélez.

Under Duque, she says, energy companies were required to funnel only 1% of their royalties from renewable projects back into affected communities. She increased that figure to 6%.

A Wayúu woman charges her phone using power delivered by solar panelsView image in fullscreen

“The auctions for construction permits did not consider adequate distribution of benefits for local communities,” Vélez says.

“They perceive these projects as having the same exploitative dynamic of the old [extractivist] model and do not see benefits. So, of course, they oppose them,” she says.

Dialogue between the area’s different communities is another challenge. Indigenous people in La Guajira are widely dispersed among rural communities, or rancherías, that often struggle to agree on windfarm development.

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A heavy-set middle-aged man in a white shirtView image in fullscreen

“There is no unity between us; there are many differences between families and communities,” says Luis Arturo Barliza, who represents the tiny windswept community of Casa Eléctrica, where it has been proposed to site a windfarm.

Although he considers windfarms to be “good business”, he is caught in a family feud over a windfarm on their territory. “We need to manage it well for things to be done equitably. But now, things don’t seem to be going that way,” says Barliza.

Isabel Preciado, an energy and climate researcher at the environmental organisation Censat Agua Viva, says: “The approach is woeful because they [government and companies] ignore the territorial context and the complex organisation among the Wayúu.”

Nonetheless, not all Indigenous people in the area are against windfarms. Elva María Velásquez recalls her mother walking out, machete in hand, to meet company representatives and express her opposition to windfarms on her land. Despite her resistance, however, the family moved out a few years ago to make way for the Guajira 1 windfarm.

Velásquez now lives near the farm in a new home built by the company. She is glad to have a brick house with a solar panel, a new kitchen and freezer; it is a significant upgrade from the simple wooden hut she lived in before.

A woman laughs as she talks to a small boy outside a small brick house. A row of turbines stretch into the distanceView image in fullscreen

For many people in La Guajira, who feel perennially ignored by officials in Bogotá, the arrival of private energy companies to their territory has brought development and support that the state has failed to deliver.

Companies have provided fresh drinking water – a resource that rural communities desperately lack – as well as solar panels, generators and improvements to homes and schools. People have also had wiring and sockets installed but, despite promises that electricity would be provided by December, they are still not connected to the grid.

Luis Carlos Iguarán, from the tiny community of Lanshalía, appreciates the changes. “It’s progress for us and our communities because it changes our way of life and conditions, and there will be more opportunities,” he says.

Despite the Petro government’s vow to usher in a new age of green energy, the prospect of such a transition happening through La Guajira is slim – especially considering that the president may have only two years left in office.

Joanna Barney, director of environment, energy and communities at Indepaz, says: “We don’t have [an energy] transition in Colombia, but rather a diversification of the power grid to supposedly support new energies.”.

She regards the projects as a “new type of colonialism”, stressing: “At the end of the day, it’s business. It has nothing to do with the environment.”

A woman at a kitchen sink with a view of turbines outside the windowView image in fullscreen

Colombia’s mines and energy ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Vélez, Petro’s former minister, admits that the government’s energy transition “has its challenges”. Yet she believes it is still “the path to follow in this government and hopefully those that follow”.

The government is proposing not only to expand green energy but also to end extractive industries, she says. “That is the most challenging energy transition situation, as some sectors do not want to replace the [current economic] model.”

With the clock ticking for Petro and his promise to steer Colombia towards a greener future, scepticism and frustration are adding to the obstacles his ambitions for the energy sector are already facing, raising further questions about the viability of his environmental agenda.

“Whatever you do in La Guajira – if you do not have the social sensitivity that comes from having been in the territory and getting to know it – is detrimental,” Barney says. “It’s simply money thrown away.”

Source: theguardian.com