Standing 60 meters tall against an azure sky, the white turbines that speckle the Jepírachi Wind Farm represent a symbol of progress for Colombia. As climate change rises to the top of many global agendas, Colombia has responded to the demand for alternative energy sources with a multi-million dollar power project representing “la nueva energía de Colombia” – new energy for Colombia.
Despite its successes and virtually limitless potential, Jepírachi – which means “wind from the northeast” in the Wayuu language – has faced criticism from an often marginalized minority who feel that this “clean” energy resulted from a dirty deal. Many within the Wayuu community resent the encroachment of big business on their land and maintain, recalling other mega-projects like the coalmine in El Cerrejón, that major profits come at the expense of lives. Additionally, many Wayuu remain without reliable access to electricity, despite their proximity to the Jepírachi project.
The first wind farm in Colombia and one of the first in Latin America, Jepírachi is a pilot project developed by one of the biggest utility companies in the country, Empresas Públicas de Medellín, in collaboration with Nordex, a German manufacturer of wind turbines. Constructed in 2003 and operational since 2004, the wind farm in the La Guajira department aims to reach the mandatory targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions set forth by the Kyoto Protocol.
The 15 wind turbines that dominate this arid, windswept landscape generate 20 megawatts of energy for the national power grid and, according to official UN documents, are expected to reduce carbon emissions by more than 1 million tons over two decades. Since 26 percent of greenhouse gas emissions stem from energy production, and current emissions are predicted to increase by 50 percent in the next 20 years, the switch to a renewable source of energy was a wise move with benefits to public health matched by sustainability and financial rewards.
The World Bank, one of the financers of this project through its Prototype Carbon Fund, maintains that Jepírachi will contribute to the sustainable development of the country. Revolving at the speed of ten meters per second, this non-hydraulic energy is critical for Colombia as it “enhances the grid’s reliability in the wake of the power shortages, severe drought and forced rationing of the 1990s.”
In line with the World Bank predictions of the project’s commercial viability, similar initiatives in La Guajira including Joutkai – a separate wind farm near Jepírachi proposed by a Danish company several years ago and awaiting construction – have been negotiated to capture the area’s large wind-energy potential. Along with the foreign investments comes knowledge and experience that will prove crucial to future development. “The World Bank financing, though important, is not the crucial factor in our case,” states Luis Fernando Rodriguez, of Empresas Públicas de Medellín. “It’s the learning that is crucial. The experience will help us formulate other projects.”
As the wind blows and energy flows, the Wayuu feel a chilly breeze of deception. No strangers to the incursion of multinational corporations on their land, the Apaalanchi – a Wayuu sub-group inhabiting the coastal region where the wind farm now stands – were suspicious of the Jepírachi project. With the displacement of the Wayuu and the social and health problems caused by the nation’s largest open-pit coalmine in El Cerrejón, a mistrust of multinationals remains.
Despite attempts at consulting the community before the construction of the project, many Wayuu believe they were simply paid lip service, and that the project was going to occur with or without their consent. Rafael Mercado Epieyú, Professor of the Wayuunaiki language at the Universidad Nacional and a member of the Wayuu community associated with the consultation stage of the project, was among the members of the community who support this belief.
According to Epieyú, translators with questionable provided contradictory statements about various issues including the existence of territorial borders. While Wayuu elders stated that their community had no borders, translators claimed that they did. These puzzling activities lead Mr. Mercado to question the motives of the official translators and their relationship to the project.
Despite the meetings, the eventual privatization of land from the community created deep divisions. “To separate the Wayuu from their land is to destroy their identity as distinct peoples,” claims Juan Guillermo Sanchez, Professor of Indigenous Literature at the Universidad Javeriana. The land, he explains, is one of the most important elements in their creation mythology. Consequently, the Wayuu share an intricate relationship with the environment, territories and resources. Take away land and you take away history.
By handing over land to the Jepírachi project, either as privatization or as expropriation, Epieyú believes that the free movement of a semi-nomadic people has been stumped, interrupting their hunting, fishing and pastoral farming. With the loss of livelihoods, some Wayuu fear that this project is not an isolated “land grab” but a threat to ownership of land all over the peninsula. Once the economic and environmental rewards of the project are documented, some fear that speculation will push the Wayuu to the periphery of their own lands.
Among the many challenges in shifting to renewable energy is finding a plan that works for everyone. In the case of Jepírachi, the larger population has benefited at the expense of a few. Although the indigenous people have left the smallest ecological footprint, they are also paying a heavy price for the abuses perpetrated by others against the environment. In order to prevent the demise of their way of life, the Wayuu want to be heard, so the winds of change might be good for all.