Site icon Conservation news

‘Light for everyone’: Indigenous youth mount a solar-powered resistance

Members of the Tosepan cooperative’s youth solar panel installation team and the ONergia solar cooperative put the finishing touches on a domestic panel installation while community members chip in. Image by Ethan Bien for Mongabay.

Members of the Tosepan cooperative’s youth solar panel installation team and the ONergia solar cooperative put the finishing touches on a domestic panel installation while community members chip in. Image by Ethan Bien for Mongabay.

  • Among the cloud forests of northern Puebla, Mexico, an indigenous cooperative is training its youth to install solar panels.
  • The initiative was born of the cooperative’s contentious fight with the federal and local government over plans to build an electricity substation that the co-op members believed would only benefit industry, not local communities.
  • The panels are part of a plan hatched by these mountain communities to unhook from Mexico’s federal power company, provide their youth with meaningful employment, and reclaim control of their land and resources.
  • The initiative appears to be well aligned with the renewable-energy plans of Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

CUETZALAN, Mexico — Rain clouds thicken overhead as a small crew finishes the installation of a pair of rooftop solar panels. The house stands along a dirt road in a small indigenous community in the Mexican state of Puebla. The sun’s going down, and woodsmoke from a cookstove mingles with the fog. Raindrops begin to fall as the team applies the final touches of silicone caulk and routes wires to a pair of deep-cycle batteries inside the house.

The crew on the roof consists of Cuahutemoc Lima, age 25, Manuel Garrido, 30, and Miguel Angel, 26, all members of Tosepan Titataniske, an indigenous cooperative based in Puebla’s Sierra Norte mountains. They’re still in a sort of apprenticeship; working alongside them are four members of ONergia, a solar social enterprise from Puebla city. The installation underway is their fourth project together: a set of solar panels for Doña Mari, a cooperative member who lives outside the town of Cuetzalan.

Solar might seem like an odd investment in the rainy cloud forests of northern Puebla. But photovoltaic panels don’t need direct sun to produce power, and the panels are part of a plan hatched by these mountain communities to unhook from Mexico’s federal power company, provide their youth with meaningful employment, and reclaim control of their land and resources.

Miguel Angel, one of the Tosepan cooperative’s team of young solar panel installers, hooks up deep-cycle batteries and a fuse box at Doña Mari’s house. Image by Ethan Bien for Mongabay.
Sofia Garcia, a member of ONergia, a solar power cooperative based in Puebla City, who has been training Tosepan’s youth in solar panel installation. Image by Ethan Bien for Mongabay.
Javier Hernández, a member of ONergia, a solar power cooperative based in Puebla City, discusses home solar panel installations with a curious neighbor. Image by Ethan Bien for Mongabay.

Mexico’s national energy context

To meet commitments made under the Paris climate accord, Mexico has pledged to increase clean energy production, which now represents less than a quarter of its energy mix, to 35 percent by 2024 and to 43 percent by 2030. Some estimates put Mexico’s solar energy potential at 75 times what it’s currently producing.

Following energy reforms made by the administration of the former president, Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico saw a boom in foreign investment in renewable energy, including large-scale solar and wind projects in the states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Oaxaca.

However, many of these big renewable energy projects face substantial opposition from local indigenous and peasant communities, who accuse the companies funding the projects of failing to consult them in negotiations over land use — a violation of both the Mexican constitution and international law. “Green-ness” notwithstanding, the communities say these megaprojects threaten their ways of life and human rights in much the same fashion as traditional extractive megaprojects, with the electricity routed to far-off urban centers while locals see little benefit.

The Mexican Supreme Court recently intervened in Oaxaca, halting a wind project and finding in favor of local communities who hold collective land rights to property around, and under, wind farms. Similar cases of community resistance to large-scale renewable energy initiatives have popped up on the Yucatan Peninsula.

The Tosepan solar power project’s emphasis on local control represents a break with this national trend of top-down renewable energy projects, and this is in keeping with the organization’s tradition of defending its mountain territory against development imposed from outside.

Electric meters belonging to Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission overgrown with vines in Cuetzalan. Image by Ethan Bien for Mongabay.

The occupation

Founded in 1977, Tosepan Titataniske began as a bulk sugar-buying cooperative to help members avoid the price hikes imposed by coyote middlemen. Over the last four decades, the organization has grown into a union of eight regional cooperatives that in turn represent 410 community-level cooperatives, serving a total of 60,000 members. Tosepan now includes an organic agricultural cooperative as well as cooperatives dedicated to the production, processing and commercialization of coffee, allspice, and native honey. There are also cooperatives for ecotourism, microfinance, holistic health services, sustainable housing, and a bilingual school.

Due in part to its size, its well-organized constituency, and strong alliances with other indigenous groups, Tosepan enjoys a fair degree of sovereignty over its corner of the Sierra Norte.

In 2016, the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), the public-private federal power company, sent bulldozers to the hills outside Cuetzalan to begin breaking ground for an electrical substation to form part of a new regional network of high-tension power lines. The substation’s main advocate, aside from the CFE itself, was Oscar Paula Cruz, Cuetzalan’s mayor at the time, who argued that the project would improve electricity delivery to local communities and accommodate a growing population.

When leaders from concerned community organizations, including Tosepan, reviewed the paperwork, however, they found that the CFE and the mayor were not telling them the whole story. Official reports from Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) laid out the real rationale for the project: to provide for tourism and to route power to mining and fracking projects proposed for the mountains around Cuetzalan.

A mural on a side street in Cuetzalan reads “No to the privatization of water, no to hydroelectric dams, no to mines.” Image by Ethan Bien for Mongabay.

It was Nov. 20 that year, the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, and pouring rain, when community members organized a protest march in Cuetzalan, the seat of local government. “We discussed postponing the march for the bad weather, but the people said we need to continue,” recalled Ofelio González, one of Tosepan’s young leaders and a head of the solar program.

The community had a lot to protest about. The last few years had seen a steady increase in robberies and hijackings on the winding mountain roads around Cuetzalan. Many people were blaming the increasing insecurity on Mayor Paula, who they believed had cut a deal with criminal organizations from Veracruz in a move to punish the community’s resistance to the substation. (The mayor denied these allegations in an interview with the news site In These Times.) The protesters marched a mile through the rain to the construction site, where they convinced the bulldozer operators to go home. A sympathetic farmer granted them permission to camp out along the dirt access road to the site to keep watch, and a few days later they erected a small bamboo shelter. Thus began an occupation that lasted almost a year.

To sustain the round-the-clock guard of perhaps a couple dozen people at any given time, however, the protesters needed electric lights and a licuadora, the blender used to make the fruit aguas and salsas that form important parts of many meals.

The solution: a solar panel, the cooperative’s first.

“Cuetzalan is the cloudiest city in the whole country,” said Pedro Miguel, a journalist and early promoter of photovoltaic panels who helped the cooperative get its start in solar. “Everyone told us this wouldn’t work. But it worked perfectly.”

Soon the occupation was using the encampment as a site for workshops training people from the community about the threats to their sovereignty and teaching energy conservation. They remained at the site until late 2017, when the CFE’s construction permits ran out.

Since then, the violence and tension have only escalated. In March, gunmen ambushed a Tosepan van in an apparent assassination attempt on the cooperative’s leadership that left the driver wounded. In May, a lawyer allied with the cooperative in opposing the substation was found stabbed to death in a hotel in Cuetzalan. The Puebla district attorney and the CFE have also filed charges against several occupation leaders, including two Tosepan members, accusing them of using violence to obstruct the substation construction, charges the accused categorically deny.

The encampment still stands, ready to be reoccupied should construction resume. A massive protest banner, now tattered and UV-damaged, still hangs over the road to the construction site.

Doña Mari, a Tosepan cooperative member, whose home outside of Cuetzalan was chosen for one of the youth’s first residential installations. Image by Ethan Bien for Mongabay.

Sustainability and sovereignty

When the Tosepan cooperative first blocked the federal power company’s plans, it was accused of being anti-development and even of being manipulated by environmental activist groups. But this could not be further from the truth, according to Leonardo Dugin, one of the cooperative’s leaders. “We want energy,” he said. “We want high quality, sufficient electricity for our communities, but not at the cost of our way of life and not under these conditions.”

The cooperative’s pursuit of energy sovereignty has been two-pronged, focused as much on conservation as on developing locally generated renewable energy.

Many households in the area lack the appliances that are ubiquitous in urban homes, like refrigerators, microwaves, televisions and computers, and the cooperative is not necessarily trying to change that. “There’s a narrative that we need extractive [energy and mining] projects to maintain our lifestyle,” Dugin said. “That’s a way of blaming us for things that really are not our fault, especially those of us who live in rural indigenous communities, who consume much less materially than those of you who live in cities.

“There’s power in being selective on what technologies improve one’s quality of life, or improve a community’s ability to develop intelligently,” he continued. “Cellphones and computers, if you’re using them intelligently, they’re like a machete that’s been well-sharpened — they can be super helpful, but only if you know how and when to use them.”

Manuel Garrido, one of the Tosepan cooperative’s team of young solar panel installers. Image by Ethan Bien for Mongabay.

The cooperative began its solar initiative with a door-to-door survey around early 2017, a few months into the occupation, in an effort to better understand community members’ electricity needs. This helped the cooperative confirm that the CFE’s statistics about local communities lacking electricity were misleading, and that the company was exaggerating the scale of the issue to build a case for the substation. “CFE claimed that many surrounding communities lacked power, but we work in those communities and knew it wasn’t true,” González said. This added to the perception that the power company was acting in bad faith, and strengthened the cooperative’s desire to take energy matters into its own hands. The survey also offered an opportunity for the cooperative to implement its first major energy-saving initiative, the distribution of high-efficiency LED lightbulbs.

Leticia Vázquez, a 20-year-old indigenous Nahua native of Cuetzalan, was away in college when she heard about the cooperative’s plans to launch a solar power initiative back home. “I was in university talking about how renewable energy is a good option, but it was just talk. I wanted to do something practical.”

Vázquez was one of two young women in a group of about 50 of Tosepan’s youth who showed up for a week-long workshop in solar power installation put on by a solar power company from Puebla city in May 2018. There was hardly enough work or tools to go around, but together they installed Tosepan’s first large-scale photovoltaic array on the roof of the cooperative’s headquarters in Cuetzalan.

Leticia Vázquez, one of the Tosepan coopeative’s team of solar panel installers, with photovoltaic panels she and other youth installed on top of Tosepan headquarters in Cuetzalan, Puebla, Mexico. Image by Zoe VanGelder.

Then, in September, the cooperative launched its residential photovoltaic program, with the trainees as installers. Its first two home installations have been proof-of-concept gifts to cooperative members to spread the word about solar’s viability under the area’s cloudy skies. Once Doña Mari’s new panels were hooked up to their batteries, there was an unceremonious clipping of the wires on the meter, breaking her link with the CFE’s grid.

It’s clear from the scale of the installations so far that the goal is to keep both consumption and costs low. Doña Mari’s two panels, for example, are enough to run electric lights, a blender, and a DVD player, but not enough for a refrigerator or air conditioner.

The intent is to create an infrastructure to help poor families afford solar panels, said González, who heads Tosepan’s microfinance cooperative. Of all the financial packages the co-op bank offers, its lowest interest rates are for home construction, and it plans to include solar as part of its sustainable housing loan packet.

González said two- or three-panel systems like the one installed on Doña Mari’s home will cost between 15,000 and 25,000 pesos, around $740 to $1,230, to be paid off over 15 to 20 years.

Construction underway at the Tosepan cooperative’s housing development in Cuetzalan. When the buildings are complete, the youth solar team will be hired to install solar panels. Image by Ethan Bien for Mongabay.

Looking forward

Of the 50 youth trained in panel installation back in May, about 10 remain engaged, attending training sessions and conferences and sharing job opportunities in a group chat as the project gathers momentum. They’re paid a day rate for the installations they’ve done so far,and have acquired skills that put them in a good position to capitalize on Mexico’s growing solar sector. Lima and Garrido were both hired for short gigs doing residential solar panel installations in Mexico City, a seven-hour bus ride from Cuetzalan.

None of them have been able to quit their day jobs, although that could soon change.  Tosepan is in the process of forming a new cooperative for solar power installation, and the youth installers will be its charter members. It will be called Tosepan Tanex, which means “Light for Everyone” in Nahuatl.

Nicasio Esteban, one of the Tosepan cooperative’s team of young solar panel installers, gives a tour of a solar panel array he helped install on top of the cooperative’s microfinancing bank branch in the town of Ayotoxco Guerrero, Puebla, Mexico. Image by Ethan Bien for Mongabay.

And Tosepan’s model of locally controlled renewable energy generation could get a big boost in the coming months. The new president, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, has outlined a vision for renewable energy that privileges community-led renewable energy initiatives like Tosepan’s.

One of his administration’s stated policy proposals is to install 1 million renewable energy modules to power residences and small businesses, and to invest in training young people by building 500 Centers for Technical Development in Renewable Energies. His proposal cites the need for a massive cultural shift and new environmental model, one that’s grounded in the lifestyle and values of indigenous communities and that capitalizes on the latest sustainable technologies.

It’s no coincidence that AMLO’s policies resonate with Tosepan’s own solar energy program. One of Tosepan’s leaders and long-term advisers was tapped to head what was once the Secretariat of Social Development, or SEDESOL, now renamed the Secretariat of Bienestar, or well-being.

Cuahutemoc Lima, one of the Tosepan cooperative’s team of young solar panel installers. Image by Ethan Bien for Mongabay.

Moreover, two of Tosepan’s green-energy allies, entrepreneur Luis Abelardo González and Pedro Miguel, the renewable-energy activist and journalist, were nominated to advisory or leadership positions in the CFE.

“We can’t call it a prototype, because the geographic and economic situations around the country are so different, but Tosepan’s program is certainly an inspiration” for the new president’s initiatives, Miguel said.

Tosepan leader Dugin said he hopes this official support for Tosepan’s vision holds out. “It’s one thing to fight with [outgoing president] Peña Nieto, but what a pain it’d be to fight with our friends!”

Nicasio Esteban, one of the Tosepan cooperative’s team of young solar panel installers, and Ofelio González, who heads Tosepan’s solar project and micro-finance collective, pose in front of a solar panel array on top of the cooperative’s microfinance bank branch in Ayotoxco Guerrero, Puebla. Image by Ethan Bien for Mongabay.

Banner image: Members of the Tosepan cooperative’s youth solar panel installation team and the ONergia solar cooperative put the finishing touches on a domestic panel installation while community members chip in. Image by Ethan Bien for Mongabay. 

Zoé VanGelder, an independent researcher whose work focuses on gender equality, climate change and rural development, contributed to the writing and reporting of this story. 

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the editor of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.