- Brazil is among the top 10 countries in terms of installed capacity for wind power; 85% of the 10,000-plus turbines in operation are in the Caatinga biome, where winds are ideal for energy generation.
- As a renewable, cheap and clean energy source, wind has received large investments and favorable changes to legislation to promote the development of more wind farms — sometimes at the expense of environmental licensing procedures.
- Conservationists say the problem is that many wind farms are built in areas of native vegetation that are home to rare bird species from the Caatinga, which may collide with the turbine blades.
- The Araripe manakin and Lear’s macaw, both threatened species, are among those facing the highest risk.
The Araripe manakin is a Brazilian bird so unique and so threatened that it has its own national conservation action plan. The species, Antilophia bokermanni, is endemic to the Chapada do Araripe region of Ceará state, and despite its beautiful contrasting colors and the red topknot of the males, was only described by science in 1998.
Its range is a very restricted 50 square kilometers (19 square miles) straddling the municipalities of Crato, Barbalha and Missão Velha. Because the bird nests near streams, it’s known in the semiarid Caatinga biome as the “Guardian of the Springs.”
When the Araripe manakin was formally described as a new-to-science species, it was classified as critically endangered, a status in which it has remained ever since, just one category away from being considered extinct in the wild. Its current population is estimated at approximately 800 individuals.
That’s why this bird with the fiery crest was one of the highlights in a report presented in 2019 by Qair Brasil, a subsidiary of French renewable energy developer Qair Group, when applying for an environmental license to build the Serra do Mato wind and solar farm complex. The project lies in the border region of the municipalities of Porteiras, Brejo Santo and Missão Velha, which means it overlaps with Araripe manakin territory.
Under Brazil’s current environmental legislation, the National Council for the Environment (Conama) requires an environmental impact assessment and environmental impact report (EIA and RIMA) as well as public hearings before a wind farm can be built in “areas of occurrence of endangered species with restricted endemism,” as is the case of the Araripe manakin.
And it’s not the only species of concern in this particular region. The study prepared by Qair’s consultancy identified another rare bird in Missão Velha: the yellow-legged tinamou (Crypturellus noctivagus), a near-threatened species.
The most obvious risk posed by wind turbines close to areas where such birds occur is collision with the blades. In the U.S., it’s estimated that more than 500,000 birds die this way every year.
The best winds are in the Caatinga
Brazil’s Northeast region is prime territory for the country’s wind industry. Ninety percent of the companies in this sector are found here, 85% of them in the Caatinga, mostly in the states of Rio Grande do Norte and Bahia states. This biome has the ideal conditions for wind energy generation: more constant winds, with stable speeds, and that don’t change direction frequently.
The wind power industry is relatively new in Brazil; the first public auction took place in 2009, the first wind park started operating in 2011, and specific licensing legislation was approved in 2014.
“Federal law provides guidelines for state governments to enact their own legislation,” says Elbia Gannoum, executive president of ABEEólica, an association that represents companies in the industry. “We, investors, have been learning to deal with state legislation and we don’t see it as bureaucratic or restrictive.”
But some conservation experts say that while investment in clean and renewable energy is very welcome, greater rigor is needed to analyze and monitor the projects.
“In general, renewable energy sources are often seen as solutions. And they are. But not in the way it has been done in Brazil’s Northeast, especially in the Caatinga,” says Paulo Marinho, a biology professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte who specializes in Caatinga mammal conservation. “It’s been predatory, with very little regulation and concern about the biome and the people who live in it.”
The Caatinga is the fourth-largest biome in Brazil — after the Amazon, the Cerrado, and the Atlantic Forest — spanning 860,000 km2 (332,000 mi2). As of 2020, however, barely 2% of its territory was preserved under fully protected conservation units, according to the environment ministry.
“Compared to other biomes, the Caatinga has not been studied enough,” says Sandino Silva, coordinator of institutional relations at the Caatinga Association, a conservation group. “But it has a great wealth of endemism, which means that several of its species will not be found anywhere else in the world.”
Political pressure and lax licensing
Like the Araripe manakin, another species endemic to the Caatinga is at the center of a controversy involving the construction of a wind farm complex in Bahia. The area is close to the only refuge for the Lear’s macaw (Anodorhynchus leari), an endangered species of which only about 2,200 are left in the wild, according to the latest census conducted last year.
Voltalia, another French wind developer, is planning a project near the Raso da Catarina area in Canudos municipality, with two farms at an estimated cost of 500 million reais ($102 million).
The construction work is practically ready, but it’s now emerged that the Bahia state environmental agency, INEMA, approved the project based only on a simplified licensing procedure, without requiring the EIA and RIMA.
Citing the potential impact that the blades of the 80 wind turbines could have on the Lear’s macaw — a bird that embarks on long daily flights of up to 80 km (50 mi), leaving its roosting place at dawn and returning at the end of the day — local organizations and communities have filed a lawsuit challenging the licensing procedure.
In March, the Federal Prosecution Service called for the annulment of the license. The following month, a federal court in Bahia suspended all licenses granted to Voltalia.
The court ordered that “the required EIA/RIMA be presented and approved, including a public hearing in compliance with the relevant environmental legislation.”
In a statement, Voltalia said it had conducted “risk assessment based on field observation of the behavior of the Lear’s macaw for a period longer than recommended by the best international practices, concluding that wind farms pose no risk to the preservation and conservation of the species.”
The company also called the suspension of the licenses inappropriate, saying it’s investing in a series of conservation projects for the species, in addition to taking actions to avoid possible collisions, such as painting the blades black.
“The government faces pressure at all levels to speed up the start of these [wind farm] construction works,” Marinho says. “And when these projects reach lower levels of government, that pressure is even stronger. It falls on environmental agencies that often have to produce reports according to the company’s timing rather than the technical criteria.”
Changes in state laws
Warnings about the risks that wind farms pose to birds aren’t new. In 2019, researchers from the Federal University of Pernambuco published a study in the journal Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation titled “Green versus green? Adverting potential conflicts between wind power generation and biodiversity conservation in Brazil.”
At the time, Brazil ranked eighth in the world in terms of installed capacity for wind power generation, and had more than 6,300 turbines in operation. It now ranks sixth, with almost 10,000 wind turbines.
Biologist Felipe Melo, a co-author of the 2019 study, describes what happened in Pernambuco in 2015: State legislation was amended to change the altitude threshold for permanent preservation areas (APP), in a move aimed at benefiting the wind power industry. Essentially, the minimum altitude at which vegetation could be protected rose from 750 meters to 1,100 meters (about 2,500 to 3,300 feet). Anything lower than that — i.e. land ideal for setting up a wind farm — would be unable to get APP protection.
“The fact is that the state of Pernambuco changed a protection standard to benefit wind farms. It was shoved down our throats,” Melo says. “And every time environmental protection is undermined, some obscure interest is behind it. There was lobbying, influence from an industry that was not shy about overturning legislation.”
Melo says any change in regulation, not just environmental, must be discussed with all stakeholders. However, he says environmental licensing in Brazil is seen by some companies as a barrier, an obstacle, when in fact it should be a fundamental step in any project development process.
“We need politicians and businesspeople who respect environmental protection as a development strategy for future generations. Natural capital is one of Brazil’s major weapons for international negotiation,” he says.
Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. A study published in 2021 notes that 62% of the area now occupied by wind farms in the states of Bahia, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte and Rio Grande do Sul used to be covered in native vegetation and coastal sands.
Call for more transparency, stronger controls
For the wind industry, the present time is, well, a windfall. The numbers are all positive: According to ABEEólica, from 2016 to 2024, the sector will have prevented greenhouse gas emissions worth 60 billion to 70 billion reais ($12 billion to $14 billion) in Brazil. And each dollar invested in wind farms has a nearly $3 impact on GDP. The country’s installed wind power generation capacity is projected to almost double by 2028.
“Wind is now the cheapest source of energy in Brazil,” says Gannoum, the head of the industry association. “And over the next 10, 20 years, supply will grow strongly, led by wind and solar.”
For those working in conservation, money from a renewable source of clean energy is welcome — but it should benefit everyone, especially local communities and the wildlife and vegetation of the area in question.
“The design of a wind power farm must prioritize preservation from the beginning,” says Silva from the Caatinga Association. “And an enterprise that is labeled as clean energy must really mitigate or totally reduce environmental and social impacts. When you talk about energy that is too cheap, someone else might be paying that price: either biodiversity or local people.”
Conservation experts generally agree that licensing processes for enterprises should be more rigorous and fully transparent, and that there should be constant monitoring and control over potential impacts and environmental compensation projects carried out by companies after construction is completed.
“There are 26 million people living in a relatively well-preserved ecosystem,” Melo says. “The Caatinga is a major living laboratory of coexistence between nature and man. But because the biome is not widely known and not strongly defended — unlike the Amazon — it’s easier for companies to advance through it.”
Neri, M., Jameli, D., Bernard, E., & Melo, F. P. L. (2019). Green versus green? Adverting potential conflicts between wind power generation and biodiversity conservation in Brazil. Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, 17(3), 131-135. doi:10.1016/j.pecon.2019.08.004
Turkovska, O., Castro, G., Klingler, M., Nitsch, F., Regner, P., Soterroni, A. C., & Schmidt, J. (2021). Land-use impacts of Brazilian wind power expansion. Environmental Research Letters, 16(2), 024010. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/abd12f