Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

August 7, 2023

Enormous Solar Development Threatens Tohono O'odham Sacred Salt Flats in Sonora

The largest photovoltaic plant in Latin America alters the landscape of biosphere reserves and indigenous ancestral territory

Astrid Arellano
August 3, 2023
Original in espanol

PUERTO PENASCO, Sonora, Mexico -- Salt is sacred to the Tohono O'odham people. Hundreds of years ago, their ancestors made long pilgrimages through the desert of northwestern Mexico to obtain this essential element for their culture. Either to ensure the preservation of the meat they hunted or to be able to celebrate their rituals, they walked for weeks towards the salt flats that are close to the seashore, in the area that we now know as the Upper Gulf of California. In 2023, the transmission lines that are part of the Mexican government's ambitious solar energy generation project will be installed in these salt flats: the photovoltaic plant that seeks to be the largest in Latin America.

The plant covers an area of ​​2,000 hectares —located on a property 27 kilometers from the municipality of Puerto Peñasco, in Sonora, northwest Mexico. It will gradually be covered by 278,000 solar panels and will have the capacity to generate 1,000 MW of electrical energy by 2027, as reported by the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE).

“In the salt flats, there is power, there is energy that still exists. Those transmission lines that they are going to put, they are going to cross them and we don't want this," says Matías Valenzuela, spokesman and translator for the Supreme Council of Elders of the Tohono O'odham indigenous people.

“It is as if I built a wall in the middle of a Catholic or Christian church. But, due to the fact that we are indigenous, due to the beliefs we have, they look at us as savages and believe that we are worth less than them”.

The solar energy megaproject — which is part of Plan Sonora, an energy-strengthening initiative of the Mexican government — also includes four electrical substations, 192 megawatts of backup batteries and large steel towers to support the 290 kilometers of overhead lines of electricity transmission that will be installed in the Sonoran desert.

These lines have generated criticism. Environmentalists, specialists, and members of the Tohono O'odham indigenous people oppose its passage through the buffer zones of two Biosphere Reserves: El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar — which has also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2013 —, and that of the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta.

These reserves are home to enormous biodiversity and share shorelines with the salt plain, sacred to the Tohono O'odham and freshwater springs that have been essential to the life and culture of the indigenous people since ancient times.

“We were not against or in favor of the project, we just wanted them to respect us as a Council and for all the permits to be done correctly: for soil, for wetlands and for it not to harm our community or our passage through the ancestral sites. But they didn't do it that way,” says Gerardo Pasos, one of the traditional Tohono O'odham governors and representative of the Supreme Council of Elders in Puerto Peñasco.
Map made by Diálogo Chino.

The indigenous leader explains that, before the project started in 2022, three meetings were held between his people, the Secretary of Energy (Sener) and the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE). The first one, with the objective of presenting the project of the photovoltaic plant and the transmission line, took place in the municipality of Sonoyta. The second was in Caborca, which told them "the same" as in the previous one. And, after the third, which happened again in Caborca ​​and was when the ethnic group reiterated their disagreement, “it was the straw that broke the camel's back,” says Pasos. When we were in those talks, they left with a person from the United States, who calls himself the traditional governor.

Pasos refers to a member of the Tohono O'odham on the other side of the border, in Arizona, United States — because this indigenous people is bi-national —, who approved the project on behalf of the entire people.

“The elders do not recognize him as an authority and the Ministry of Energy did not take into account that he had not been working with us. He went with him and gave them the endorsement. We do not recognize the decision they made. We feel humiliated by what he did to the Council ”.

Mongabay Latam and Diálogo Chino requested an interview with the Ministry of Energy (Sener), the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat), the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas (Conanp) and the management of the El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, but none of them responded.

The benefits vs. environmental impact

There is no public document that explains in detail what the Sonora Sustainable Energy Plan is. The governments of Sonora and Mexico have announced it, since the beginning of 2022, as the main strategy of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to strengthen the country's energy policy. It seeks to position the state of Sonora as a world benchmark in sustainable energy generation.

The Sonora Plan, in addition to the Puerto Peñasco Photovoltaic Power Plant, also promotes the exploitation of lithium — an essential element for the manufacture of batteries for electric cars and of which Sonora is presumed to have one of the largest deposits in the world —, and the liquefaction of natural gas, among other actions.

The solar mega-park in Puerto Peñasco will have a total investment estimated at 1.6 billion dollars and its benefits are expected to reach a population of 1.6 million consumers, equivalent to 536,000 homes. The project is owned by CFE and will be completed in four construction phases. The first of these is expected to start operations during the first half of 2023.

With this project, the Mexican government argues that it will meet the historical demand for electrical energy in Baja California and that its electrical system will be integrated into the National Interconnected System (SIN), under the premise that it is a matter of national security.

Furthermore, the goal is the economic growth of the industrial, commercial, residential and service sectors of Puerto Peñasco, Caborca ​​and San Luis Río Colorado, in Sonora; as well as in Ensenada, Tecate, Tijuana and Mexicali, in Baja California. This with the aim of reducing energy dependence on the United States and contributing to the international commitments that Mexico acquired to mitigate climate change.
Solar panels in the desert landscape of Sonora, in Mexico. Photo: Sergio Muller.

Among their benefits, solar power plants offer the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, which is why these technologies have been essential in the search for an energy transition that replaces fossil fuels. However, it is necessary to review the effects of a project of such magnitude.

Carlos Tornel, researcher and PhD student in Human Geography at Durham University in the United Kingdom — an expert in the transition process, justice and energy sovereignty in Mexico —, affirms that, although the name suggests it, it is essential to understand this type of energy. They are not renewable, since at least solar and wind require, in the first instance, mining and fossil fuels to articulate an entire production chain on a global scale.

“That is, several of the minerals found in solar panels have to be mined in Africa or China; later, technology registration patents are used in Europe or in a place where they are assembled, so that they are later transported and installed in Sonora, with trucks that use fossil fuels to remove everything that is 'in the way' in the area," Tornel explains.

After measuring these effects, says the expert, the next step would be to measure the socio-ecological impact, an aspect that is not always covered.

Luca Ferrari, geologist and senior researcher at the Center for Geosciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), agrees with Tornel regarding the origin of the materials to manufacture the solar panels and adds that their Chinese origin contributes to the technological dependence of the country. "In other words, we are buying a technology that we do not manufacture in Mexico," he says.

In addition, remember that the Puerto Peñasco photovoltaic plant would be the first of five that the Mexican government plans to build in Sonora, and that its direct benefits for that state and for Baja California are still questionable.

“It will be the seventh largest solar park in the world when it is completed. According to the CFE, 1 terawatt per year of electricity will be produced in 2024 and 2.5 terawatts once completed. To have a comparison, the northwestern region of the country —which includes Sonora and Sinaloa—, in 2020 consumed 26.1 terawatts of electrical energy. The Puerto Peñasco plant would represent less than 10% of consumption. That is to say, it is a drop in the ocean, ”says Ferrari, coordinator of CONACYT's National Strategic Program for Energy and Climate Change ( Pronaces ).Infographic made by Diálogo Chino.
Transmission lines and the rupture of the landscape

“The transmission line will look like a scar,” says Federico Godínez Leal, director of the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve from 2004 to 2017, describing the coming change in the desert landscape: “In where you now turn north and see the dunes, you will see the towers. They are gigantic. They are not like the towers we usually see in the cities or on the highways. They are taller and more robust”.

Godínez knows the area well because, in addition to being an authority, he has studied it for more than two decades as a zootechnical agronomist. He currently directs the Magool Foundation, an organization focused on social health and environmental care that he founded with his family in 2013.

The solar plant will affect, in particular, the southern part of the buffer zones of El Pinacate and the neighboring reserve of the Alto Golfo. The most serious impact that the transmission lines of the solar energy megaproject will bring, affirms Godínez, will be received by the landscape. The former director of the reserve is not the only one who supports it. The Tohono O'odham also alerted him. Even the CFE itself confirms the visual breakdown of the landscape in the Environmental Impact Statement ( MIA ), where it states that there will be a " segmentation and fragmentation of the territory, leading to a decrease in the scenic value of these places"
View of Cerro Colorado and a field of young saguaros in the El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, in Mexico. Photo: Sergio Muller

Godinez mentions that "although the transmission line will be built in a 30 or 40-meter right-of-way strip [on the coastal highway that borders the reserves], the great impact that will be caused there is the impact on landscape beauty.

This aspect, he adds, is precisely one of the fundamental criteria that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) took into account to declare the reserve as a World Heritage Site just ten years ago.

Given the possibility of fragmentation of the landscape, Semarnat urged CFE to notify UNESCO of its intentions. In October 2022, the institution sent a summary of the project and the MIA to the Latin America and Caribbean Unit of the World Heritage Center of the international organization that, finally, left it in the hands of the Mexican State to comply with mitigation measures of impacts to the reserve . Clearing in the desert for mounting solar panels. Photo: Sergio Muller.

According to a document that Mongabay Latam and Diálogo Chino had access to, experts from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) determined that there will be clear negative impacts to the reserve as a result of the project along the coastal route. However, they stated that these impacts can be avoided through mitigation measures.

As UNESCO declared to Mongabay Latam and Diálogo Chino , the IUCN experts —which acts as a consultative organization— prepared a technical analysis with recommendations for the Mexican authorities. In addition, it reported that a technical dialogue is underway with the State Party (Mexico), to implement these recommendations and thus minimize the impact of the project on this World Heritage site.

“The presence of Tohono O'odham and Cucapah territories in the project area has been taken into account in our analysis and recommendations, as well as the need to proceed with prior, free and informed consultation for these people regarding the project. This is a priority issue that we are following closely," the agency reported through its responses sent by email.

The first phase of the solar energy project was inaugurated by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on February 17, 2023 in Mexico. Photo: Sergio Muller.

Regarding the possibility of the reserve losing its World Heritage status, the agency stated that the construction of infrastructure on or near these sites is a frequent issue, especially in photovoltaic or wind projects. “The role of the World Heritage Center is to work with the State Party to make these projects compatible with the protection of the site,” he said, adding that there are currently 1,157 properties inscribed on the World Heritage List. "In the entire history of the World Heritage Convention, only three sites lost their inscription, when it became clear, after many years of effort, that the attributes that defined their Outstanding Universal Value had disappeared."

He also stated that the World Heritage Committee will examine the state of conservation of the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve at its next meeting, which will take place from September 10 to 25, 2023.

The El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve was declared on June 10, 1993. It is located in the extreme northwest of the state of Sonora, occupying a large part of the territory of three municipalities: Plutarco Elías Calles, Puerto Peñasco and San Luis Colorado River.

This reserve has impressive volcanic formations that are, without a doubt, what gives identity and characterize the beauty of the area. Within the area, you can walk among volcanic ash and crater rims.

The Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve has terrestrial and marine areas, where the Adair Bay wetlands stand out, a Ramsar Site that brings together a combination of habitats, such as marshes, canals, artesian wells, hypersaline plains, and muddy.

The MIA of the CFE mentions that "the project affects only its northern part." The ancestral routes of the Tohono O'odham are located throughout this area.

The transmission network project, associated with the Puerto Peñasco Photovoltaic Power Plant, consists of the construction of two transmission lines and an electrical substation in Sonora. The first line influences 76.99 kilometers in the buffer zones of the two biosphere reserves —in the areas protected by Mexican regulations—, while another 67.68 kilometers pass through the buffer zones of the sites considered World Heritage Sites. UNESCO, located to the east and west of the polygon of the El Pinacate Reserve . Saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea) and cardones (Pachycereus pringlei) also have an important presence among the cacti in the Reserve, in Mexico. Photo: Sergio Muller.

The sum of the lines — 144.67 kilometers — runs parallel to the coastal highway Puerto Peñasco-Golfo de Santa Clara and for a fraction of the Sonora-Baja California railroad, which is located in the area. In the MIA, the CFE argues that the transmission lines will not be visible, for example, from the visitor site of the El Pinacate reserve, "because a set of elevations crosses the line of sight," the document cites.

"Within the body of the Environmental Impact Statement they made some measurements and used a methodology with which we do not agree, because they did it as a way of justifying themselves," argues Federico Godinez.
Habitat fragmentation

At the end of March, the environmentalist Sergio Müller visited the exterior of the photovoltaic plant to fly his drone, follow up and measure what is happening there. "One wonders what happened to so much biodiversity that was in the place and what was the rescue plan: what was rescued and where," says the founder of Caminantes del Desierto, a civil association that, since 2017, promotes the conservation and restoration of the desert sonoran.

What he saw was a vast dusty plain, with no trace of vegetation. The same when she walked outside the place to photograph it. “You can see that there are cacti that have been transplanted and that they are in terrible conditions,” she affirms. "If that happens with the cacti, what happened to the rest of the trees that were there?"

Cacti transplanted around the perimeter of the photovoltaic plant. Photo: Sergio Muller.

It was a windy day and the amount of dust emanating from the clearing site was incredible, Müller says, wondering about the consequences for the people of Peñasco, who live just a few kilometers away. "How is it that this was contemplated in the Environmental Impact Statement, if it was contemplated and how is it mitigated?" asks the environmentalist.

According to the resolution issued by Semarnat in response to the MIA that the CFE presented on the photovoltaic plant project, the agency is obliged to carry out a reforestation program with native species on 301.28 hectares. Originally, the CFE had only proposed to cover 81.56 hectares, but it was rejected by the environmental authority.

"With the application of the Reforestation Program, it will help to ensure that the habitats of the fauna present in the region are not lost and that the species of fauna naturally maintain their habits, including mammals and reptiles, avoiding their migration" cites the document.

The CFE recognized in the MIA that the photovoltaic project will not only cause the fragmentation of the habitat but also a modification to the distribution of species that are under some category of threat in the Official Mexican Standard.

A special case is that of the Sonoran pronghorn (Antilocapra americana sonoriensis) , for which the loss or reduction of their feeding, refuge and reproduction areas is expected. Likewise, Semarnat informed him that, although the project is not located within a Protected Natural Area, two of its sectors are located within the biological corridor of this species that can only be found in the Sonoran desert.

“In the case of the photovoltaic plant, it must be understood that it is a project divided into two stages: one is the construction of the photovoltaic plant itself and the other is the transmission lines . In the case of the plant, the largest and most important impact is on the pronghorn habitat," says Carlos Castillo Sánchez , a biologist and co-director of the Northwest Mexico program at the Wildlands Network organization, who was director of the Biosphere Reserve. El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar from 1996 to 2004. As a specialist, he has investigated the Sonoran pronghorn since 1987.

“It is a region of high population density, that is, where the largest number of specimens of the species are concentrated. This region is located between the sandy plains to the northwest of Puerto Peñasco and up to the border with the municipality of Caborca”.Sonoran pronghorn (Antilocapra americana sonorensis), endangered species. Within the area of ​​the transmission network project, 75 species of vegetation and 76 species of fauna were identified, for which actions and commitments were proposed to mitigate the effects on their habitats. Photo: Federico Godinez.

This space, says the expert, has been drastically transformed over the years, first, by a mining project that existed on the area of ​​dunes or stabilized dunes where pronghorn live and reduced their habitat. “And now with the construction of the plant, with its 2,000 hectares (4,943 acres) less surface area in the high-density distribution zone of the species, which will be impacted,” he affirms.

Castillo agrees that, in terms of essential vegetation for the habitat and feeding of the pronghorn, the specimens that manage to relocate do not always survive. "For example, choya or choyal forests, which is where pronghorn live and feed in difficult times, during the summer, are practically impossible to recover, at least not in the short term," he explains.

In fact, the resolution that Semarnat issued regarding the transmission lines project, indicates that the majority of species in arid ecosystems are slow-growing, for example, a gobernadora (Larrea tridentata) despite its low height —not exceeds 1.3 meters— would be between 30 and 90 years old when removed from the ecosystem.The MIA of the transmission lines affirms that it will not remove species of flora, since the towers will be built in the right of way of the coastal highway. Photo: Sergio Muller.
A culture at risk

The Pinacate has a link with the history of the creation of the world and not only of the Tohono O'odham, but of all the inhabitants of the planet. “The O'odham come from many parts,” says Matías Valenzuela. The ancestral territory is from Hermosillo to Phoenix, Arizona; and from the Sea of ​​Cortez [Gulf of California], to the mountains of Chihuahua”, describes the indigenous leader. "The territory is quite large and, for the O'odham who live next to the Pinacate, in Peñasco and Sonoyta, the Pinacate has that meaning: it is where the world was created, where the universe began."

The stories of the grandparents tell that everything that exists in the reserve is sacred. One of them even assures that the site is still inhabited by "sacred people who cannot be seen," says Valenzuela.

At El Pinacate, the Tohono O'odham do the salt walk. They leave in groups from various Sonoran communities and even from Arizona. “To get to the salt flats you have to go through the Pinacate. It is a route to enter the salt flats, it is very necessary, because it is a very old route that the ancestors used. There is ancestral food that is still known from the site, which is now protected, part of the ancestral gastronomy of the O'odham”, explains Valenzuela.
Alicia Chuhuhua, governor for life of the Pozo Prieto community, of the Tohono O'odham Supreme Council, in Mexico. Photo: Griselda Renteria.

These routes —assures the representative of the elderly— are also at risk because the health of the elderly who know the way has deteriorated over the years. This situation, added to other factors such as the process of violence that occurs in the surrounding municipalities due to organized crime, and the very construction of the transmission lines, says Valenzuela, are putting the O'odham culture at risk.

The knowledge of his people about the site and what lives in it, as well as the request not to harm them, were not taken into account, says Valenzuela.

From the perception of the Supreme Council of the Tohono O'odham, practically, there will be looting of their ancestral sites: “In the sacred sites, they are going to be removing graves… They are going to be destroying not only the ecosystem of this part of the world, but also destroying the O'odham culture and the beliefs that we have."

And Valenzuela reiterates: sacred sites have incalculable power. “You have to protect them, because very few are left here in Mexico. Sacred sites are being destroyed, just for a few coins that will run out tomorrow.”

**Main image: The photovoltaic plant that claims to be the largest in Latin America, is being built in Puerto Peñasco, in Sonora, northwest of Mexico. Photo: Sergio Muller.

* *This report is a journalistic alliance between Mongabay Latam and Diálogo Chino .

Originally posted on Mongabay Latam

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#Sonora| Las líneas de transmisión asociadas al proyecto para transportar la energía eléctrica al estado vecino de Baja California levantan críticas de expertos, ambientalistas y miembros del pueblo indígena Tohono O’odham.

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