Brazil’s Easing of Wind Turbine Regulations Stirs Conflict with Indigenous Rights

RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — For Indigenous leader Zenivaldo Bezerra, listening to the “enchanted” — ancestral spirits — required waiting until the dead of night for absolute silence in his rural community in northeastern Brazil.

But a quiet night has become rare for the Pankararu, a group of about 7,500 Indigenous people in Pernambuco State, because of the hum from 52 wind turbines built on the surrounding savannah without their consent.

“You try to connect [with the enchanted], and nine times out of ten, the noise stops you from doing it,” said Bezerra.

The Entre Serras Pankararu people, living in 17 villages and led by Bezerra, are one of five Indigenous communities in Brazil less than five kilometers from wind farms, an analysis of government data by the Thomson Reuters Foundation has found.

According to Brazilian federal regulation, Indigenous peoples have to be consulted when transmission lines are developed within that distance. In Entre Serras’ case, the closest tower is just 50 meters away, and the transmission line 180 meters away.

But an easing of government regulations over 20 years ago has made it easier for companies to set up wind farms without an official consultation.

Worldwide, governments are embracing renewable energies such as wind and solar power to shift from fossil fuels under the 2015 Paris Agreement to fight climate change.

But people ranging from smallholder farmers in India to reindeer herders in the Arctic often feel marginalized by clean energy projects on their land. Human rights advocates say local peoples need a far bigger role to secure a just green future.

Last year, Enel, the Italian energy company which runs the Entre Serras wind project, spent $430 million Brazilian reais ($88 million) to add 18 turbines to the original 34 operating since 2013, giving an installed capacity of 180 megawatts, enough to power tens of thousands of homes.

Enel says it is working with Funai, Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, to develop an “Indigenous Basic Environmental Project” for the Pankararu. Over the years it has made donations to the community, including to fund an annual cultural event.

“They [Enel] are offering compensations,” Bezerra said. “Those, in my opinion, don’t pay for even 10% of the damage they caused in our territory and continue to cause to this day.” He declined to give details of the offer.

An emergency fix

Enel said in a statement that all its activities were authorized by Pernambuco’s state environment agency CPRH.

And it said that it reached out to Funai in 2012 to discuss the project — before construction started — but received no response. Neither CPRH nor Funai replied to repeated requests for comment.

In Brazil, wind power firms are benefiting from a change in regulation made during a 2001 energy crisis, when a severe drought reduced water levels in hydroelectric dams the country relied on to generate most of its electricity.

The change allowed energy projects of “low impact,” a category including wind farms, to be approved with a Simplified Environmental Report (RAS), instead of a more complex Environmental Impact Study (EIA/Rima).

The RAS system could cut approval times for new projects down to 30 days from about six months, said Wallason Farias de Souza, an adjunct professor at Ceara State University who researched the issue.

And the RAS dropped a requirement under the former rules to consult Indigenous peoples and other local communities before going ahead. It requires merely a “technical information meeting” with those affected.

In 2001, wind power accounted for less than 1% of the energy produced in Brazil. In 2022, it reached about 8%, making wind second only to hydro in Brazil’s power mix, according to the 2023 annual report by the Global Wind Energy Council.

Due to the rapid expansion of wind power, some communities only realized a wind farm was being set up when machinery arrived to build it, said Souza.

Since 2001, some states have put curbs on environmental licensing via the fast-track RAS system. In the northeastern state of Ceara, for example, an EIA/Rima is required in cases where a wind farm is planned for a “fragile environment.”

Companies have also got better at consulting and informing communities, said Souza. Even so, he believes “it’s necessary to review” the use of RAS.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has championed both the development of wind power and respect for Indigenous rights as ways to preserve the environment and fight climate change.

Lack of benefits

In Brazil, wind power companies pay an estimated R$165 million a year to landowners to lease land where wind farms are sited, according to a 2020 study from ABEEolica, an association of wind power companies.

The money benefits many small landowners in Brazil’s poor northeast, which generates most of the country’s wind power. According to ABEEolica, the sector creates jobs and boosts the local economy.

But the benefits are not always felt by those who live near the wind farms, like the Pankararu, critics say.

Compensation to local communities tends to be low, such as donations to build a park or a daycare center, said Fernando Joaquim Ferreira Maia, who leads a group of researchers exploring the impact of wind farms in Brazil.

“It is not a relevant socio-environmental compensation compared to how [the companies] will profit and the damage they leave behind,” said Maia, a professor at the Federal University of Paraiba State.

On the Pankararu land, Bezerra said roads built or widened by Enel have helped criminals travel more freely, adding that they use the unpaved roads as alternative routes to ship drugs or to escape from the police.

In separate incidents last year, a boy and a woman were shot and injured by unidentified men, said Antonio Domingos da Silva, a local leader from Baixa do Lero, the Pankararu village closest to the wind towers.

“Criminals now meet right near here,” he said.

As compensation, Bezerra wants Enel to build access control points, and hire members of the Entre Serras Pankararu to staff them. Beyond improving security, this would help resolve one of the main complaints he has heard about the wind farms — that they have not generated local jobs for the Pankararu.

According to Enel, 350 local jobs were created during the expansion phase of the wind farm, with 23 of the hires identifying themselves as Indigenous.

Enel denied having widened roads inside the community, but said it upgraded a road to allow access for small vehicles. It also said it built a 14-kilometer road that passes outside Indigenous lands to reach the complex.

Fear of the unknown

Since environmental licensing can occur on a local level, there is no single database showing how many wind farms are set up or planned near Indigenous lands, said Paulo Tupiniquim from APOINME, which represents about 230,000 Indigenous peoples in the northeast and neighboring states.

APOINME is currently working on a study to map them, Tupiniquim said.

The hope is that, by knowing where the wind farms are planned, communities can react before they become a reality.

The Kapinawa, an Indigenous community of about 5,000 in eastern Brazil, fear they might soon see wind farms set up near them, without consultation.

The RAS for the wind farm has been submitted, said Daniel Ribeiro, a lawyer from the Indigenous Missionary Council (Cimi), which represents the Kapinawa.

In late April, Kapinawa leaders went to Brasilia and delivered a letter to Funai’s president Joenia Wapichana asking her to protect their lands from wind farms.

“Much of it is happening because Funai is being slow [to act],” said Ribeiro.

Ribeiro also considers the use of RAS to be illegal.

“It is the legal creation of an illegality,” he said. He said many wind projects would never be built if Indigenous peoples had a proper say.

For the Kapinawa, the lack of knowledge about wind farms makes the population fearful of both real impacts — like the noise and loss of wildlife — and imagined ones including that turbines emit cancer-causing radiation.