Utrecht University: Key lessons from Indigenous peoples in the much-needed energy transition

This newly published study is built around examples from three Zapotec communities in South Mexico. Many conflicts arose during the construction of wind farms in the region where this Indigenous population lives. The clashing Indigenous and modernist visions of sustainability and wellbeing were analysed, leading to several valuable insights, which are widely applicable to similar projects around the world.

Clashing worldviews in Zapotec region
During the construction of the wind farms in the Zapotec region in southern Mexico, Western and Indigenous worldviews clashed. Decisions about the development of wind farms were made based on hierarchical top-down relationships, which did not involve all members of the community. This led to conflicts with the local communities, who saw these forms of governance as a breach of their inclusive practices of direct democracy and bottom-up decision-making.
Friction also arose in implementation. The authors found that Western forms of ownership, production, governance and labour were imposed on the communities. For example, communal land was privatised for the construction of wind turbines, which meant that the financial returns from the wind turbine developments were only shared with the individuals to whom that piece of land belonged. This disrupted the local socio-economic practices of collective solidarity, mutual reciprocity and communal labour, which is at the heart of Zapotec culture.

Translation to other projects
The authors point out that the technological innovations brought by modernist worldviews are key to combat climate change and biodiversity loss. However, the social and political arrangements by which these technologies are implemented lead to neo-colonial injustices, social conflicts and environmental rebound effects. Technologies alone are thus not enough to face the challenges of the 21st century. Reducing consumption and establishing more harmonious relationships with nature is also key, along with reducing inequalities and building fairer and more convivial societies.

The authors thus conclude that different conceptualizations of sustainability must be recognized to ensure an inclusive and just energy transition. To do so, they advance the concept of ‘pluriversal technologies’ to emphasize the need for technologies that embrace diversity and inclusiveness by being co-designed, co-produced and co-owned by the inhabitants of the socio-cultural territory in which they are embedded.

Public participation
An example of such a participatory approach is the cooperative Windpark Zeewolde BV. In this initiative, more than 90% of the local population is a shareholder in the wind farm, so the vast majority of the local population benefits from the profits. In addition, because of this structure, they also had a say in matters such as location, planning, process and number of wind turbines. Thanks to these participatory features, Windpark Zeewolde met with little resistance from the local communities around the project area. However, this project still falls short of being fully pluriversal as it does not fully reconfigure relations with nature, control over technology and unsustainable production and consumption practices. By applying these lessons and developing pluriversal technologies, we can achieve and accelerate a fair and sustainable energy transition, and hopefully keep our heads above water in this climate crisis.