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Wind power expansion meets grassroots resistance in Brazil's Northeast

QUEIMADA NOVA, Brazil — (AP) — Cousins Nilson José dos Santos and Geremias da Cruz dos Anjos grew up together in neighboring rural communities in Brazil's impoverished Northeast. The ruggedness of the land here and recurring drought make it unsuitable for the commercial farming that has transformed so much of the country. Yet energy companies have found something here to harvest: the wind.

The changes to the land have been dramatic. Enel Green Power, an Italian energy company, has put up one of Latin America's largest wind farms, with 372 turbines, investing more than $1.4 billion.

The cousins have had vastly different experiences with the development — one very good, one very bad — offering a glimpse into wind company practices that are leading to increasing resistance to this kind of clean power in the country. Brazil has rapidly become the world's fifth largest wind power producer.

Dos Santos' community, Sumidouro, is a formally-recognized quilombo, a community of descendants of Afro-Brazilian runaway slaves. He was part of winning this recognition from the government. In a way, that effort, which resulted in land ownership, prepared him and his neighbors to deal with the energy companies. Land title in hand, they demanded negotiations and managed to keep the turbines at a distance. Sumidouro's last house, which belongs to farmer João de Souza Silva, is 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) away from the first windmill.

Dos Santos wants the world to understand that the community is not against energy development; people just want to be involved in the process. “We worked to build a protective cocoon so that we would be less vulnerable to these big projects,” he said during an interview with The Associated Press.

They also negotiated something crucial: running water. Dos Santos’ house is at the end of a narrow, dirt road. He recalls fetching water at age 10, riding a donkey two miles to a spring to fill wooden barrels. Too small to lift them alone, he would wait until someone came to help. At 13, he was doing it by himself.

Now the 48 families in his community are connected to a community water system, thanks to agreements with Enel and two transmission companies.

“Everyone can turn on their tap and get water," dos Santos said.

Past the scattering of simple houses with fruit trees and roaming goats that make up the community, other improvements are visible. There is a sports court, a cultural and community center and a shed for farm equipment.

Native plants, known here as caatinga, were cut down to make way for the transmission lines that bring electricity from the wind farm to where it is needed. In exchange for this loss of vegetation, Sumidouro also secured money for research on breeding goats — the livestock most apt for this semi-arid climate — and for bees to make honey.

“All we got is the noise”

Just down the dirt road from Sumidouro is the community of Lagoa, also an Afro-descendant quilombo, but one that lacks formal recognition. Here the 22 families did not get extra benefits from the wind company. Dos Santos’ cousin and others depend on trucked-in water.

“All we got is the noise,” said dos Anjos, 37, who lives 612 yards (560 meters) from a turbine. That distance complies with Brazilian and international guidelines, but dos Anjos says he struggles to cope with a sound like a strong wind that never dies down.

At first, Enel met with Lagoa community elders, dos Anjos recalled, but soon the company began negotiating with families individually. “They would say that if we didn't sign ... they would build anyway,” he said.

Dos Anjos's house is a short walk from Silva's house in Sumidouro, yet the piped water doesn't reach it, so during the dry season when water is scarce, he spends about $120 a month to buy it. It's the biggest expense for the family of four, who live from a small acreage of beans and corn, raising goats, plus government aid.

The walls of their clay block, two-bedroom home also cracked and dos Anjos suspects the wind turbine was the cause. When truck traffic to the wind farm is heavy, the dust indoors is overwhelming. Community demands for paving have gone unmet.

The only apparent difference between the two communities is that one is recognized by the government and one isn't. That left Lagoa without the stringent protections afforded to traditional communities in Brazil.

In this Lagoa is the rule, not the exception. Only 13% of quilombos have official recognition, a process that can take more than two decades, a much slower pace than the licensing and construction of wind farms. This mismatch has a greater impact in the Northeast, where almost 70% of quilombolas, or residents, live.

In a written response to the AP, Enel said the construction of the wind farms followed Brazilian law and all nearby communities were consulted.

It said that the wind complex “is not located in an area recognized as ‘protected’ by the relevant authorities.” It added that the federal government required a plan for Sumidouro, and Enel listened to what the community wanted.

Enel said only one house was damaged during construction and it was renovated. The company said it followed guidelines from both the U.N. and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

A movement against wind forms in Brazil

Dos Anjos recommended that other communities either negotiate harder with wind companies for community priorities, or oppose wind energy projects.

Indeed, a movement has been growing in opposition to wind, or at least to make sure new energy development includes local people. Several environmental and social groups, most of them led by women, have gathered under an umbrella group called Nordeste Potencia. In January they published a list of proposed best practices for wind developers, government at all levels, the judiciary and funding agencies.

Then in February, a group of women traveled to the capital Brasilia to make their voices heard and deliver the document to federal agencies. The following month, thousands of women farmers took to the streets of Areial, in the state of Paraiba, to protest against wind projects. A mural showed wind turbines next to tree stumps, barbed wire fence and a house full of cracks. Fences can limit planting and grazing areas.

Recently, the nonprofit Institute for Socioeconomic Studies in Brazil examined 50 wind contracts from across Brazil’s Northeast and found small farmers are receiving very little for leasing their land for wind. It also found a lack of transparency. Landowners, for example, have no way to verify the amount of energy wind companies are producing.

In Lagoa, dos Anjos scratches his head about why he still has to go to fetch water when the wind company saw fit to pipe it to his cousin's house in the neighboring community.

“We’re neighbors, we’re relatives, it’s all one big family,” he said.

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The Associated Press' climate and environmental coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP's standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

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