How a wind farm on Brazil’s coast erased a fishing village from the map

How a wind farm on Brazil’s coast erased a fishing village from the map
  • Environmental authorities approved what was then the largest wind farm in Brazil’s Ceará state in 2002 without assessing its socioenvironmental impact, including on the local fishing community and the ecosystem.
  • The community resisted and ended up receiving unusual compensation that nonetheless failed to resolve the permanent problems and triggered internal conflicts.
  • With support from a state university, the residents have fought against their erasure from the official records, but today are entitled to the use of a smaller territory than they had before, and have lost access to natural resources like lagoons.

In the municipality of Camocim, on Brazil’s northeastern coast, the fishing village of Praia do Xavier was erased from the map. Or at least that’s how it appeared on the application by SIIF Énergies do Brasil, the local subsidiary of French energy giant EDF, to build a wind farm on the coast. The applicants changed the name of the place where families had lived for generations in mud-and-straw houses, allowing them to build what was at the time the largest wind farm in Brazil’s Ceará state.

The Praia Formosa wind farm started operating in 2009 under a concession effective until 2032. Its 50 wind turbines have total generating capacity of 104.4 megawatts, and their towers are studded across 1,040 hectares (2,570 acres) of land next to the 22-house village known locally as Praia do Xavier — Portuguese for Xavier’s Beach. The nearest tower lies just 200 meters (650 feet) from the first homes; the distance from the towers to the sea is less than half that.

Before the arrival of the wind farm, Praia do Xavier, a community some 350 kilometers (220 miles) from the Ceará state capital, Fortaleza, was a quiet setting whose residents practiced artisanal raft fishing, shellfish harvesting, and farming in the humid dunes. An idyllic community of 50 residents today, it subsisted for generations without any infrastructure: no road, running water, electricity, school, commerce or health facility. To access these services, residents travel the 3 km (2 mi) to Amarelas, one of the three districts that make up Camocim, a municipality of 65,000 people in western Ceará.

The livelihoods of families in Praia do Xavier center on fishing. Image courtesy of Giovanna de Castro Silva/UFC Wind Energy Observatory.

This unique lifestyle caught the attention of the Catholic Church’s Social Pastoral Service, which sent a nun, Maria Luiza Fernandes, to assist the residents on potentially turning the site into a form of protected area known as an extractive reserve, or Resex. This would protect the area from commercial exploitation, while still ensuring that residents could continue to practice their sustainable ways of fishing and farming. What the community didn’t know, however, was that while they were discussing creating this conservation unit, the government was already studying the area’s wind potential.

“They never mentioned this idea of a wind farm in our conversations about the Resex,” Fernandes recalls. “We didn’t find out about it until they came to measure the houses and put up thin, tall towers to test the wind speed.”

The lack of effective dialogue and concerns about preserving livelihoods created discontent in the community. “There was no consultation or meeting; they didn’t even try to offer any jobs for our people to work on the construction,” says fisherman Francisco das Chagas, known as Chaguinha.

A community’s erasure

Praia do Xavier’s apparent erasure could first be seen in a 2002 map provided by SIIF Énergies to the Ceará state environmental agency, or SEMACE. The map didn’t include the village; the space where it should have been was left blank, as though this patch of land next to the sea had never been inhabited. Instead, the map depicted the large sandy stretch as being divided into farms, which would be illegal under a 1988 law that states that beaches are a common, freely accessible asset for the public.

Map from the simplified environmental report submitted by the wind farm developer to the Ceará state environmental agency, naming the supposed landowners. Image courtesy of SEMACE.

The map was part of the simplified environmental report, or RAS, required under a 2001 federal resolution from the National Environmental Council (CONAMA). The resolution served as the basis for the developer’s claim that the Praia Formosa wind farm project would not have environmental impacts.

CONAMA had issued the resolution in the wake of a severe drought that saw water levels at hydropower dams across the country fall to critical levels. That resulted in nine months of electricity rationing, but also opened an opportunity for wind farms to gain a foothold, helped by foreign investment, government subsidies, and funding programs.

There was an urgency for developers to obtain environmental licensing for renewable energy projects, says Adryane Gorayeb, head of the Wind Energy Observatory at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC), who has monitored the situation in Praia do Xavier since 2011.

“As renewable energy is often considered ‘clean’ because it does not release pollutants, the legislation assumed that it did not cause socioenvironmental impacts, and started recognizing every person’s social right to electricity,” Gorayeb says.

SIIF Énergies’ environmental report cited the fishing community, but didn’t show its location on the map. However, official archives had already formally identified Praia do Xavier, such as in a map of Camocim prepared by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

Map of the municipality of Camocim in Ceará state. The blue arrow points to Praia do Xavier. Image courtesy of IBGE.

According to Gorayeb, the community was erased from the developer’s documents precisely to appropriate the lands of this vulnerable population. “In fact, those documents are interpretations of that territory as the company wished it to be in order to explore it. That’s why it’s easier for them to camouflage the inclusion of the community than to actually have to address legal issues such as compensatory measures,” she says.

The early impacts

Conflicts between the community and the Praia Formosa project began during the initial implementation stage. “Residents had to climb over the higher dunes as their only alternative to leave or return to the village after the construction of the wind farm closed the only access route, a path in the low dunes marked by footsteps that made the sand firmer,” Fernandes says.

Turbines of the Praia Formosa wind farm. Image courtesy of Giovanna de Castro Silva/UFC Wind Energy Observatory.

To make matters worse, during the construction work, the company built its own road for easier access by trucks, but prohibited community members from using the road.

The work also entailed filling in the interdune lagoons — the chief source of the community’s fish during the winter months. Among these was the largest and only perennial lagoon. “It was very sad to see our lagoon drained all at once. The force of the water going to the sea almost destroyed one of the houses,” Chaguinha says.

When the dunes were cut to level the land and install underground cables, the sand ended up in the mangroves, hindering the shellfish harvest. Once the wind farm was up and running, the noise of the turbines, in excess of normal limits, reached even distant homes and became a source of constant discomfort. Then, in just the first year of operation, a turbine exploded, causing fear among residents and adding tangible risks to the list of impacts.

The nearest wind tower is located just 200 m from the first houses of the fishing village. Image courtesy of Giovanna de Castro Silva/UFC Wind Energy Observatory.

Despite being close to the largest wind farm in Ceará at the time, electricity only reached the village years after it started operating. All energy produced in Brazil, regardless of how it’s generated, must first go into the national grid, from which it can then be distributed to consumers. But according to residents, the Praia Formosa project had difficulty connecting to the grid, which required the transmission lines provided by private power utility Enel to cross the wind farm area.

Putting Praia do Xavier back on the map

The mapping omission that erased Praia do Xavier from the official record faced resistance. A social map developed by UFC in collaboration with the community defined the limits of the traditional territory, strengthening residents’ stance. In 2022, they obtained authorization for sustainable use, or TAUS, a framework that allows traditional activities, but over a much smaller area than they originally had.

The legal developments were complex. CPFL Energia, which acquired SIIF Énergies in 2011, had to compensate the community association by replacing the 22 traditional homes with brick ones. Despite the peculiar nature of the compensation measure, the construction of the new homes doesn’t pay for the damage, says Paulo Henrique de Freitas Trece, who handled the case for the Ceará state prosecution service.

In response to questions from Mongabay, CPFL said that “the project followed the licensing procedures required by the environmental agency.” According to prosecutors, however, the authorities failed to do their duty in the negotiations with the community.

“Environmental agencies have their share of responsibility because they approved the wind farm without even visiting the area to compare the maps on site,” Trece says. Mongabay contacted SEMACE, the state environmental agency, but didn’t receive any response by the time this article was originally published.

The natural landscape of Praia do Xavier changed drastically with the arrival of the wind farm. Image courtesy of Giovanna de Castro Silva/UFC Wind Energy Observatory.

The agreement brokered by prosecutors also gave residents access to the road built by the developers and authorized the installation of Enel’s electrical network.

However, many locals remain dissatisfied with the impact mitigation measures, which are limited to renovating houses and have led to conflicts within the community over the management of compensation amounts, according to a 2017 study co-authored by Gorayeb from the Wind Energy Observatory and published in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.

Residents also report food insecurity because of the loss of their lagoons, and complain of other problems triggered by the wind farm, such as real estate speculation and the invasion of land grabbers into neighboring areas.

The future of wind energy in Brazil

Wind energy currently accounts for 14% of Brazil’s energy mix, and is expected to double in capacity by 2030. However, the industry faces the challenge of balancing expansion and respect for local communities and the environment, as illustrated by the case of Ceará’s Praia do Xavier.

Legislation advanced under another CONAMA resolution, this one issued in 2014, now requires environmental impact studies for wind farms in sensitive environments such as coastal dunes and mangroves. But Praia do Xavier’s experience highlights the urgent need for inclusive approaches and real consultation with impacted communities.

 


Banner image: There are as many residents today in the Praia do Xavier community as there are turbines, 50, in the adjacent Praia Formosa wind farm. Image courtesy of SEMACE.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on March 11, 2024.

 


Citation:

Brannstrom, C., Gorayeb, A., de Sousa Mendes, J., Loureiro, C., de Andrade Meireles, A. J., da Silva, E. V., … de Oliveira, R. F. (2017). Is Brazilian wind power development sustainable? Insights from a review of conflicts in Ceará state. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews67, 62-71. doi:10.1016/j.rser.2016.08.047

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