Case study of The Assembly of the Maseual, Totonaku and Mestizo peoples in Defence of Life and Territory of the Sierra Norte de Puebla .
In light of the environmental crisis that the world faces, an urgent shift is necessary towards a more sustainable, inclusive, democratic, and decentralised energy model that allows to respect the planetary boundaries and transform how natural resources are being extracted, used, and distributed. The current energy system is based on the accumulation and extraction of non-renewable natural resources (Fernández & González, 2018; Gudynas, 2015). This model has caused profound environmental and socio-economic consequences; it has not only highly contributed to climate change, biodiversity loss, air, land, and water pollution, but on the socio-economic side, it has widened the inequality gap benefiting just a few players and making the rest more vulnerable and dependent (Furtado & Paim, 2019). Besides, social struggles such as conflicts over territory, job insecurity, dispossession, and negative health impacts have also come to light derived from the production, appropriation, and distribution of energy (Schuldt et al., 2009; Ramírez, 2014).
The situation of the energy system in Mexico
Fossil-fuels dominate the current Mexican energy matrix. The energy produced in the country comes mainly from oil and gas; oil accounting around 50% of the total, while the generation of energy through renewable sources represents only 9% (International Energy Agency, 2020).
Two of the main consumers of the energy generated in Mexico are the transportation and industrial sectors. According to the national energy balance of the Ministry of Energy, the transport sector's final energy consumption accounted for 44%, 35% for the industrial sector, and 19.6% for the commercial, residential, and public sector (2017). In other words, these numbers tell us that the energy that is being produced in Mexico is used mainly for industrial demand, and not to satisfy the populations’ energy needs. In consequence, there are approximately more than 2 million people without energy access (INEGI, 2015; IEA, 2020).
On the other hand, derived from the promotion and deployment of renewable energy in Mexico, the planning and execution of energy megaprojects in areas with abundant natural resources has been increasing over time favouring control over renewable energy generation to private companies (Bartolo, 2017; Dunlap, 2018). Consequently, these projects have facilitated the "over-exploitation of natural resources, changes in land use for commercialisation or exploitation, and dispossession of the land" (Geocomunes, 2016, p. 06).
The beginning of the process of energy sovereignty in the Sierra Norte de Puebla
Particularly, the region of the Sierra Norte de Puebla in Mexico has captured special attention to the transnational and national investors. It is located in the State of Puebla, in the central region of Mexico, and it is composed of 65 municipalities; it has a great variety and abundance of natural resources, and due to its location and weather characteristics, it hosts a large number of species of plants and animals (Serrano, 2020; Hernandez, 2018). Besides, this region possesses a high cultural and ethnic value due to the diversity of its inhabitants and the unique methods in which they manage their natural resources and correlate with the environment (Guevara, Tellez & Flores, 2015).
The communities of the region have been witnesses to transnational and national corporation projects conducted on their territory. Consequently, there have been significant changes in the environment, such as negative effects on air, land, and water quality, as well as the loss of some animal species (Ramírez, 2014; Hernandez, 2018; Linsalata, 2017). In addition to the environmental consequences that these megaprojects have brought to the region, it is essential to highlight the social repercussions that the communities have faced, such as dispossession, an increase in violence, and some cases even death; it has also caused poor energy access (Bastidas et al, 2019; Quintana & Roberto, 2017).
Given the threats that these megaprojects represent for the ecosystems and the lives of the inhabitants in the region, a movement of resistance organised by the communities in the Sierra Norte de Puebla was articulated against the establishment of future energy and mining extractive activities (Amaro, 2017; Hernandez, 2018). The fight for the defence of the life and territory in this region dates back several decades. However, after finding out that these extractive energy projects were an interconnected threat in the region and due to the increasing participation of people from all over the region and the country, the Asamblea de Los Pueblos Maseual, Totonaku y Mestizo en Defensa de la Vida y el Territorio (Assembly of the Maseual, Totonaku and Mestizo Peoples in Defence of Life and Territory) emerged (Linsalata, 2019; Hernandez,2018).
This Assembly is a forum of collective dialogue and organisation where the various members share relevant information on regards of the status of projects on their territories. Also, where each of its participants has a voice and vote to contribute regardless of the municipality and the state from which the members come from.
Specifically, within the Assembly's purposes stands out the aim of achieving energy sovereignty through community energy projects as an alternative to the megaprojects carried out and to demonstrate that the energy needs of the communities can be covered with energy produced with existing resources from and for the peoples.
Particularly, during 2017 the first foundations of the construction of the energy sovereignty process were established. During the 18th edition of the Assembly in Cuetzalan, the commitment of generating alternative technologies and alternative life plans based on clean energies was proposed as a response to the imposition of the Federal electricity commission (CFE, for its acronym in Spanish) that was intended to execute the construction of an electrical substation. Moreover, this commitment was ratified the same year at the next Assembly in May (La Jornada de Oriente, 2017).
Main challenges and outcomes from the energy sovereignty construction process in the Sierra Norte de Puebla
According to ONERGIA, energy sovereignty is the autonomy and self-determination of the peoples to define what energy for, what energy under which conditions, and for whom. In this sense, energy must be used for the reproduction of a dignified life, not for accumulation (2020).
Although several meanings of energy sovereignty in Mexico are linked to a nationalist policy of the federal government, energy sovereignty in the Sierra Norte de Puebla is based on the community appropriation of energy flows, and popular organisation focused on communities having control and decision in the production, distribution, and consumption of energy. Also, within this process, there must be an appropriation of renewable energy technologies from a political and technical education basis.
Within the construction of energy sovereignty in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, it is possible to identify several challenges such as technological dependence, the lack of support and involvement from the federal government, the repression and criminalisation of peoples and communities in the fight and defence of the territory, the lack of participation of women in the energy sector, and the lack of companies and renewable energy organisations that work with the peoples.
Nevertheless, despite the challenges identified, significantly positive outcomes can be found. According to ONERGIA, one of the main outcomes of this process has been the emergence of Tonaltzin, which means little sunshine in Náhuatl, the first energy cooperative made up by the youth from the communities in the region. The creation of this cooperative will help young people to feel more identified with energy and electricity issues. Also, their cultural identity can be reinforced, and they would be able to feel part of the energy sovereignty process and the movement in defence of the territory (2020).
Another important outcome is the politicisation of energy issues in the region. The construction of energy sovereignty in the Sierra Norte de Puebla has contributed to decentralise the debates on energy and to have a discussion around energy from the peoples and communities. Thanks to this debate, there is already a greater rapprochement of the communities with renewable energy technologies. There are women and men interested in energy issues and social and solidarity economy. Also, there are increasingly more people interested in producing their energy, which will bring savings in their electricity bill, reduce greenhouse gases, and greater awareness regarding energy consumption.
Finally, this decentralisation and public debate of energy allow to dispute the energy transition model and the meaning and connotation that energy has had over time. Energy sovereignty enables us to rethink the energy transition as a whole including bottom-up approaches, identifying how the outcomes will be distributed, and generating different pathways of change replacing the “top-down” narrative behind the transition, and changing how this transformation needs to be governed and understood. It also allows to conceive energy as a common good and like a source of "wellbeing" and life instead of a commodity incentivizing new ways of consumption that “focus on improving the quality of life of the majority and not the demands of concentrated groups of power” (Gutierrez, 2018, p. 10).
Through the previous case study, I intended to present an example of the construction of energy sovereignty in the Sierra Norte de Puebla to demonstrate that there are currently energy, economic and cultural alternatives to the extractive energy system, and that this approach can allow to address and satisfy efficiently the communities’ energy needs. It can also address energy poverty issues providing a safer, more reliable, and sustainable source of energy in cases where infrastructure and electricity are poor.
The replication of these processes can allow to transform how energy is distributed and consumed, as well to encourage the implementation of small-scale, locally appropriate technologies, and community energy alternatives to address the real needs of the people and to counteract the effects of climate change.
However, even though these cases exist and allow us to think that a change is possible, it is necessary to diversify the energy matrix in Mexico and enable to replicate this kind of processes in more parts of the country through the adaptation of laws, regulations, and institutions that promote and facilitate the decentralised and democratic distribution of energy.
In the end, cases such as the one from the Sierra Norte de Puebla and in Mexico, Latin America, and the world are interrelated with each other: they all seek an energy model where energy flows are managed equitably, sustainably and by and for the benefit of the communities, to accomplish the reproduction of a dignified life.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the participants that contributed to this investigation, especially to the Staff of ONERGIA: Eduardo Aguilar, Sofía Pacheco, Orlando Huerta, Javier Hernández, Sandra Rátiva and Carla Vazquez from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Thank you for sharing with me the amazing job that you are carrying out in the Sierra Norte de Puebla. Also, thanks to all the organisations, collectives and indigenous peoples and communities that can make possible the energy sovereignty construction in Puebla, other regions in Mexico, Latin America and the world. Thank you for your commitment, strength and passion in defending your land, natural resources and culture.
About the author: Elsa is a Mexican International Relations specialist with a Master's Degree in environment, development, and policy from the University of Sussex. She has experience in the area of international cooperation for development in the forestry and education sector. Her academic and research interests focus on climate change, energy, and just transitions to a low-carbon economy in Latin America. She currently works as a climate policy intern at the United Nations Development Programme, and she is involved in research regarding environmental education and regional development strategies in Mexico.
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