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How Indigenous Mexicans Took on Big Energy and Won

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Pahuatlán, Puebla, Mexico—On the afternoon of September 16, 2016, hundreds of people crammed into the narrow cobblestone streets of Pahuatlán, Puebla. It was Mexican Independence Day, and that night the municipal president, Arturo Hernández, was slated to lead the festivities. But people poured into Pahuatlán from surrounding towns not to celebrate but to protest the construction of a natural gas pipeline. Men in cowboy hats, women carrying babies on their backs, and teenagers in school uniforms crowded the central plaza and chanted, “The earth is not for sale, we must preserve and defend it.”

They were calling on Hernández to push the Calgary-based energy giant TransCanada and its local affiliate out of the region. Homemade signs expressed outrage over the pipeline that was set to run from the Gulf of Mexico through Puebla to its destination at a thermoelectric plant in Tula, Hidalgo. “Don’t think in the present, think about the future, stop the pipeline,” read one sign. “Real leaders fight for their people, not for foreign companies,” said another.

Hernández canceled his speech that night. The protesters, many of whom had come from nearby mountain villages, declared a momentary victory. In the subsequent months, the Totonac, Hñähñu (Otomí), and Nahua indigenous people of Pahuatlán and surrounding counties demanded a say in the project. Nearly three years later, construction on the pipeline is suspended, awaiting resolution of lawsuits filed by the regional indigenous council. The pipeline’s future hangs in the balance, as the federal government and TransCanada are still trying to complete the project.

TransCanada, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment, wrote in an August 1 press release, “Construction for the central segment of the Tula project has been delayed due to a lack of progress by the Secretary of Energy, the governmental department responsible for Indigenous consultations. Project completion has been revised to the end of 2021.”

TransCanada, which officially changed its named to TC Energy earlier this year, landed the half-billion-dollar contract for the pipeline in 2015. Partnering with its local subsidiary Natural Gas Transporter of the Huasteca (TGNH), TransCanada projected that the 178-mile pipeline would go online in late 2017, but it wasn’t counting on local resistance from indigenous communities well-versed in their rights and skeptical of the company’s promises.

If finished, the Tuxpan-Tula pipeline would connect to an underwater pipeline from Brownsville, Texas, known as Sur de Texas-Tuxpan, also owned by TransCanada. The fate of the Tuxpan-Tula pipeline, now almost two years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget, will have consequences far beyond these mountain towns. The pipeline will connect the oil and gas fields of West Texas with the burgeoning Mexican energy market. Crucially, it will lock Mexico into natural gas consumption for years to come, delaying the transition to renewable fuel sources and making it nearly impossible for the country to meet its climate goals.

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