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The Turbines

The day they arrived and set up the turbines, nobody in Caétes knew what was to come. Contrasting against the dry caatinga desert, tall and wide. Caatinga, a word derived from the tupi language, quite literally means white forest. The biome itself, native to the Brazilian Northeast, makes up a vaste shrubland and thorn forest, taken over with a dry appearance in a thoroughly dry environment. These new trees, however, did not blend in with the mandacarú cactus and the juazeiro tree. Standing tall against the semi arid background, none of the 28,000 inhabitants of Caétes could foresee that what was going to change in their lives was beyond a simple visual disruption.

Reaching 150 meters into the sky, the white towers are hard to miss for anyone going by the small municipality of Caetés. When driving by wind power farms in the Brazilian northeast, a region that represents the center of the implementation of the government’s transition towards renewable energy, it’s impossible not to notice how the giant helixes spinning nonstop. In all of my childhood visits to the region, I was always struck in awe and admiration for the turbines.

Coming from the city, far away in the Southeast where the wind doesn’t blow and green populates every landscape, watching the turbines spin in the distance was always one of the most impressive parts of visiting the Northeast. I always found it incredible how they were able to generate power from the wind, and there I was watching the living proof. I never got close enough to see the other side of things. A hidden, not so pleasant, truth about what happens when wind turbines are installed in someone’s backyard.

Even though the caatinga biome covers an area of over 280,000 square miles, these towers are often placed in some not so remote places. I’m no wind power engineer, and have no idea what goes into deciding where to place these enormous structures. But ever so often a town like Caetés will get the notice that a wind farm is to be built there. Locals get notified that energy producing wind turbines will be placed in their backyards, and in exchange they’ll get a share of the profits from the energy production. More specifically, residents were offered 1.5 percent of revenue generated, equivalent to two thousand Brazilian reais per month, almost twice as much as a minimum salary.

As a small rural district in the hinterland of the state of Pernambuco, most people in Caetés are small scale farmers, owners of their own land. The contracts proposed by the wind power companies in 2014 were 49 years long, and could only be revoked in agreement with all parties involved. However, the companies were reserved all rights to shift control over the wind farms to other enterprises, without the consent of the locals. Two hundred and twenty towers were installed in the small town, and most farmers who agreed on such contracts were able to relocate to larger cities under a newfound financial stability. They couldn’t foresee the troubles that were to come to their neighbors who chose to keep their old way of life.

One hundred and fifty meters tall, and fifty meters wide, the towers shadow over the houses, farms and businesses of 120 local families in Caétes. Day and night, they buzz. “Zupo, zupo, zupo”, is how one of the locals described it. When you go to bed, a constant buzz, at the breakfast table, a constant buzz, when harvesting the land, a constant buzz. Nonstop. All day. As loud as 40 decibels, the equivalent of listening to the hum of a refrigerator. Except it's nonstop. The loudness increases and decreases with the strength of the wind, but it remains present nonetheless. As long as the turbines are moving, as long as energy is being produced for those far away to enjoy, it buzzes inside the head of most of the 28,000 locals.

The WHO recommends an average night noise of no more than 40 decibels to prevent adverse health effects. That’s for the night period, when minds can be put to rest and recharge for a perhaps louder daytime. At Caétes, there is no rest. Acácio Noronha, a local, describes it as a loud whistle, a dog’s bark, a plane that never fully takes off. He’s on medication for anxiety and insomnia, a combination that’s not uncommon for those who live with the constant buzzing. The noise is long lasting for most, deafening. Even if they escape for a weekend or purposefully go away to avoid the loud noises, their ears continue to buzz, their hearing progressively worsening. One family, surrounded by eleven towers in their home’s vicinity as their neighbors fled to the city on their new wind paychecks. What's left for them, a farm to work and the buzzing to hear.

As pasture animals graze and roam around, flying shadows pass by on the ground. Faster than any cloud, larger than any bird. As the day goes by and the sun draws its parabola, the shades remain as fast as the wind, as dark as the night. They crawl inside local’s bedrooms, waking them up from afternoon naps. Grazing cows become anxious, confused with their surroundings. Disoriented, animals become harder to milk, to manage and to feed. Birds fly into the turbines, murdered by a swinging helix. Locals say they don’t hear birds anymore, whether this comes as a result of their hearing loss or because birds simply can’t afford to survive near the towers is unsure.

The town of Caétes isn’t familiar to most Brazilians, but its most well known local is known to every individual in the country. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, most usually referred to as Mr. President, was born in the small town and lived in Caétes for the first seven years of his life. In his third presidential mandate, he has made a commitment to invest fifty billion Brazilian reais in wind power development. The country already has 890 wind turbine parks, just like the one in Caétes, most of which are located within the Northeast region. A region with its unique cultural heritage, food, and even religious traditions, also known for having one of the most low income populations in the country. The energy transition is approaching, faster and more secure than ever. As the world divests from fossil fuels, so does Brazil. The energy transition demands renewables. Most media channels in Brazil praise how 13 percent of our national energy production comes from wind power. It’s a success, a model of what the future should look like. But they don’t speak for Caétes.

As we celebrate new technologies that allow us to say goodbye to fossil fuels, new problems arise. Several European countries have strict limits on how far apart wind turbines need to be from people’s homes. In Poland, that’s 400 meters and in France, 800. Recent Brazilian legislation also determines a 400 meter minimum, but the towers in Caétes and surrounding many other towns were built way before these standards were being discussed. As we move forward with improving how we implement change without harming the environment, we need to remember that people, often vulnerable people, also exist within said environment. The energy is clean, and so should be the conscience of those who fight for it. The wind isn’t going anywhere, the funds are laid for hundreds of new wind turbines. How far from people’s houses are they going to be?

Del Innhald