By Edward Helmore / The Guardian
Of the many projects commissioned by the Obama administration to showcase its commitment to renewable energy, few are as grandly futuristic as the multibillion-dollar solar power projects under construction across broad swaths of desert on the California-Arizona border.
But at least two developments, including the $1bn, 250-megawatt Genesis Solar near Blythe in the lower Colorado river valley and the Solar Millennium project, are beset with lengthy construction delays, while others are facing legal challenges lodged by environmental groups and Native American groups who fear damage to the desert ecology as well as to ancient rock art and other sacred heritage sites.
Out on the stony desert floor, Native Americans say, are sites of special spiritual significance, specifically involving the flat-tailed horned toad and the desert tortoise.
“This is where the horny toad lives,” explains Alfredo Figueroa, a small, energetic man and a solo figure of opposition who could have sprung from the pages of a Carlos Castaneda novel, pointing to several small burrows. Figueroa is standing several hundred metres into the site of Solar Millennium, a project backed by the Cologne-based Solar Millennium AG. The firm, which has solar projects stretching from Israel to the US, was last month placed in the hands of German administrators and its assets listed for disposal.
Figueroa is delighted with the news. “Of all the creatures, the horny toad is the most sacred to us because he’s at the centre of the Aztec sun calendar,” he says. “And the tortoise also, who represents Mother Earth. They can’t survive here if the developers level the land, because they need hills to burrow into.”
Figueroa, 78, a Chemehuevi Indian and historian with La Cuna de Aztlán Sacred Sites Protection Circle, has become one of the most vocal critics of the solar programme and expresses some unusually bold claims as to the significance of this valley: he claims it is the birthplace of the Aztec and Mayan systems of belief. He points out the depictions of a toad and a tortoise on a facsimile of the Codex Borgia, one of a handful of divinatory manuscripts written before the Spanish conquest.
On a survey of the 2,400-hectare site Figueroa points out a giant geoglyph, an earth carving he says represents Kokopelli, a fertility deity often depicted as a humpbacked flute player with antenna-like protrusions on his head. Kokopelli, he says, will surely be disturbed if the development here resumes.
The area is known for giant geoglyphs, believed by some to date back 10,000 years. Gesturing towards the mountains, he also describes Cihuacoatl – a pregnant serpent woman – he sees shaped in the rock formations. All of this, he says, amounts to why government-fast-tracked solar programmes in the valley, where temperatures can reach 54C, should be abandoned. It is a matter of their very survival.
“We are traditional people – the people of the cosmic tradition,” Figueroa explains. “The Europeans came and did a big number on us. They tried to destroy us. But they were not able to destroy our traditions, and it’s because of our traditions and our mythology that we’ve been able to survive. If we’d blended in with the Wasps – the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants – we’d have been lost long ago.”
At the Genesis Solar site, 20 miles west, Florida-based NextEra has begun to develop an 810-hectare site. The brackets that will hold the reflecting mirrors stand like sentinels. Backed by a $825m department of energy loan, Genesis Solar is planned as a centrepiece of the administration’s renewable energy programme, with enough generating capacity to power 187,500 homes.
But local Native American groups collectively known as the Colorado River Indian Tribes are demanding that 80 hectares of the development be abandoned after prehistoric grinding stones were found on a layer of ashes they say is evidence of a cremation site “too sacred to disturb”.
Read more from The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/mar/11/solar-power-mojave-desert-tribes