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‘Is This Really Green?’ the Fight Over Solar Farms in the Mojave Desert




When some people look at the Mojave Desert, they see a vast expanse of nothing. But Shannon Salter sees ancient Mojave yuccas and wispy creosote bushes, shrewd kangaroo rats and slender foxes, all living atop a hard-packed crust of rock and lichen formed over thousands of years.

“There’s this idea that it’s a wasteland,” Salter said. “No, it’s a vibrant, amazing thing. We are turning it into a wasteland with all of our antics.”

In mid-October, Salter, a 37-year-old poet and writing teacher, moved into a campsite in the Pahrump Valley — just east of the California border in southern Nevada — to protest a solar project that she and other activists argue will irreparably damage the fragile desert ecosystem.

Shannon Salter, 37, camps in protest near the site of the Yellow Pine solar project in Nevada’s Pahrump Valley. She is living out of a wooden camper.

(Meg Bernhard / For The Times)

Yellow Pine, a 3,000-acre solar farm, will provide 500 megawatts of electricity to 100,000 homes in California.

It’s the sort of renewable energy project that scientists and policymakers gathering this week in Glasgow, Scotland, for the United Nations climate conference, or COP26, say is needed on a massive scale to wean the world off fossil fuels and stave off the worst effects of global warming.

But even clean energy, from wind to solar to hydropower, isn’t entirely clean.

More than 100,000 yucca and other plants will be destroyed during construction of Yellow Pine. This year, scientists relocated more than 100 federally protected desert tortoises from the site in preparation for construction, but about 30 of those have died, possibly eaten by badgers.

“Is this really the way we want to do this?” Salter said. “Is this really green?”

Other environmentalists believe more can be done to minimize the damage from solar farms, but accept some ill effects as the price of reducing carbon emissions.

“We try to be really pragmatic,” said Shayna Steingard, a policy analyst at Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation group that works to protect native animals and plants. “We know that we have to meet our renewable energy goals and that is going to rely a lot on solar energy at the utility scale, that we will need to develop in the desert.”

Solar developers have long viewed the Mojave as prime real estate because of its sparse population and abundant sunshine. Two-thirds of Nevada — including the Yellow Pine site — is public land overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management, offering one-stop shopping for massive swaths of land.

Construction at the Yellow Pine site is expected to start in coming months and be completed by the end of next year. It is part of a new generation of facilities that feature not only photovoltaic solar panels but also lithium-ion battery storage that enables delivery of electricity at night.

The developer, NextEra Energy Resources, a renewable energy company based in Florida, says the project will create 350 jobs during construction and generate $46 million in tax revenue for Nevada’s Clark County over 30 years.

“The company is working closely with state and federal agencies and has taken significant steps in project siting and design to minimize the overall environmental impacts of the project,” Bryan Garner, a spokesperson for the company, wrote in a statement.

Plants will be mowed but not completely razed in hopes that they will eventually grow back.

Steven Grodsky, a scientist with the United States Geological Survey, said more research is needed to understand the effects of solar development on desert ecosystems.

“We’re in the midst of this rapid and necessary energy transition, but we don’t have a clear path forward in terms of how to do it sustainably,” he said.

In studies of the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility in Nipton, Calif., Grodsky and other federal researchers have found declines in biodiversity. Cacti and yucca never grew back, the population of moths and other non-bee pollinators fell, and thousands of birds die each year from collisions with solar panels or immolation inside the facility.

Instead of building in the desert, some conservationists advocate for what’s known as distributed solar — smaller solar panels built on top of roofs and parking lots in urban areas, places where wildlife has already been disturbed.

But many experts say that such a patchwork approach is impractical and insufficient given the threat of climate change. The Department of Energy recommends erecting solar panels in both cities and rural areas.

“They have generally concluded in order to meet the renewable energy requirements that the country has over the next 30 years we need to do both,” said Heidi Hartmann, an environmental scientist with the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois who has worked with federal agencies to determine the best locations for solar farms.

Lawmakers across the nation have unveiled ambitious plans for renewable energy. In September, the Biden administration issued a plan that would see the country generating 45% of its electricity from solar panels by 2050.

The Nevada Legislature passed a bill in 2019 that requires the state to generate half its electricity from renewables by 2030 — nearly doubling their current share.

Nine solar installations are already operating on federal land in Nevada, with several others in the works, according to a Bureau of Land Management spokesperson. Over the summer, a plan for what would have been the largest solar farm in the state was scrapped after residents in the Moapa Valley protested that it would have been an eyesore that hurt tourism.

Salter is not opposed to the solar industry. She just doesn’t want it in the desert — a place she quickly came to love after moving from Irvine to Nevada about a decade ago.

Her first environmental protests were against hydraulic fracking. She has also fought a proposal to erect wind turbines near a forest of Joshua trees.

Now she spends each morning walking a mile or so from her campsite to the Yellow Pine construction zone.

“I just want to be able to see what’s going on all the time,” she said. “Every day I’m going over there. I’m getting to know the valley better.”

A barbed-wire fence marks the boundary of the future solar field. On a recent morning, developers were testing the soil’s stability to determine where they’d begin drilling.

Salter walked toward a cluster of trucks and greeted two workers. “What are those?” she asked, pointing to a square hole in the fence with a slab of wood underneath.

“They’re for the birds,” replied a woman wearing a hard hat who was there to make sure the developers followed federal guidelines for protecting wildlife. “So they don’t get stuck to the fence.”

Returning to her campsite, Salter ran into Ron Callison, a Pahrump resident whom she’d met the week before. He gave her cookies made of mesquite flour and said he would camp with her that night.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the country says, I’ve been across Nevada, there’s nothing out there,” Callison said. “Someone in Connecticut says, there’s just a lot of dried up bushes. They just happen to be hundreds of years old.”

Salter nodded.

She understands that killing the Yellow Pine project is almost certainly a lost cause. There are still occasional protests, usually no more than a few dozen people. But it’s been a year since the Bureau of Land Management rejected a petition from the Nevada conservation group Basin and Range Watch to block construction.

Shannon Salter sets up a 100-watt solar panel on a folding table to generate her own electricity for charging her laptop and cellphone for her online tutoring jobs.

(Meg Bernhard / For The Times)

Still, Salter said she plans to camp out as long as construction lasts, changing campsites every couple of weeks to stay in compliance with the rules about living on federal public land.

Her accommodations are sparse: a wooden camper hauled in by friends with a truck and outfitted with a mattress and a thick sleeping bag. To generate her own electricity — which she needs to charge her laptop and cellphone for her online tutoring jobs — she set up a 100-watt solar panel on a folding table.

To shower, she drives her Toyota 30 miles to Tecopa, Calif., where there are natural hot springs, and for meals she uses a propane stove.

In her view, leaving would mean giving up, and the issue is not going away.

In the Pahrump Valley, four other solar development projects, all within a day’s walk of Salter’s camp, are awaiting federal approval.

Bernhard is a special correspondent.

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Why Mexico’s President Is Promoting a Recall Against Himself




Standing before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Mexico City’s central square, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saved his most striking comment for the end of his speech.

He urged the Mexicans packed into the Zócalo to participate in an April referendum to decide whether they want to boot him from office more than two years early.

“None of, ‘They chose me for six years and I can do whatever I want,’” López Obrador said at the rally Wednesday to mark his midterm. “If one who governs is not up to the task and obeying the people, revoke their mandate and out!”

The president, 68, likely believes he has nothing to worry about.

Recent polls show that about two-thirds of the public approve of his performance since taking office in 2018 on a platform that promised a radical transformation of Mexican society to combat corruption and inequality and to roll back free-market economic policies.

Families and marching bands making their way to the Zócalo passed vendors hawking gray-haired López Obrador dolls and posters with the hashtag #QueSigaAMLO, or “may AMLO continue,” referring to the president by his initials. Many said they view a referendum, authorized by a 2019 constitutional reform spearheaded by the president, as proof of his honest character when compared to decades of presidents accused of corruption.

“AMLO is the first president that dares to put himself to the test before the people,” said Debanhi Andrea Garcia, 22, who drove 14 hours from the state of Nuevo León with her boyfriend. “Because he’s like that, we support him.”

Supporters of López Obrador hold banners in support of the president at Mexico City’s Zócalo.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

Mexicans have until Dec. 25 to sign a petition supporting the referendum, which can move forward only with the signatures of at least 3% of eligible voters, among other caveats.

So far, the initiative has received more than 703,000 signatures from Mexicans who have valid voting credentials, or 25% of the required total, according to the National Electoral Institute, an independent agency overseeing the process. (That tally includes signatures that will be discarded because they are duplicates or have other irregularities.)

Officially called the “revocation of mandate,” the measure follows other efforts by the president to increase citizen engagement in public policy. López Obrador has also backed referendums to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for alleged crimes, on the construction of a new airport near Mexico City and on the development of a tourism train line that would run through the Yucatan Peninsula.

“He does conceive his power as being a function of people reiterating their support actively,” said Francisco González, a professor of Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University. “He wants it officially confirmed to give him that comfort of being the popular leader who is doing the right thing for Mexico.”

Since taking office, López Obrador has also expanded social welfare programs while introducing sharp austerity measures. He has halted renewable energy projects, promoted a constitutional reform to increase the country’s control of the electricity market, and given more power to the military — putting it in charge of projects such as the tourism train.

President López Obrador gives an address to mark the midpoint of his term.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

His critics say that he hasn’t done enough to reduce high levels of homicides, including many killings of women and attacks against journalists and public officials. Dozens of candidates across the country were assassinated ahead of last spring’s midterm elections for governorships and legislative and mayoral seats.

Critics also are concerned about López Obrador’s attacks against democratic agencies that could check his power, notably the National Electoral Institute. He has repeatedly disparaged the independent agency, which last May sanctioned him for making statements in at least 29 news conferences that it said could be considered government propaganda that could influence the midterm elections. In Mexico, such statements by public officials are generally barred during the election season.

But the president’s vision of transformational change continues to resonate among many voters who view him as a paternal figure. López Obrador is in constant dialogue with his electorate, holding press conferences every morning that last hours.

“The figure he has constructed of an honest man, an honorable man, an incorruptible man — that helps him in a society that is used to seeing terribly corrupt politicians,” said René Torres-Ruiz, a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

Even if enough signatures are gathered, hurdles to a referendum remain. The National Electoral Institute’s members have said that the agency doesn’t have the budget to carry out the vote and at least 40% of eligible voters must participate for the referendum to be binding. The referendum on former presidents last August fell far short of the 40% voting figure.

Ariadna Gomez, left, and another volunteer collect signatures for a referendum on whether Mexico’s president should continue.

(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)

Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said that winning a referendum would increase López Obrador’s perception that he could move forward freely with his agenda.

“What he wants is to come out of the vote, supposing there is one, politically strengthened with this renewed and amplified popular mandate,” she said.

Opposition parties have accused the president’s supporters of twisting the stated purpose of the referendum into a tool to promote López Obrador’s agenda. The 2019 reform called for a referendum to “revoke” a president’s mandate rather than “ratify” it and a complaint before the National Electoral Institute by the National Action Party referenced how volunteers have registered voters next to posters that advertise the referendum as a means of promoting the president rather than recalling him from office.

Luis Cházaro, a congressman from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, told The Times that the referendum “has been transformed into a promotional tool for the party.” He does not plan to participate.

In Coyoacán, a cobblestoned neighborhood in Mexico City known for Frida Kahlo’s home, volunteers last Sunday gathered signatures at a plaza in front of posters of the president that said “may AMLO continue.”

Ariana Garcia, a 24-year-old volunteer, said she uses the term “ratification” for people she senses like the president and “revocation” for those she thinks oppose him.

“People tell you, ‘But I don’t want my president to leave,’ so we tell them, ‘OK, then in this case you can ratify your support for the president,’” she said.

A supporter of López Obrador listens to his speech at a rally to commemorate the president’s midterm.

(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)

Roberto Garcia, a systems engineer in Mexico City, said that he would vote against the president, uncomfortable that the federal government recently issued a decree that requires federal agencies to automatically approve infrastructure projects that are deemed to be of interest to the public or national security. He also sees the referendum as “a type of manipulation,” suspicious of why the president has contradicted the National Electoral Institute, saying it has enough funding to hold a vote he himself has fought for.

María de los Angeles Resendiz, a grandmother of 10 from the state of Mexico, will support López Obrador without hesitation.

Resendiz, 62, watches the president’s 7 a.m. news conferences each day with her husband while preparing breakfast and washing dishes. If she needs to skip one, she’ll track it down later on YouTube. She also listens to summaries in case she’s missed something.

Before López Obrador took power, Resendiz tried to stay as far away from politics as she could. She became disillusioned when she was a little girl after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which soldiers killed as many as 300 people at a student protest in Mexico City.

She called López Obrador a “simple” man who has won her confidence with his anti-corruption platform. She eagerly described how his government has set money aside for youth job training and expanded welfare payments to the elderly.

“He’s given us back our dignity,” she said. “I am proud to say that I am Mexican and that he is my president.”

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Op-Ed: the U.S. Shouldn’t Ignore Mexico’s Ongoing Human Rights Catastrophe



On Dec. 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached the halfway point of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s disastrous human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-fought gains in transparency and the rule of law that rights groups, activists and campaigners have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.

The United States has been noticeably silent regarding the Mexican president’s accelerating attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. border.

López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader that has become increasingly common in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by taking back control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social breakdown and growing violence.

López Obrador inherited a human rights catastrophe. When he came to office in 2018, 12 years of a military-led drug war had led to horrific abuses. Homicides hit staggering numbers. Thousands of people disappeared every year. But he has not addressed these problems. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to the government’s figures, more than 25,000 people have gone missing on his watch.

Even so, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He appears to believe that his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and to attempt to control every part of the state to bring about his promised transformation.

He labels anyone who criticizes him or stands in his way as a “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries whom he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this charge allows him to avoid responding to genuine concerns raised by journalists who question him, women’s rights campaigners upset at his lack of action on gender-based violence, Indigenous communities who oppose his megaprojects, environmentalists who disagree with his coal and oil-focused energy policy, and press freedom campaigners concerned about his government’s harassment of journalists, among others.

He has eliminated or proposed eliminating many government agencies not under his direct control, including the independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds for protecting journalists and responding to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would be automatically granted permits without any review and that as matters of “national security,” would be exempted from transparency rules.

He has also gone after the judicial system, which has delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the judiciary have grown brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose rulings he dislikes and called for a judge who ruled against him to be investigated.

In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law — since overturned — to extend the term of the Supreme Court chief justice who has ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should put five previous presidents on trial for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and the “privatization of public goods.”

The U.S. policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law came into stark relief in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and met with him. At the end of the trip, a journalist asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude toward the media and civil society.

Harris initially responded that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judicial system, the press and civil society. However, hours later, her spokesperson issued a correction to the Spanish wire service EFE, saying the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.

López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is willing to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless the circumstances change, there are no signs he intends to alter his course.

José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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Photos: As Roe Vs. Wade Challenged, Demonstrators Gather Outside Supreme Court



Juanito Estevez, of Freeport, N.Y., holds a cross as he and abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

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