By Roy L Hales
Robert Lundahl’s film “Who are my People?” describes a collision of Worldviews. The US was catching on to the reality of Climate Change and had not yet realized that all “green technologies” are not necessarily good, or even environmentally friendly. As California’s business community embarked upon a crusade to carve out solar farms from the desert, they found ancient people in the way.
During the ensuing upheaval, someone asked Preston Arrow-weed if these projects were taking away his culture. His immediate response was, “They aren’t taking it away, they are destroying it.”
That was in 2010; the score card reads a little differently today. The La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle struck back, dragging six of California’s industrial scale solar projects into court. Three of them have now failed. Lundahl concentrated on two whose fate is still uncertain:
- The original developers of the Bythe Solar Project went bankrupt in 2011. A reporter recently wrote that “there’s nothing to indicate anyone intends anything with the site. The bulldozers scraped more than 100 acres of facility footprint before the money ran out, not counting more than four miles of access road averaging about 200 feet wide, itself another hundred acres of scraped desert.” Yet the project’s new owners have said they intend to proceed.
- Bright Source Ivanpah project, near the Nevada border, is still waiting for the court to release their verdict. David Crane – CEO of the NRG (which owns the 370-megawatt project’s generating system) – recently called installations of this kind “idiotic.”
According to the respected electrical engineer Bill Powers, “These massive solar installations belong to another century. Why would you put a solar panel up 200 miles away, when you can put the exact same panel where it is needed in the city? The only thing you add is a need for 200 miles of transmission lines and a justification for utility companies to charge more money.”
“That is where the money is, erecting those long transmission lines,” Lundahl added. “This whole idea of building in the desert was born in a Goldman Sachs boardroom. It makes sense to a banker, or to the utilities companies who build those long power lines, but not to an engineer. Too much energy is lost in transmission.”
“There is no need for financial rewards, in the form of multi-billion dollar transmission lines, to top heavy private monopoly utilities that promote them,” Powers says. “The utility companies know that the greatest threat to their existence comes from homeowners who generate their own power. They are desperately looking for a way to maintain control.”
This was not so obvious in 2010. The Bureau of Land Management did not have the expertise or manpower to evaluate these projects. A new President, who had promised to develop renewable energy, was in office. California set a goal of obtaining 33% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.
The irony, considering that these projects were meant to save the environment, is they were actually damaging the desert eco-system.
There was also the problem of 17,000 Native American cultural sites, which the California Energy Commission acknowledged would be destroyed. Some were part of a vast network of hundreds of giant geoglyph images, stretching from Ocotillo, in Imperial County, to Nevada.
In one of the most breathtaking segments of the film, a native elder named Alfredo Figueroa took Lundahl up in an airplane to look a few dozen of the geoglyphs around Blythe. Many that looked like a pile of stones, on the ground, were transformed into a vast mythological tapestry full of people and complex geometries when viewed from above. There is one other network of this kind in the Americas – the Nazca lines in Peru – and they are recognized as a World Heritage Site.
“It’s pretty amazing,” someone said in the film. “Its hard to understand how this could have been created. They certainly don’t look like individual bull dozer tracks. Its such a big scale. That’s a lot of work to move all this rock.”
A Native leader later explained to Lundahl that, “The only way they could have built it is one stone at a time, in a sacred ceremony, over hundreds of years.”
Alfredo Figueroa told me that the symbols in those petroglyphs and geoglyphs are also found in the antiquities of Mexico. That is because Aztlán, ancestral cradle of the Nahuatl people, was in the Lower Colorado Basin. The people who speak this language share a calendar based on observations of the constellations and a perception of chronology defined by 5 Suns. This was based on the observation of the rising of the Pleiades to its zenith every 52 years constituted one of the most important and sacred days for the Mexica/Mayan culture. It was when a date on the lunar and a date on the solar calendar met and nine of these 52 year conjunctions comprised a sun (468 years).
The southwards migration of the most famous branch of the Nahuatl, the “Mexica,” is said to have started at the beginning of the fourth Sun that began in 1068. They founded seven city states. The Aztec’s grew into an Empire. Alfredo said the pyramid they built in Mexico City was meant to resemble the mountains of their ancestral homeland. The Aztec account of this southward migration is found in the Boturini Codex. They eventually forgot the location of their ancient homeland, but Moctezuma I (c. 1398–1469) sent an expedition north and found it. That sun ended in 1535, just after the Spanish conquered Mexico. It was the end of the 4th sun and the beginning of the 5th sun.
“These are not theories, or myths, but facts,” Alfredo said. “The last conjunction of Pleiades rising to its zenith took place on November 14, 2003. We have entered into a new era, the era of knowledge, and this the first sun of that era.”
Alfredo believes it is time for his people to share their ancient knowledge, which is contained in those ancient images.
A segment of the film chronicles the threat that the 9,500 acre solar installation at Blythe posed to many of the local geoglyphs. In one scene Alfredo attempted to confront some of the construction workers after they bulldozed most of a sacred solar image. They are sitting in two vehicles, on the other side of a fence, watching.
“Right here,” Alfredo yelled to them. “This used to be the sun. You like the sun that you destroyed! You see what you guys are doing! What you destroyed here will never be replaced.”
The white men listened to a screaming Indian, but did not answer.
California’s governor, Jerry Brown, should have known better. His relationship with Alfredo stretched back decades, the pair had fought against nuclear power during the 1970‘s – but Brown would not see Alfredo when he and US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came out to came out to break ground on the 1,000-megawatt solar project at Blythe. No native leaders were invited to the ceremony. They were outside, shouting and waving placards as governor’s procession passed.
In the film, former Governor Arnold Schwartznegger stands behind a Brightsource Energy podium saying, “I see miles and miles of a gold mine.“
Michael Niggle, the President and COO of San Diego Gas and Electric, is shown at the opening ceremony for Sunrise Powerlink, “This is a great day for California, especially San Diego and Imperial counties. Renewable energy is starting to find its way into our state and into our counties.”
That December, the La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle, which had Alfredo founded, filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management and the Deptartment of Energy. The Federal agency had disregarded its formal agreement to consult with La Cuna about sacred sites that may be affected by projects on bureau-controlled lands. The group’s lawyer, Cory Briggs, claimed that the Obama administration had been fast tracking the solar projects so that they would make the Dec. 31 deadline for economic-stimulus funding.
“This is just a boondoggle …. This isn’t about solving an environmental problem or an economic problem. It’s corporate welfare,” Briggs said.
“These big solar projects live on upfront government grants and tax credits,” Robert Lundahl adds.
Bill Powers agrees, “What’s 30% of 2 billion dollars? That’s $600,000 upfront as a cash grant. In the end, these projects won’t be defeated by the environmentalists, or the Indians, but by simple economics.”
There is no need for those long power lines carrying energy from the desert; No need for the gas powered plants to supplement the energy lost in transmission. You can install solar power on urban rooftops, parking lots and brown fields. The era of massive utilities companies, and decisions dictated from corporate boardrooms, may be coming to an end.
“’Who Are My People?’ is born from struggle,” Lundahl said. “The struggle of hard scrabble desert communities facing up to the largest corporate land grab in the United States, one that would forever change, destroy, obliterate the land, the animals, and ecosystems they depend on. The struggle of Native American tribes, families and communities, watching as developments threaten to destroy their culture, again, in the name of ‘progress.’ Only this time, it would be ‘The Final Bullet.’ The struggle of people, ordinary people, who stepped up with a check, or a tank of gas, a plate of burritos, or a song to help keep this film out of corporate hands, so that story of the land and the animals, the resources and the culture can be told.
(Image at top of page: Alfredo Figueroa, who guides viewers through his people’s sacred sites in “Who Are My People?”)