Agrofuels in Latin America

Agrofuel is the new buzzword, but this rose by any name is a disaster in the making and Latin American countries (pdf) are living proof.

Biofuels are combustible fuels produced from plants. These plants can be either food crops (corn, soy, sugarcane, oil palm, etc.) or biomass (usually described as the non-edible portion of food production, like corn stalks, straw, etc.). The use of the term agrofuels has become preferable in environmental circles because these primarily-from-food fuels negatively impact food crops and the ecologies where they are grown - to say nothing of the people who rely on the displaced food crops for survival.

Industrialized countries started the biofuels boom by legislating ambitious and poorly thought-out agrofuel targets. The stated reasons were that agrofuels were somehow more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. The real truth is that, in a world running out of conventional fossil fuels (or at least any way to profitably extract them), governments needed the economic stability of a replacement - one reliant on the same infrastructure -  and biofuels were close at hand.

Agrofuesl the Road to DestructionBiofuels - agrofuels, ethanol, biodiesel, whatever name you choose - are not an environmentally friendly solution to Peak Oil but a power-grab by industrialized nations and their governments to put the dirty work of running industry and commerce south of the border. This allows them to capitalize on agrofuel's prosperity while eliminating agrofuel's messier aspects (human displacement and starvation, ecological collapse, rising pollution from pesticides and herbicides, and child labor).

Out of sight and therefore out of mind from the rich and powerful who run governments, agrofuel's downside - which has led to international protests and even deaths over rising food prices - have scarcely dented government mandates for agrofuels in gasoline mixes. The single exception so far has been the EU, where regulators are considering a downgrade. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is, as usual, sitting on its hands awaiting direction from the Bush administration.

Why Latin America? Because current agrofuel targets exceed the land capacity and growing climate of industrialized North America (and Europe). Europe would have to take 70 percent of its farmland out of production, and the U.S. would need to devote 100 percent of its current corn and soy harvest to meet established mandates - and take almost all unused but arable land in the future to meet rising demand. This would decimate U.S. food production, so the 30-member Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD - self-described as liaising governments to promote ‘democracy and the market economy' - has stepped in to move agrofuel production south of the border. Only one of OECD's members (Mexico) is located in Latin America. 

The OECD's stated purpose is to: support sustainable economic growth; boost employment; raise living standards; maintain financial stability; assist other countries' economic development; and contribute to growth in world trade. So far it has achieved only the last.

That's the background; let's talk about the realities. Agrofuel is highly energy-intensive, depending on the crop and growing techniques, but even at best, critics argue that biodiesel production from soybeans requires 27 percent more fossil fuel to produce than it delivers.

Experts argue that this net loss only accounts for about 5 percent of the market. However, as soy cultivation is moved to Latin America, that equation changes. The poor soils left behind from slash-and-burn operations won't produce viable yields of protein-rich soy, and the net energy loss is likely to be higher rather than lower. 

ethanolCorn, another agrofuel, has a slightly better energy ratio. When grown on premium land, it has an energy balance of between 2:1 and 3:1, meaning it produces, on average, about half again as much energy as is needed to make it. In Latin America, though, this gain is lost to lower production efficiency standards, so the effective net energy savings are zero.

Sugarcane, another source of agrofuel, is now being grown in areas where it has never been grown before, threatening such natural ecologies as the Pantanal Wetlands (pdf) of Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. These wetlands, home to more than 650 species of birds, 1,100 butterflies, almost 200 mammals, and 270 different kinds of fish, are also the wintering grounds for many North American migratory birds.

The Pantanal is the world's largest tropical wetland. As the demand for ethanol (pdf) increases, requiring 50 percent more acreage planted to sugarcane each year, this ecosphere gradually disappears, its decimation supported by the various governments who enforce (through bribes, corruption and violence against citizens) the interests of such multinational corporations (pdf) as Cargill, Bunge, BASF, Bayer and Syngenta, all of whom are either involved in growing and harvesting, providing herbicides and pesticides, or inventing new, genetically modified strains to capture every last ounce of nutrient from the soil. When the companies move on, all that is left is a wasteland. 

Argentina, the world's second-largest producer of soybeans and the area's biggest biodiesel exporter, passed a law in 2006 to require gasoline and diesel to contain a proportionate amount of agrofuel - a law that also suspended export taxes on biodiesel. Argentina's forests are disappearing at the rate of about 628,000 acres per year, land is being concentrated in the hands of a few, and conflicts between these land-wealthy, soy growing multinational representatives and the peasants who have been displaced by them are growing exponentially.  

In 2006, Peru's right-wing president, Alan Garcia, called indigenous people lazy, ignorant and superstitious for refusing to relinquish their lands to energy companies interested in developing agrofuels. Garcia's land laws, which would have allowed development, were overturned by the Peruvian congress, but the riots have left their own scars on the people's consciousness.

The same scenario, power versus the people, is taking place all over Latin America. FIAN International, an international organization dedicated to peoples' right to adequate food, has documented the corruption of governments who are complicit in helping these landowners suppress the peasants and steal their land by using hired security forces to evict small landholders, or coercing the sale of land through threats, false promises and even murder.

Since most indigenous people and small landholders don't even have proper titles to the land they occupy, it doesn't take much to remove them. Like the American Indian, they are bought off with a handful of money, a few well-placed threats or beatings, and ultimately by a timely death or two to remind them that they do not have the power to resist.

This sort of thing is taking place as I write in such places as Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. Nowhere is this conflict between indigenous people and wealthy landholders more widely reported than in Bolivia, where the potential for revolution faces president Evo Morales, whose support of native peoples places him in direct opposition not only to wealthy landowners but to the U.S., which has political allegiances with these landowners and the companies they support.  

As Bolivia struggles to maintain human rights, the destruction and conversion of land in Latin America for the benefit of agrofuel and its wealthy supporters continues. Robert Farley, Monsanto's vice president, said at an agrofuel expo in Argentina (March 17, 2007) that the boom would be "unimaginable in terms of what it's going to mean for corn and soybean surface area" in Latin American countries. Though Farley did not name sugar and palm oil, these two are likely to be the future ‘top crops', with Brazil already committed to increasing sugarcane acreage by 500 percent to meet future agrofuel export commitments.

The president of the regional sugar cane manufacturer's union, Eduardo Pereira de Carvalho, predicts that more than 33 percent of Brazil's pastureland - once used to raise superb Brazilian beef - will be converted to sugar cane in the next decade, pushing cattle ranches and timber mining deeper in to the Amazon, displacing more indigenous people and destroying more rainforest in the process.

Columbia, prodded by rising gasoline prices, the threat of Peak Oil, and the likelihood of global warming, is walking Brazil's path, providing subsidies, risk insurance and export tax relief to palm oil producers. Columbian gasoline contains 10 percent ethanol; diesel fuel contains 5% biodiesel. Land under cultivation to produce these agrofuels has risen almost 200 percent between 2002 and 2007. As the world's largest palm oil producer, Columbia has committed another nearly 2 million acres in the next decade.

The WorldBank, the Inter American Development Bank (or IADB, which has close ties to Jeb Bush's Interamerican Ethanol Commission), and USAid (headed in S. America by José R. Cárdenas, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer whose Cuba relief program was less than effective) all finance these Latin American expansions. The beneficiaries are multinational and national companies, large landowners, paramilitary companies like Halliburton and its subsidiary, KBR, which are paid to keep order at any price, and corrupt local officials. The increase in agrofuels trade, and the consequent benefits to regional economies, is offset by rising food prices and displaced peasants - a double whammy guaranteed to wipe out those at the low end of the economic ladder (where most of Latin America's population now resides). The common use of child labor further insures that those youngsters who might otherwise escape the cycle of poverty through education will now be unable to do so.

The stated reason behind the agrofuel push - that such fuels are carbon-neutral - has been revealed as a lie. Agrofuels now stand accused of emitting more CO2 than fossil fuels, and carry the added burden of causing starvation and homelessness. I don't have room to cite all the studies, but you can view them for yourself on this Net Energy Gain or Loss page.

Let's not kid ourselves. Agrofuels are not environmentally friendly; they don't produce the kinds of jobs that lift people out of poverty; they do not create sustainable economic growth or boost Latin American countries' financial stability (since all the wealth flows into a few hands), and they are, in addition, not very good for the combustion engine because ethanol is a solvent.

In fact, agrofuels are a get-rich-quick scheme cooked up by governments facing the end of oil and pushed by multinationals as a boon to the environment. They are also, as one pundit noted, a ‘feel-good' fuel that allows North Americans to keep their cars and their environmental self-esteem. However, as the economy goes down and food prices rise, even middle-class Norteamericanos will soon come to realize that agrofuels don't feel good when one is hungry.

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  • Posted on Oct. 8, 2008. Listed in:

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