Via Campesina confronts the global agro-fuel industrial complex – Z Magazine, Jan. 2009

By: John E. Peck, exec. director, Family Farm Defenders

On 19 October 2008, at the opening ceremony of the Fifth International Via Campesina Conference in Maputo, Mozambique, over 600 representatives from 50-plus countries were gathered to hear a welcome address by the President of the Republic of Mozambique, Armando Emíio Guebuza. While President Guebuza had some encouraging remarks about the future potential of peasant agriculture, his suggestion that Jatropha was a solution for Mozambique’s energy crisis was not well received by many in the audience. Jatropha is but one of a whole host of crops (including maize, soya, canola, sugarcane, cassava, sunflower, palm, coconut, and castor among others) now being aggressively promoted as feedstock for the global agro-fuel industrial complex. Such crops, often genetically engineered, grown in monoculture plantations, and destined for export markets, hardly deserve to be called ‘biofuels’ since they have no life-affirming qualities and undermine all the basic principles of food sovereignty.

As the leading umbrella organisation for peasant farmers, fishers, foresters, pastoralists, and indigenous peoples in the world, Via Campesina has been a harsh critic of agro-fuels since their inception. In its 2008 report titled ‘Small Scale Sustainable Farmers Are Cooling Down the Earth’, Via Campesina identifies agro-fuels as but one of several false solutions to the climate change crisis. To quote the report:

‘Leaving aside the insanity of producing food to feed cars while so many people are starving, industrial agro-fuels production will actually increase global warming instead of reducing it. Agro-fuels production will revive colonial plantation systems, bring back slave work and seriously increase the use of agrochemicals, as well as contribute to deforestation and biodiversity destruction.’

Inspired by a similar statement from European counterparts, five US based groups – Rainforest Action Network, Global Justice Ecology Project, Food First, Grassroots International, Family Farm Defenders, and the Student Trade Justice Campaign – issued a call in 2007 for an immediate moratorium on further US incentives for agro-fuels development. Over 50 groups from around the world signed onto this statement in solidarity, including Mozambique’s own National Farmers’ Union (UNAC), host of the Fifth Via Campesina Conference. Yet, the forces of corporate globalisation are hard at work and have apparently already reached the ear of President Guebuza. Chief among these agro-fuels peddlers is the Nairobi-based Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), bankrolled by the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations and chaired by former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan.

While some leaders, such as former US President George Bush Sr., may argue that the lifestyle of the global North is not negotiable, and the current food versus fuel debate dominating media headlines is hard to ignore. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), food prices skyrocketed 88% worldwide between March 2007 and March 2008, triggering riots in dozens of countries with some demonstrators even being killed in Cameroon, Senegal, and Mozambique. The crisis has been attributed to a vicious convergence of several factors – runaway speculation in commodity markets, weather related crop failures induced by global warming – and, as even the World Bank had to admit, the boom in agro-fuels. The creeping expansion of these green agro-fuel deserts that destroy biodiversity, supplant subsistence production, and siphon off scarce public funds is more a recipe for corporate profit than genuine energy security.

There is a fuel crisis in Africa, yet the continent’s own petroleum producers are not even allowed to meet the needs of their own people when corporations based in the North still control the supply chain and find global markets more lucrative. Many of these same oil giants with a horrific track record of violence and corruption – British Petroleum, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell – are now primary investors in the agro-fuels sector, along with other notorious grain, timber, biotech, and finance corporations – ADM, Cargill, Bunge, ConAgra, Dreyfus, DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta, Marubenji, Tate & Lyle, Weyerhauser, Tembec, Misui, Mitsubishi, JP Morgan Chase, Société Générale, and the Carlyle Group – to name but a few. Other agro-fuels industry cheerleaders with deep financial pockets and cosy political ties include former Florida governor, Jeb Bush, Brazil’s former minister of agriculture, Roberto Rodrigues, and the current president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Luis Moreno.

Contrary to their green-washed image, today’s agro-fuels industry bears little resemblance to the history behind Rudolf Diesel running his new fangled engine on peanut oil at the 1898 World Exhibition in Paris or the modern image of the do-it-yourself type, pouring recovered restaurant grease into a modified vehicle. Instead, today’s agro-fuels industrial complex has been constructed around the same destructive infrastructure and corporate exploitation that dominates other globalised commodities.

To use the US as a case study, the country currently takes up to six gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol, with another 13 gallons as waste. If plans proceed to build more ethanol plants in the Midwest, the Environmental Defense Fund estimates the endangered Ogallala Aquifer could be drained of an additional 2.6 billion gallons per year simply to irrigate and process these agro-fuels. Nearby residents report massive groundwater contamination and airborne pollution from these facilities, including clouds of biotech crop-dust that harm workers and other non-target actors. Even the distillers’ waste, a leftover from ethanol production long touted in the US as a feed supplement for livestock in factory farms, is now being found to be unhealthy for animals. Many of the farmers who invested their life savings to pioneer ethanol cooperatives in the US in the early 1990s have since been driven into bankruptcy or muscled out of the market by agribusiness. There are about 130 ethanol plants operating in the US, but whereas in 2003 over half were farmer controlled, today 90% are in corporate hands.

This consolidation of the agro-fuels industry has been encouraged by massive taxpayer subsidies. In Canada where legislation recently passed requiring a 5% ethanol content in fuel by 2010, agro-fuels boosters now expect to receive $2.2 billion in subsidies. Over ten nations in the European Union also provide various forms of agro-fuels incentives and this translated into a whopping 60% of the EU’s entire canola crop going into bio-diesel in 2006. The US alone is spending over $7 billion per year to promote agro-fuels, a subsidy of $1.38 per gallon for ethanol. During the recent US Farm Bill debate ADM and Cargill threatened to import Brazilian ethanol if the White House did not provide sufficient ‘incentives’ to keep domestic agro-fuels globally ‘competitive.’ The upshot was even more taxpayer subsidies for development of cellulosic ethanol and even for the potential use of sugar as another agro-fuels, conveniently coinciding with Monsanto’s introduction of GE (genetically engineered) sugar beet. If the US were to meet its proposed renewable energy mandate of 15 billion gallons of ethanol per year, over half of the country’s corn acreage would be devoted to energy rather than food production.

Such unrealistic goals mean massive agro-fuels imports from somewhere, and these will also probably be subsidised through the perverse manipulation of carbon credits. Under the Kyoto Protocol, 20% of global energy is to come from renewable sources, including agro-fuels, by 2020. But none of the greenhouse gases linked to the production of agro-fuels will be included in the transport sector, despite the fact that bio-diesel combustion alone generates 50-70% more greenhouse gas emissions than the petroleum it would replace. Instead, agro-fuels will be counted as part of the agriculture, industry, and/or energy sectors. This false accounting gets even worse. Under Kyoto, a country in the North that imports agro-fuels from the South can use them to offset its own greenhouse gas inventory. The upshot is that wealthy polluters are able to out-source green house gases and claim carbon credits by encouraging corporate investment in monoculture agro-fuels plantations half way around the globe.

Where will these agro-fuels carbon credits come from? Brazil already has 6 million hectares devoted to agro-fuels production and plans to increase its sugarcane acreage fivefold to meet expected ethanol export demands. South Africa has set a goal of producing one billion litres of bio-fuel from maize, sunflower, and soya (4.5% of total petrol/diesel demand) by 2013, and the South African-based Tongaat-Hulett investment group has proposed a $200 million renovation of the Hippo Valley sugarcane plantation and Triangle ethanol plant in the Limpopo Valley once the political crisis in Zimbabwe is resolved. Colombia plans to increase its oil palm from 188,000 hectares (ha.) to over 1 million ha, and communities who stand in the way of these expansion plans have already fallen victim to the deadly impact of death squads. Indonesia intends to establish the largest oil palm plantation in the world, 1.8 million ha in Borneo. Dubbed ‘deforestation diesel’, this palm oil bonanza has cleared vast tracts of pristine rainforest, jeopardising biodiversity and indigenous peoples alike. Compared to other agro-fuels fuel stocks, though, palm oil is by far the most productive, generating 6000 litres per ha, versus only 446 litres per ha for soya and 172 litres per ha for corn.

And, then there is Jatropha. India has already earmarked 14 million ha of ‘wasteland’ for Jatropha plantations, while a German consortium is negotiating to purchase 13,000 ha in Ethiopia, including portions of an elephant sanctuary, for the same purpose. As a drought-resistant largely inedible plant that requires little or no inputs, Jatropha can be harvested three times a year. There are already 200,000 ha of Jatropha in Malawi and 15,000 ha in Zambia, most under the control of the UK-based company D1 Oils. Mozambique currently has only one refinery at Busi with a limited production capacity of 10 tonnes per day, but since sugarcane processing takes place for just 160 days each year, consultants argue that the rest of the facility’s capacity could be devoted to agro-fuels. Jatropha planting is now underway in four Mozambican provinces: Inhambane, Manica, Zambezia, and Nampula. The impact in Mozambique will likely be similar to that elsewhere, and food sovereignty advocates, such as Ousmane Samake of the Coalition pour la Protection du Patrimoine Génétique Áfricaine (COPAGEN), have already documented how agro-fuels Jatropha plantations encroach on traditional grazing lands, drain groundwater supplies, and exacerbate resource conflicts in Mali.

The world will not be able to escape the food versus fuel debate as long as governments continue to subsidise agro-fuels to the detriment of sustainable agriculture as practiced by millions of peasant farmers. Similarly, the world will not be able to achieve genuine food sovereignty as advocated by Via Campesina without rejecting the agro-fuels panacea offered by the likes of the Gates Foundation, AGRA, and their corporate boosters. The government of Mozambique would do well to heed the call for an outright moratorium on agro-fuels incentives as endorsed by dozens of grassroots organisations around the world, including Mozambique’s own National Farmers’ Union (UNAC). It is time to end corporate domination over the world’s food supply and an essential first step is to dismantle the global agro-fuels industrial complex that would rather feed a gas tank than a hungry child.