Biofuel boom profiting corporations, not locals

The boom in biofuel production in Latin America, particularly Brazil, is benefiting corporations but not local people, a network of environmental activist groups said in a report released on Wednesday.

Friends of the Earth International made its study, Fuelling Destruction in Latin America, public one day before a vote in the European Parliament on plans to increase biofuel use in the European Union.

Critics of ethanol made from crops contend that it is harmful to the environment and diverting land-use from food production at a time of record food prices.

The United States is the biggest producer of biofuel, which it makes from corn.

Brazil is the second-biggest producer, generating ethanol from processed sugarcane, and it is the biggest exporter of biofuel. It is eyeing ways to boost exports to the EU, which has proposed having biofuels make up 10% of the bloc’s total fuel consumption by 2020.

The Amsterdam-based Friends of the Earth, an umbrella group representing more than 5 000 environmental groups around the world, said Latin American nations “are scaling up agrofuel production at alarming rates” to try to cash in on rising demand at home and in Europe and the United States.

“Increasing the amount of land destined to grow crops for agrofuels means increasing deforestation and wildlife destruction, increased land conflicts, eviction of rural people, poor working conditions and environmental pollution,” the group said in a statement.

The report singled out Brazil, claiming it was doing little to make biofuel production sustainable and accusing the industry of subjecting some of its 500 000 sugarcane cutters to “conditions akin to slave labour”.

Illegal deforestation, water contamination and land disputes were also issues, it argued, saying “the growing demand for agrofuels is also displacing farming onto previously uncultivated land and forcing some cattle ranches and farms to move into new areas”.

Friends of the Earth noted that four of the 10 biggest ethanol companies in Brazil had foreign investors, and European companies such as BASF and Syngenta profited from selling pesticides to Brazilian sugarcane growers. It also said US and European biotech companies were genetically modifying varieties of sugarcane.

The report said the Central American countries of El Salvador, Costa Rica and Guatemala had also jumped on the biofuel bandwagon, though in a small way.
Output was mainly sold domestically.

But, it said, El Salvador “has a reported 30 000 children taking part in the sugarcane harvest” and it claimed Guatemala’s water supplies were being threatened by biofuel farming.

Friends of the Earth also alleged that Brazil was using Central American countries “to avoid paying taxes for export to the US market”.

Paul de Clerck, a chief campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said that “more agrofuels means that agribusiness companies, financial speculators and big landowners will make vast profits at the expense of people and the environment”. - AFP

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