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    First ever conference looks at the potential of biofuels in Africa. The Biofuels Markets Africa event will be held in Cape Town, South Africa, from november 30 to december 1, 2006. Guest speakers from African business, government and non-governmental organisations shed a light on the challenges of creating a biofuels industry on the continent. Speakers from Brazil, India and Europe present their experiences in the sector as well. Check it out at: GreenPowerConferences.

    Voting is under way in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in one of Africa's most significant elections for many decades. Congo is potentially the world's second biggest 'biofuels superpower', with enormous untapped land resources, a favorable tropical climate and millions of farmers ready to start producing for the international market. After 3 decades of misrule and a decade of civil war, the country is gradually rebuilding itself. BBC News - October 29, 2006.

    Novozymes AS and US partner Broin are to collaborate in the development of ethanol from cellulosic biomass. Forbes - October 26, 2006.

    Alcar Chemicals Group Inc. announces patent filing for bioconversion process that turns agricultural waste and non-food biomass into raw materials for bioplastics to be used in the production of petroleum-free polyethylene, PET, polyester and polyurethane resins and more. Market Periscope - October 25, 2006.

    Government of Malawi announces increased cooperation with India and Brazil to develop biofuel industry in search for oil independence. Daily Times Malawi - October 25, 2006.

    The government of India plans a series of tax sops like excise and import duty exemptions to promote the use of bio-diesel and ethanol in auto fuel. Andhra Cafe - October 24, 2006.

    A Brazilian company that powers a quarter of all buses in Latin America's largest city, São Paulo, has started using biofuels in its fleet counting 1900 vehicles. The fuel is a blend of 30 percent biodiesel, 8 percent alcohol and 62 percent petroleum diesel Planet Save - October 22, 2006.

    According to Research and Markets, the biofuels industry in the US is growing at a rate of 25 to 50% a year. New entrants enter the field constantly and new technology breakthroughs are frequent. Federal and state government subsidies and loan guanrantees keep barriers to entry relatively low. Business Wire - October 20, 2006.

    Four in five U.S. adults (80%) strongly or somewhat agree that national and state governments are not doing enough to promote production of biofuels -- fuels made from agricultural crops or plant matter -- according to a new survey released today by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive®, also found that 82% of adults say national and state governments should provide financial incentives to biofuels producers to encourage the production and availability of biofuels. More than two out of three adults (69%) would use American-made biofuels even if these fuels cost slightly more than conventional gas. And more than eight of every 10 (84%) say they would be at least somewhat likely to support federal and state political candidates who favor providing incentives to promote increased production and availability of biofuels throughout the United States. Azom - October 19, 2006.

    Italian company Novamont is building what it calls 'the world's first biorefinery' in Terni. It will use local biomass resources from 600 farmers to make 60,000 tons of 100% biodegradable plastics, as well as biofuels in one and the same facility. Agenzia Giornalistica Italia - October 18, 2006.

    The world's biggest instant noodle maker, Indofood, says that its edible oils division plans to buy majority stakes in three palm oil plantations giving it sufficient raw material to enter the emerging biofuels sector. AP-Foodtechnology - October 17, 2006.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Some NGOs call biofuels "a disaster in the making" - bad science, flawed economics and a disastrous development discourse

Energy Bulletin - a staunch anti-biofuels website - publishes a letter by Simone Lovera, directed at the Conference of the Parties of the Framework Convention on Climate Change on the risks of biofuels:
The letter calls upon governments to suspend all subsidies and other forms of inequitabe support for the import and export of biofuels, in the light of the negative environmental and social impacts caused by the large-scale export-oriented production of biofuels. While recognizing that some forms of locally and nationally oriented biofuel production could be sustainable, the letter also calls for strict regulations and effective enforcement measures, to ensure biofuel production at the national level does not impact negatively upon Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and their livelihoods.
The letter asks other organisations to sign up to it. We will most certainly not do so, because the argumentation of the group is totally flawed, based on bad science, lack of economic realism and devoid of any knowledge of the world of rural communities in the South. It is part of a development discourse that has proved to be disastrous in the past. Moreover, these NGOs try to speak in the name of 'indigenous peoples' and 'weak social groups', who they look at as passive people who cannot speak for themselves and who must be 'preserved' and 'protected' by foreign NGOs like some endangered species. As we will show below, this culturalist view on others is extremely neo-colonialist and ultimately dangerous.

Finally, the NGOs refuse to see the immense potential for social and economic development brought by the biofuels opportunity. They are willing to deny poor farmers from the South the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty. Luckily, many governments and NGOs in the South no longer blindly follow their counterparts from the West. They are tired of being dictated how to develop.

Let us analyse the arguments of these NGOs, one by one, and reply to them:

We recognize that the local production and consumption of biomass plays an important role in sustainable livelihood strategies of, in particular, rural women in developing countries.
Biopact: An 'important role' is an understatement. Up to 3 billion people in the South rely on wood and agricultural residues for heating and cooking. This primitive form of biomass use is the single biggest cause of mass-deforestation in the tropics and subtropics. The key driver: poverty. Moreover, this enormous environmentally destructive reliance on fuel-wood not only contributes considerably to global warming, it also leads to approximately 1.6 million deaths from indoor smoke pollution. The introduction of modern biofuels can change this.

Certain small-scale and strictly regulated sustainable forms of biofuel production can be beneficial at the national level.
Biopact: 'small-scale' is not nearly enough. In order to reduce poverty - the main cause of deforestation and environmental destruction - small initiatives have virtually no impact. The only way to reduce the environmental destruction by poor people in the South is to increase economic growth and prosperity by having the poor generate incomes themselves and by having governments in the South reducing their dependence on expensive fossil fuels (which are an extremely heavy burden on these economies). The development of an export-oriented biofuels industry might be the best opportunity of the past and coming five decades to do exactly that (as many developing countries are beginning to recognize). Unlike the North, the South has competitive advantages to produce biofuels: vast expanses of unused (non-forest) land and suitable agroclimatic conditions for the production of biofuels that can compete with fossil fuels. Energy independence is within their reach.

The best cases are offered by Brazil, Nigeria and Indonesia. In these countries, biofuels programs are expected to bring millions of jobs to some of the world's poorest people. Without sustainable jobs and increased incomes, the environment in these countries is set to suffer much more in the future, and contributions to climate change will only increase as a consequence (e.g due to deforestation and reliance on primitive biomass technologies). Investing in income generating, large-scale biofuels production is a sine-qua non for poverty reduction in the South. On the level of states, achieving energy independence through biofuels is becoming a reality in the South. By reducing the economically disastrous dependence on ever more costly oil and gas governments can save large amounts of money that can be invested in poverty alleviation and social development.

However, the modalities of biomass consumption and production must be carefully analyzed in conjunction with communities, to introduce adaptive measures that will maintain and enhance the patterns of sustainability, while avoiding negative impacts on health and the adverse effects inherent to increases in demand or changes in socioeconomic settings.
Biopact: we agree, the current situation is unhealthy, both for the billions of people who rely on primitive biomass for energy, as for the global atmosphere as a whole. But the social effects of rural poverty are even bigger. Millions are pushed off the land because of it, and are forced to migrate to the mega-slums of the Global South. The single most important push factor is rural poverty, caused by underinvestments in agriculture.

Large-scale biofuel production initiatives can reverse this trend. But they can only succeed with the involvement of the communities where they are undertaken. Several countries are setting good standards in this regard, like Malaysia, where the labor-intensive palm oil industry benefits hundreds of thousands of small-holders through a series of special policies and trade mechanisms that guarantees them their much needed income. Or in Nigeria or South Africa, where large-scale biofuels production provides jobs to thousands of unemployed youths who would else end up in the slums of Johannesburg and Lagos. Senegal sees investments in biofuels even as a way to stop illegal emigration to Europe.

Likewise, the Indian government and state governments have committed themselves to listening to local farmers and support them in their quest for investments in biofuel production. The demand for the creation of a market comes from the poorest farmers themselves. They are the ones who want to produce for a market where ever higher prices for their feedstocks offer a great opportunity for them to lift themselves out of poverty. The NGOs who sign the letter only seem to be willing to offer a non-alternative (see below).

Solar energy often offers a sustainable alternative to traditional biomass.
Biopact: Solar energy is useful, but very expensive. The NGOs do not tell us where the billions of poor who live on less than a dollar a day will get the money to buy expensive solar power. Are the NGOs themselves going to provide it?

Simply introducing solar panels does not bring any structural economic benefits to the rural poor. It is a quick-fix that maintains the economic and social status quo. This typically charitable approach to development -- embellishing the situation of the rural poor by introducing a new technology without addressing any of the most pressing social and economic structural problems -- has proved to be a truly disastrous strategy in the past, resulting in more poverty, more environmental destruction and sometimes even in social collapse (with mass-migration away from the country-side to the cities as a consequence).

Large-scale biofuels production on the contrary can bring an economic revival of rural areas in a structural way, a more fair distribution of wealth and can bring a halt to environmental destruction:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Meanwhile, international trade in biofuels is already causing a negative impact on food sovereignty,
Biopact: this is simply untrue. There has been no research into this. And, in all likeliness, when the poor gain an income from biofuel production, they finally have the means to ensure food security (see below).

Meanwhile, international trade in biofuels is already causing a negative impact on rural livelihoods,
Biopact: on the contrary. Research from for example Brazil and Indonesia seems to point to the opposite. Biofuels production generates considerable extra income to farmers. In some cases, poor energy farmers have succeeded in quintupling their incomes by producing biofuels. In Brazil, the government sees biodiesel and ethanol production as a major instrument in the fight against rural poverty.

In short, green energy production for the world market is causing a highly positive impact on rural livelihoods. But we would want to await more thorough research results. We expect the NGOs to be more objective too.

Meanwhile, international trade in biofuels is already causing a negative impact on forests and other ecosystems
Biopact: This is true but the eternal question is: how can we stop deforestation? If the NGOs are willing to pay the poor farmers in the South to stop deforesting, then they should do so. If a 'forest carbon credit' scheme can gradually provide the poor with an alternative to deforesting, then this is welcome too. But rest assured, the compensation has to be realistic, else such a system will result in its opposite. With rising energy prices, the value of a hectare of forest land increases. Compensated reduction schemes have to take this into account.

On the other hand, many biofuels feedstocks can be produced in non-forest zones. Crops like cassava and sorghum do not grow in forest zones. A crop like jatropha can even fight desertification.

The rapidly increasing demand for these crops as a source of biofuel will lead to:

* increased land competition leading to further land concentration, the marginalization of small-scale agriculture and the widespread conversion of forests and other ecosystems;
Biopact: the entire opposite may be the case. If Malaysia and Indonesia had not invested in a palm oil industry, rural depopulation would probably have been much greater. The palm oil industry provides a livelihood to millions of smallholders in those countries. The same can be said of communities in Brazil, where the government clearly states that not investing in biofuels production, will lead to mass migration from rural people to the cities.

The fact is that biofuels production offers a tremendous opportunity for small farmers to gain economically and socially. Increasing incomes that result from this activity take away the single most important factor for rural depopulation, namely poverty. Poverty is the most powerful push-factor of mass migration to the cities.

* arable land that is currently used to grow food being used to grow fuel, leading to staggering food prices and causing hunger, malnutrition and impoverishment amongst the poorest sectors of society;
Biopact: this is outright nonsense, and a dangerous and fraudulent use of the most basic science.
Energy farmers in the South can play on two markets now. This has major micro-economic advantages, not in the least the potential for crop diversification. The era when farmers in the South were dependent on a single crop, and at the mercy of international prices for that crop, is now over. In the past, this single-crop dependency has resulted in mass poverty, mass food insecurity and even total social collapse, with entire communities breaking down when the market for their single crop collapsed.

Luckily, with the emerging market for biofuels, this disastrous situation can fnially come to an end.
Farmers in Malawi and Lesotho, for example, who used to be dependent on tobacco, are now rejoicing the fact that they can invest in an alternative crop (a biofuel crop). They are the ones who understand the benefits of diversification. They are the ones who are massively investing in it.

Moreover, now that the farmers have two markets to play on simultaneously, they can do the calculus of investing more in food or more in fuel depending on the prevailing market situation. This again, offers major economic benefits.

One thing is certain though: not investing in biofuels will keep these farmers in poverty and keep them food insecure. That is a guarantee. And it is bizarre to see some NGOs who think to be speaking in the name of rural communities from the South, taking this enormous risk.

* rural unemployment and depopulation;
Biopact: the contrary is true, as we demonstrated above.

* the destruction of the traditions, cultures, languages and spiritual values of Indigenous Peoples and rural communities;
Biopact: this is a nonsensical culturalist argument. Biopact has several social and cultural anthropologists and even a historian of colonialism amongst its members, and they no longer play along with this dangerous culturalist discourse. We have seen what the inaction of 'culturalist' NGOs has led to in the South: a gigantic mis-allocation of resources, that forgot to take into account the fact that people want food, fuel and health first.

Moreover, the NGOs have an extremely shallow notion of "culture". They think it gets "destroyed" very easily, while the contrary is true. Culture and social structures are extremely resilient. A century of research into the anthropology of cultural change proves this: even after people have experienced the violence of modernity, their cultures remain intact, albeit under another form.

The NGOs look at indigenous peoples in a typical colonialist, bourgeois manner. They place them in some a-temporal, closed off, idealised realm, where they are seen as fragile and must be 'protected', like some endangered species. Many anthropologists have written interesting pieces on this alterisation strategy.

In short, the culturalist agenda is extremely dangerous. It often results in a lack of realism and in a mis-allocation of resources. Most often, it is a typical self-satisfying, bourgeois exercise in fulfilling one's own desires for 'untouched' cultures. We have a problem with those who speak in the name of others, and tell the world that these cultures must be 'preserved'. This discourse shows a contempt towards the cultures in question, by thinking that they are not resilient, and that they should be closed of from change because they cannot cope with it.

* the extensive use of agro-chemicals, which deteriorate human health and ecosystems
Biopact: this is true. But agro-chemicals are also very good at helping people to make incomes. The recent Fertilizer Summit showed that sub-Saharan Africa's agricultural output may be increased by up to 70% if only modern fertilisers and agro-chemicals were used.
The NGOs must stop pretending that the use of agro-chemicals is always bad. If an African farmer uses them in a professional manner, with the result that he sees his food and energy security increase tremendously, and his income likewise, then there is no reason to portray agro-chemicals as bad. Instead, their use should be encouraged.

With new initiatives, the FAO is now heavily investing again in making agro-chemicals available to poor farmers in the South. The benefits of using them outweigh the disadvantages tremendously.

We urge the NGOs to look at the world from a realistic perspective. Agro-chemicals can be used in a relatively safe manner. Farmers in the South can learn this (even though the NGOs think farmers in the South are not very bright, incapable of learning, and some precious 'species' that must be protected by them from evil outside forces, because these communities cannot do so themselves).

* the destruction of watersheds and the pollution of rivers, lakes and streams;
Biopact: we agree, large-scale biofuels production must take into account good water and pollution management. This is not a major problem. With the capital that can be obtained from mass investments in biofuels, careful and professional management strategies can be implemented.

* droughts and other local and regional climatic extremes;
Biopact: on the contrary. Most biofuel crops, like cassava, sorghum and jatropha, are part of strategies to combat desertification.
Moreover, not investing in modern biofuels, will result in more global warming. The Stern Review clearly suggests that investments modern carbon-neutral biofuels and biomass use are a sine-qua non to combat climate change. It seems like the NGOs do not take climate change very seriously.

* the extensive use of genetically modified organisms leading to unprecedented risks.
Biopact: there is no need to utilize genetically modified organisms. The planet can produce up to 1000 Exajoules of bioenergy sustainably, without relying on genetically modified crops (see the IEA Bioenergy Task 40 Quickscan of global biomass potentials).

These effects will have particularly a negative impact on women and Indigenous Peoples, who are economically marginalized and more dependent on natural resources like water and forests.
Biopact: on the contrary. Biofuels production offers a tremendous opporunity for women and indigenous peoples to empower themselves. If they are kept in poverty (which is what the NGOs seem to want), the status-quo will prevail.
Concretely, many biofuels programs in many countries (e.g. the programs on Jatropha in Sahelian Africa) are actively carried out by women and specially designed for them as empowerment mechanisms.

There is nothing green or sustainable to imported or exported biofuel. Instead of destroying the lands and livelihoods of local communities and Indigenous Peoples in the South through yet another form of colonialism, we call upon Northern countries to recognize their responsibility for destroying the planet’s climate system, to reduce their energy consumption to sustainable levels, to pay the climate debt they have created by failing to do so until now and to dramatically increase investment in solar energy and sustainable wind energy.
Biopact: and we call on the Global South to create a coalition of biofuels producing countries. They are in fact already doing so (see our article on the biofuels coalition that poor African countries recently formed in order to combat poverty and to reduce dependence on imported fossil fuels). The opportunity at economic development is too important to let the West decide over it.

And speaking of colonialism: now that the South has a once in a lifetime chance at tackling poverty and climate change by investing in export-oriented biofuels, the West and its satrapes, these NGOs, are once again trying to block poor farmers from the South from their markets. The West has already kept millions of farmers in poverty by protecting its own markets with subsidies and trade barriers. Doing the same with biofuels will not surprise anyone.

The NGOs must realise that their actions are a call for the status quo, and that they are denying millions of the world's poorest a chance at lifting themselves out of poverty. This is why we do not support these NGOs.

We also call upon all governments to develop and effectively enforce environmental and social standards and regulations that ensure that national biofuel production industries do not destroy the livelihoods and ecosystems of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Corporations should be held strictly liable for any social and environmental damage that has occurred and they should be effectively prosecuted if they do not uphold environmental and labor laws.
Biopact: it is clear that realistic and flexible social and environmental sustainability criteria should be developed. But if they merely become another market protection instrument for the West, then the South should shun them and devise its own criteria. Ultimately, if the West abuses these criteria to protect its own market, then the SOuth should start trading amongst itself.

Corporations should indeed be held liable if they cause damages.

But how about the NGOs themselves? Shouldn't they be held strictly liable too if they can be proved to be responsible for keeping millions in poverty?

We urge the NGOs who signed the letter to start reflecting on their own role. They are becoming responsible for keeping millions of farmers in dire poverty.

We want to ask these NGOs to consider some of the following points:

1. Most of these NGOs hold very primitive, colonialist and 19th century views on "the other" (indigenous peoples, women in the South and 'culture' in general). We urge them to take courses in social and cultural anthropology and study how they consistently use a logic of alterisation that has nothing to do with the realities in the South and that is only maintained to satisfy some of their own romantic visions on the other.

Cultures and communities are resilient and change into unexpected directions. Most often, it is the NGOs themselves who cannot cope with this change because it shatters their image of the kind, 'untouched' 'natives'. They are the ones who want to keep people from the South trapped in some exotic image. The people concerned want the contrary.

The reality is that many people in the South are extremely materialistic, and want the most basic forms of prosperity -- understandably so, because these people are poor. And poor people think of food, fuel and incomes first, not about the exotic image projected onto them by NGOs from the West.

2. We urge the NGOs to study the sustainability of bioenergy and biofuels. There are many scientific and research organisations who are focusing on the matter in a professional and nuanced way. We are thinking of the IEA Bioenergy Task 40 research group, for example, which studies the potential and barriers to international biofuels trade. Task 40 recently concluded that sugarcane ethanol production as currently practised in Brazil, is sustainable. This is just one example.

Obviously, the NGOs have a crucial role to play when it comes to pointing out the potential dangers of large-scale biofuels production. But we would want them to rely more on science, and less on flawed generalisations and a tiermondist ideology that has proved to be so disastrous in the past.

3. We urge the NGOs to carefully consider the opportunity for development brought about by large-scale biofuels production in the South. They should also carefully study what the effects will be on the poor in the South, if they deny them the chance to tap into this opportunity.

With their call to block poor farmers from the South from markets in the North, the NGOs are becoming the objective allies of large farming lobbies in the West, who are already responsible for keeping millions in the Souh in poverty through subsidies and trade barriers. The NGOs should carefully look at who it is they are really supporting.

One thing is certain though, the Global South will no longer allow the West (and its allied NGOs) to dictate how the South should develop and whether or not it should refrain from tapping the biofuels opportunity. A new development discourse is emerging, based on South-South alliances, with China, India and Brazil pulling other nations from the South along. Creating a global market for competitive biofuels from the South is playing a crucial role in this new dialogue.

4. Biofuels are 'green' in the sense that they are carbon-neutral and fight climate change. There are many energy crops that thrive in non-forest areas, so deforestation is not automatically linked to biofuels production.

But we agree that biofuels are not merely green. They are 'red' too, so to speak: they offer a tremendous opportunity to fight poverty, enhance food and energy security, sustain rural livelihoods, and diminish push-factors that drive farmers away from their lands and into the cities.

The Biopact Team.


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