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    Spanish company Ferry Group is to invest €42/US$55.2 million in a project for the production of biomass fuel pellets in Bulgaria. The 3-year project consists of establishing plantations of paulownia trees near the city of Tran. Paulownia is a fast-growing tree used for the commercial production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Hungary's BHD Hõerõmû Zrt. is to build a 35 billion Forint (€138/US$182 million) commercial biomass-fired power plant with a maximum output of 49.9 MW in Szerencs (northeast Hungary). Portfolio.hu - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Tonight at 9pm, BBC Two will be showing a program on geo-engineering techniques to 'save' the planet from global warming. Five of the world's top scientists propose five radical scientific inventions which could stop climate change dead in its tracks. The ideas include: a giant sunshade in space to filter out the sun's rays and help cool us down; forests of artificial trees that would breath in carbon dioxide and stop the green house effect and a fleet futuristic yachts that will shoot salt water into the clouds thickening them and cooling the planet. BBC News - Feb. 19, 2007.

    Archer Daniels Midland, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, is planning to open a biodiesel plant in Indonesia with Wilmar International Ltd. this year and a wholly owned biodiesel plant in Brazil before July, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The Brazil plant is expected to be the nation's largest, the paper said. Worldwide, the company projects a fourfold rise in biodiesel production over the next five years. ADM was not immediately available to comment. Reuters - Feb. 16, 2007.

    Finnish engineering firm Pöyry Oyj has been awarded contracts by San Carlos Bioenergy Inc. to provide services for the first bioethanol plant in the Philippines. The aggregate contract value is EUR 10 million. The plant is to be build in the Province of San Carlos on the north-eastern tip of Negros Island. The plant is expected to deliver 120,000 liters/day of bioethanol and 4 MW of excess power to the grid. Kauppalehti Online - Feb. 15, 2007.

    In order to reduce fuel costs, a Mukono-based flower farm which exports to Europe, is building its own biodiesel plant, based on using Jatropha curcas seeds. It estimates the fuel will cut production costs by up to 20%. New Vision (Kampala, Uganda) - Feb. 12, 2007.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has decided to use 10% biodiesel in its fleet of public buses. The world's largest city is served by the Toei Bus System, which is used by some 570,000 people daily. Digital World Tokyo - Feb. 12, 2007.

    Fearing lack of electricity supply in South Africa and a price tag on CO2, WSP Group SA is investing in a biomass power plant that will replace coal in the Letaba Citrus juicing plant which is located in Tzaneen. Mining Weekly - Feb. 8, 2007.

    In what it calls an important addition to its global R&D capabilities, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is to build a new bioenergy research center in Hamburg, Germany. World Grain - Feb. 5, 2007.

    EthaBlog's Henrique Oliveira interviews leading Brazilian biofuels consultant Marcelo Coelho who offers insights into the (foreign) investment dynamics in the sector, the history of Brazilian ethanol and the relationship between oil price trends and biofuels. EthaBlog - Feb. 2, 2007.

    The government of Taiwan has announced its renewable energy target: 12% of all energy should come from renewables by 2020. The plan is expected to revitalise Taiwan's agricultural sector and to boost its nascent biomass industry. China Post - Feb. 2, 2007.

    Production at Cantarell, the world's second biggest oil field, declined by 500,000 barrels or 25% last year. This virtual collapse is unfolding much faster than projections from Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos. Wall Street Journal - Jan. 30, 2007.

    Dubai-based and AIM listed Teejori Ltd. has entered into an agreement to invest €6 million to acquire a 16.7% interest in Bekon, which developed two proprietary technologies enabling dry-fermentation of biomass. Both technologies allow it to design, establish and operate biogas plants in a highly efficient way. Dry-Fermentation offers significant advantages to the existing widely used wet fermentation process of converting biomass to biogas. Ame Info - Jan. 22, 2007.

    Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited is to build a biofuel production plant in the tribal belt of Banswara, Rajasthan, India. The petroleum company has acquired 20,000 hectares of low value land in the district, which it plans to commit to growing jatropha and other biofuel crops. The company's chairman said HPCL was also looking for similar wasteland in the state of Chhattisgarh. Zee News - Jan. 15, 2007.

    The Zimbabwean national police begins planting jatropha for a pilot project that must result in a daily production of 1000 liters of biodiesel. The Herald (Harare), Via AllAfrica - Jan. 12, 2007.

    In order to meet its Kyoto obligations and to cut dependence on oil, Japan has started importing biofuels from Brazil and elsewhere. And even though the country has limited local bioenergy potential, its Agriculture Ministry will begin a search for natural resources, including farm products and their residues, that can be used to make biofuels in Japan. To this end, studies will be conducted at 900 locations nationwide over a three-year period. The Japan Times - Jan. 12, 2007.

    Chrysler's chief economist Van Jolissaint has launched an arrogant attack on "quasi-hysterical Europeans" and their attitudes to global warming, calling the Stern Review 'dubious'. The remarks illustrate the yawning gap between opinions on climate change among Europeans and Americans, but they also strengthen the view that announcements by US car makers and legislators about the development of green vehicles are nothing more than window dressing. Today, the EU announced its comprehensive energy policy for the 21st century, with climate change at the center of it. BBC News - Jan. 10, 2007.

    The new Canadian government is investing $840,000 into BioMatera Inc. a biotech company that develops industrial biopolymers (such as PHA) that have wide-scale applications in the plastics, farmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Plant-based biopolymers such as PHA are biodegradable and renewable. Government of Canada - Jan. 9, 2007.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Indonesia's biofuels strategy, a balancing act

Indonesia's push for biofuels illustrates some of the contradictions between economic growth and 'sustainable development'. The country aims to set aside 5 million hectares of land for biofuel production, which is expected to bring 3 to 4 million badly needed jobs to the rural poor.

The BBC offers an example of how biofuel production in Indonesia contributes to poverty alleviation, in a very straightforward way:
Life is a lot sweeter for Mangat Nuan these days. "This used to be my land," he said, waving an arm at the rows of oil palms. "But I rented it to a plantation company a little while ago. It was a good price - all the landowners round here did the same."

Mangat's plot in central Kalimantan now forms part of a new oil palm plantation, which covers 15,000 hectares of land, some of it former forest, according to a local NGO. The arrival of the plantation may have changed the landscape, but Mangat says it has also changed the lives of the people who live here.

"Life before was difficult," he said. "I couldn't even feed my family, not to mention send my kids to school. After the plantation took over, more people came and suddenly we had roads and schools. We've also opened a small shop, so it's improved our income significantly."
Clearly, the biofuels opportunity is enormous: it can bring rural development, poverty alleviation, and reduce the stark social inequalities which are so typical for the country. As Alhilal Hamdi, head of Indonesia's new Biofuels Development Board, says, global demand for alternative fuels is growing rapidly, and now is the time for his country to tap into it. This is of course entirely legitimate: developing countries have the obvious right to pursue economic growth and prosperity, without being dictated by the West how to develop.

Rich countries often focus one-sidedly on the environmental consequences of this growth - an equally legitimate exercise, albeit a less straightforward one. After all, it is precisely the West which has benefitted from destroying its own environment long ago in its push for industrialisation and modernisation. What's more, it not only destroyed its own environment, it colonized three quarters of the planet's people, to destroy theirs and to profit from their natural resources. This past should not be forgotten; its traces continue to fuel the debate on global economic justice. Europeans' and Americans' wealth is largely based on the very unsustainable development paradigm they now want others to abandon.

But ironically, this simplistic, progressivist ideology of 'economic growth' has become so pervasive and universal, that developing countries are now using it in its most basic form to negotiate with the powerful on matters regarding the environment.

Rachmat Witoelar, Indonesia's Environment Minister, shows how this simple but hard logic works when he repeated a proposal put forward by developing countries to halt deforestation. Speaking to Reuters, he distributed responsibilities in the most appropriate and pragmatic way: if rich countries want developing nations to preserve their forests, they should not talk about it, they should pay for it. This crude but effective discursive position means that it is up to the North to decide whether rainforests in the tropics are worth protecting. This strategy - called 'compensated reduction' (earlier post) - is based on economic realism, not on environmentalist idealism. Witoelar:
"Preserving our forests means we can't exploit them for our economic benefits. We can't build roads or mines [or grow oil palms]. But we make an important contribution to the world by providing oxygen. Therefore countries like Indonesia and Brazil should be compensated by developed countries for preserving their resources."
The proposal will be tabled at a U.N. conference on climate change to be held in the Indonesian resort island of Bali in December. But Witoelar added that "any change must benefit developing countries. This will be a discussion with developing countries and rich countries having divergent interests."

Philosophical or theoretical discussions about the fact that there doesn't necessarily have to be a conflict between economic development (in the South) and sustainability (as desired by the West) will not change the terms of this rather simple debate. What's more, such calls for unnecessary nuance often camouflage a lack of courage to recognize the stark realities of poverty in the developing world, resulting from a particular economic world order, and its effect on the use of natural resources. :
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If poor farmers like Mangat Nuan can increase their incomes substantially by razing down a plot of forest and by planting oil palms, or by leasing their land to biofuel companies who offer high prices today and who sell fuels to the West, then they will do so. It is that simple. And who are we to blame them? We buy their products every single day, we exploited their natural resources in the past, and we introduced an unsustainable ideology of modernity into their society which they fully embrace - in a more honest and less hypocritical way perhaps than we do. If we don't like what they're doing, we should compensate these farmers.

The words of Joan Martinez-Allier, environmental economist and author of The Environmentalism of the Poor, come to mind here. When complex development issues are reduced to their bare essence, one must conclude that:
"we obviously can't be against economic growth if it brings prosperity to the poor. From which authority do wealthy countries think to derive the right to dictate the poor how to use their natural resources, how much CO2 they can emit, what to do with their forests, which land-use patterns they should promote or even whether they should be allowed to use nuclear energy? [...]

It is the wealthy countries who should ask themselves some hard questions, not the poor countries. The industrialised world must ask whether it needs to consume more energy and more natural resources. The wealthy countries must ask themselves whether they haven't achieved enough growth. Not the poor countries. If there is any group of people on this planet entitled to use the model of 'economic growth' for its development, then it is the poor in the developing world. Perhaps it is the only group." [Translated from a Dutch interview, see reference below.]
NGOs, environmentalists and conservationists from the West play an important role in pointing a finger at the environmental destruction that goes with development in the South. But they should go beyond their at times gratuituous campaigns ('stop killing orang utans') and seriously ask whether their approach doesn't reflect a subconscious neocolonialist, patronizing attitude. They could for example focus on how they can reduce their own societies' environmental footprints first, before denying some of the poorest in this world the opportunity to prosper. If we want to achieve the ultimate goal we're all aiming for - the preservation of unique ecosystems and the creation of a more sustainable and just economic model - we should be more frank and let the harsh economic realities faced by the poor in the South dominate our agenda.

At the Biopact, we consciously put the evident right to economic, social and political self-determination of people from the South first, and the universalist concerns of the wealthy West about the global environment last (even if the developing countries in question are promoting an economic model we have come to abhor). We understand that such a binary opposition is too simplistic, but we utilize it for purely 'pedagogic' and discursive reasons. A dose of antagonism can work wonders in a debate that is often dominated by one party.

Contrary to what it claims to be, 'global' and 'universal' environmentalism is still too often an ethnocentric affair, working directly against the immediate interests of the developing world. This is why we systematically try to 'spectralise' the one-sided view of many an environmentalist from the West by bringing the sharp realities of poverty in the South into view.

More information:

BBCNews: Indonesia's push for biofuels - Feb. 1, 2007.

Jonathan Krieckhaus, Dictating Development: How Europe Shaped the Global Periphery, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.

AlertNet (Reuters): INTERVIEW-Indonesia wants countries paid to keep forests - Jan. 30, 2007.

Joan Martinez-Allier, De planeet groeit niet mee met de economie, [*Dutch], MO Magazine, February 2007 issue.


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