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Biofuels land grab a 'recipe for mass hunger'

A few months ago, representatives of nine villages in Madagascar held a press conference in the city of Antananarivo to denounce the Italian company Tozzi Renewable Energy for taking away their lands as part of a 100,000 hectare jatropha plantation that the company is building.

"We small peasants are forced to leave because men armed with guns have come to throw us off our lands," they told reporters. In Sierra Leona, Zainab Kamara is one of several thousand farmers in whose lands have been taken over by the Swiss company Addax Bioenergy for a 10,000 hectare sugar cane plantation to produce ethanol.

"Now I don’t have a farm. Starvation is killing people. We have to buy rice to survive because we don't grow our own now," she says. This one sugar cane project will use 26% of Sierra Leone’s largest river flow during the driest months, February to April. In neighbouring Guinea, the government has sold 700,000 hectares to another European firm to grow jatropha. It’s a story repeated in South America, especially in Brazil.

These are just some examples of the havoc wreaked by an unprecedented land grab with the purpose of producing biofuels from raw materials. Europe is one of the centres of this monstrous trade, with purpose-built facilities in the port of Rotterdam part of a frenzy that resembles the ruthless colonialism of the 19th century.

Neste Oil, the state-owned Finnish oil company, has a renewable diesel plant in Rotterdam that will churn out over 900 million litres a year, using palm oil for at least 50% of its raw materials. The firm owns the world’s largest plant in Singapore, which also converts palm oil to diesel for export to Europe.

Next door to Neste Oil's Rotterdam operation is a massive ethanol plant owned by the Spanish energy company Abengoa. Swiss-based Glencore, Europe's second largest agricultural commodities trading house, owns two biodiesel plants in Rotterdam, with a combined capacity of 740 million litres per year.

According to a new report from GRAIN, Europe's biofuel companies are increasingly looking for full control over production, right down to the crops. “Shell and BP, for instance, have spent hundreds of millions of euros buying up sugar cane plantations and mills in Brazil to produce ethanol. French commodities giant Louis Dreyfus is also buying up farmland and sugar plantations in South America to feed its ethanol and biodiesel plants.”
European companies are responsible for a third of all the biofuel land grabs that have been reported since 2002, with over 290 seizures totalling 19 million hectares. The forecast is that the global demand for biofuels will more than double by 2020. The additional land required is equivalent to about 80% of the total land mass of Spain.

GRAIN acknowledges that campaigns, negotiations and criticism of the European Union-driven biofuels mania have had little effect. Recent changes to its policy of encouraging biofuels are minimal. “The EU has made only symbolic gestures to add a green veneer to the brutal global land grab that has resulted,” the sustainable farming campaign says.

Of the three major markets for biofuels – the US and Brazil are the others – the EU is the only one that relies heavily on imports, both for feedstock (the crops used for biofuel production) and for food to replace European crops diverted to biofuel production. Biofuels eat up over a third of coarse grain production in the US, the world’s largest exporter.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) calls biofuels “the largest source of new demand for agricultural production in the past decade” and says that they represent a new “market fundamental” affecting prices for all cereals. In plain language, the market says that biofuels is more profitable than food, while the prices of basic necessities soar.

Add in the growing impact of climate change and the separate land grab by sovereign wealth funds to produce food in poor countries for export, you have what GRAIN calls “a recipe for mass hunger”. As the campaign points out: “These communities and the food systems they sustain are not renewable.”

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

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Dylan says:

Great piece, thanks.

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