Agrofuels: Big Profits, Ruined Lives and Ecological Destruction (Transnational Institute)

François Houtart, born in 1925, is a Belgian sociologist. He’s also been a catholic priest for sixty years. His orientation can be seen in the NGO he founded in 1976, CETRI, which aims to promote dialogue with third world social movements and to encourage resistance and action. He’s one of the most active members of the World Social Forum. The concerns these organisations represent are reflected in his book first published in French last year, now translated into English: Agrofuels: Big Profits, Ruined Lives and Ecological Destruction.

Houtart is far from unaware of the climate crisis, which he describes in fully adequate terms. He is also aware that the question of energy is not only central to the climate crisis but also faces the exhaustion of its nonrenewable sources within the century. But he argues clearly and strongly that agrofuels (biofuels) as at present produced are no solution to either the climate crisis or the energy crisis and are taking a terrible toll on the lives of those dispossessed by their advance in countries of the South.

Before examining the realities of rapid agrofuel development Houtart places it in the context of the neoliberal discourse on climate change.  Neoliberals began by denying or playing down climate change. Scepticism and political manoeuvring marked this stage, with attempts to delegitimize the scientific approach. However a second phase began to develop as the extent of the climate crisis became evident. Market-oriented solutions can be found. Optimism pervades this approach. The appropriate technological solutions can be employed and capital accumulation can continue. But in relation to agrofuels Houtart says hold on: new externalities have emerged and not been accounted for in the reckoning of profit from agrofuels.

His attention is largely on the so-called first generation agrofuels — ethanol from alcohol-producing plants and bio-diesel from plants yielding oil. He acknowledges the potential advantages of second generation agrofuels in that they don’t use food crops, require fewer fossil inputs, and aim at using the whole plant.

His survey of Brazil’s production of ethanol from sugar cane considers the ecological and social effects of its production and the type of economic model by which it is developed. Although sugar cane does not directly encroach on forest land, which doesn’t suit its growth, it displaces pastureland and soya cultivation, pushing them towards forested regions. Another displacement, that of population, is a consequence of the massive monoculture which requires land concentration. Big companies and foreign investment are required for the scale of the operation, which is clearly orientated towards exportation. The social consequences include a considerable elimination of labour, particularly that of peasants. For those who take employment in the sugar cane plantations the work is so hard and the pay so low as to be akin to a new form of slavery.

Palm oil plantations in Asia, mainly Malaysia and Indonesia, displace vast forests of trees containing carbon.  The driest areas are used first, but when plantations move to the marshy land of forests growing on peat bog the soil must be dried after the forests are cut, in the process releasing more carbon than that contained in the trees. Local populations suffer illegal misappropriations, unjustified debt, and harsh employment conditions.  In Latin America Colombia has a massive lead in the palm oil sector. The author includes at this point in his book a wrenching personal narrative of his own visit to Colombia, recounting brutal displacements of local peasants and massacres by the paramilitary. “It is difficult not to feel rage when you see such things.” He briefly participates in a protest operation to destroy palm trees, “the work of death” as one of the peasants describes them.

The author has kinder words for jatropha, though not when farmed as a large-scale monoculture. In many of its present forms of production it is aimed at satisfying local needs and has the merit of respecting biodiversity.

Ecological and social externalities are being ignored in the development of agrofuel monocultures. The model under which large-scale agrofuel production is presently pursued focuses on economic efficiency which means concentration of land ownership, heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides, exploitation of cheap labour, large companies capable of transcending national frontiers, and quick return of profit. The results include forced peasant migration (with 60 million estimated to be at risk of expulsion from their land to make way for agrofuel crops), the destruction of biodiversity and carbon sinks, water pollution, soil contamination, and other disastrous consequences which arise because the productive operations have excluded them as costs. “But one day, we are all going to suffer from the effects, including financiers.”

It’s not as if agrofuels produced in this way are a solution to the climate problem.  Nor can they be more than a marginal alleviation of the need for new forms of energy. They use a development model which owes its legitimacy to its own success.  Houtart sees this as the logic of capitalism which continues to consider as externalities everything that does not enter directly into the calculation of exchange value.

He proposes five conditions for accepting the production of agrofuels: respecting biodiversity; avoiding encroachment on forests, especially primary forests; respecting soils and underground water; promoting peasant agriculture; combating the monopoly of the multinationals. If these conditions were met, he considers the production of agrofuels would be automatically towards the needs of the local populations, which is a rejection of the capital logic of exchange value in favour of use value.

His final chapter takes a brief look at the various alternative ways of solving the climate and energy crises and proposes four principles for an alternative development model to that offered by the engagement of big business in agrofuel production: sustainable use of natural resources; priority given to use value rather than exchange value; a generalized democracy; multiculturalism and interculturalism. A society which respects those principles can readily engage with energy economy and new sources of energy that respect nature and social relations.

Houtart is obviously no friend to global capitalism in at least some of its modes.  But his case against the agrofuel developments, laid out with painstaking detail, is hardly ideological. The ecological consequences in the various locations are carefully described.  The human consequences in the places where the crops are grown are for the most part dispassionately explained, save for the one brief first-hand Colombian account he allows himself. One doesn’t need to have a particular view of neoliberal capitalism to see that these consequences are bad. The extensive agrofuel industry Houtart focuses on looks like a blind alley so far as climate change mitigation is concerned, looks positively inhumane in the exploitation of labour and the dispossession of peasants, and fails badly in its ecological effects.  Capital may be an important ingredient in the fight against climate change, but not along this path.

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