Saturday, June 6, 2009

Biofuels: Greed that Knows no Bounds

High fossil fuel prices and the need to reduce carbon emissions has made investment in biofuels seem a lot more tempting than it seemed in the past. But there are a number of problems. Firstly, total carbon emissions from the production and use of biofuels is not necessarily lower than from fossil fuels, and can even be higher. Secondly, few countries in the world have productive land to spare to grow biofuel crops in economically viable quantities.

So what do biofuel investors do? Well, they buy or lease land in developing countries, which solves the land shortage problem. And most of the carbon emissions from biofuel production, as a result, become the problem of the developing country. Developing country governments are desperate for any kind of investment and they encourage such industries with tax breaks and lax regulation. These measures are encouraged by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, of course, because they always support the exploitation of developing countries for the benefit of rich countries.

But do developing countries have ‘spare’ land? Well, countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and many other African countries have a lot of land. But much of it is marginal or unproductive, more still is protected for various reasons and what’s left is nowhere near enough to produce enough food for domestic consumption. Governments of these countries talk about providing enough food, usually by asking the IMF and the World Bank for assistance, but they all still look to external ‘investors’ as if they are going to magically make hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity disappear. But on the contrary, big external investment has usually had the effect of worsening already serious social and economic problems.

In fact, much of the money going into biofuels investment is aid money. People are fond of complaining about aid money being wasted, stolen, misused or whatever but they don’t seem interested in hearing that the largest amounts of aid money go into the pockets of wealthy multinationals. Billions of dollars of aid money go into paying for condoms, drugs, infrastructure projects, defence contracts, consultancy and other goods and services provided by Western companies. That’s the main reason why so much of the aid money that is said to pour into Africa and other developing regions never seems to have much benefit.

These Western countries’ worries about fuel costs and shortages are being dressed up as a concern for the environment and even an ‘opportunity’ for developing countries. But that’s the last thing that we in the West are really worried about. If we were worried about carbon emissions we could reduce consumption, which is the only way to significantly reduce emissions anyway. And if we genuinely wanted to give ‘opportunities’ to developing countries, we would object to the way aid money is used to prop up Western companies. For example, most food aid is spent on expensive food, bought and processed in the West, transported by Western transporters, handled and distributed by Western companies. Aid money like this is being used as de facto subsidy. That’s when it’s not misused in some other way, and more often misused by Western governments than by developing country governments. Developing country governments are no angels but they are often not the major recipients of Western aid money.

It’s odd that one of the places sought for biofuels production is Saadani National Park in Eastern Tanzania. National Parks are protected, supposedly for the benefit of humankind as a whole. However, most Tanzanians will never get much benefit from Saadani. These national parks are more often frequented by tourists and the big businesses, hotels, tour operators, etc, are more often foreign owned than Tanzanian owned. Small numbers of badly paid Tanzanian employees get some benefit from the tourists and that’s better than nothing. But national parks are mainly of direct benefit to wealthier people.

But now the claim is that the production of biofuels is also for the benefit of humankind. But who is going to benefit? The Tanzanians will lose a huge and unique area of scientific interest, the few benefiting from the tourism industry will lose their livelihood and those farming or otherwise living in the area will also be denied their living. The environment will be destroyed, water will be diverted and contaminated, land will be degraded, the coastline will suffer and for what? So that Westerners can continue to overuse fuel and other resources at the expense of people in developing countries. This is not for the benefit of humankind, it is for the benefit of the rich and the relatively rich.

Far from reducing environmental degradation, the production of biofuels will cause environmental catastrophes and mostly in developing countries, the very countries that are already feeling the worst effects of climate change. Are we going to be fooled into thinking that because the carbon emissions are being moved to other countries that we have thereby reached our targets? These rich investors are treating Tanzanians and other people in developing countries as fools, at best; at worst they are treating them as just another commodity. But we in the West seem to be allowing ourselves to be fooled into thinking that we are not doing any harm, even that we are doing some good!

It might be asked if any kind of impact assessment has been carried out and yes, some assessment has been done. It has been done, as usual, by Western consultants who have an interest in being employed again and again. They, to be fair, reported some of the disadvantages as well the advantages of massive biofuels projects. But companies and officials involved will only use the bits of the report that suits them. They will knowingly continue with this work as long as it holds substantial promise for them. For instance, the land that is planned for destruction has timber that may be of greater value than the biofuel crop itself. This sounds like another case of asset stripping, like the various privatisation charades, which were (and still are) also presided over by the folk at the IMF and the World Bank.

Ultimately, millions of people will be directly affected by these biofuel projects and billions will be less directly affected. Impact assessments even accept that many people will lose their jobs and their livelihoods, many animal and plant species will be wiped out, the health of the affected populations will suffer and that the projects will be costly (though costly for whom?), etc. But if some parties can make money out of them they are very likely to go ahead.

A recent article on this subject is followed by a postscript stating that one particular project has been pulled as a result of campaigning. Indeed, several months ago many similar projects were pulled following the global financial crisis. But this doesn’t mean that developing countries will no longer be seen as a potential source of biofuels, food, metals, minerals and other resources. As soon as it becomes economically viable, at least for some parties, you can be sure that these investors will be back.


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