Friday, October 9, 2009

Headline Grabbers and Land Grabbers

It's been a couple of years now since Bob Geldof made his injudicious pronouncements about biofuels. He should have known better and given the matter some thought. A little research wouldn't have done any harm either. Scepticism about biofuels didn't just appear recently. The environmentalist George Monbiot argued very cogently against biofuels nearly five years ago and has written many more articles on the subject since then.

But now the issue of land grabbing is being discussed more frequently and the part that biofuel production plays in land grabbing is clearly significant. Many of the claims about biofuel crops, such as jatropha, being productive even in marginal lands, turns out to be lies. Biofuel crops can be either non-food crops or food crops that are just not being used for human consumption but they all need good land and good growing conditions. So in the Tana River basin in the East of Kenya, sugar is being grown on an industrial scale in an area of great ecological importance while millions in the country starve. There is even a shortage of sugar in some areas!

Food prices have been rising for some time but producers of biofuels refuse to accept any responsibility for this trend. Good land is also in short supply here and in other developing countries. And many areas are facing drought, so growing crops that are subsequently used for biofuel production means the country is effectively exporting much of its scarce water supplies as well. It's not even as if poor Kenyans are benefiting from this, either. Many small farmers are displaced by the biofuel growers, who are all large-scale operators or connected with large-scale operators. They use factory scale production methods that require very few employees. People who formerly owned or farmed the grabbed land have either been bought off for a pittance or squeezed out some other way.

Governments of developing countries usually connive with the various multinationals and rich countries who are looking for cheap land. They are of little help when it comes to protecting ecologically important areas from being destroyed. And they seem happy to allow overuse of destructive artificial fertilizers as long as that gives big landowners and users increased crops, at least temporarily.

This land is also being destroyed because biodiversity is wiped out by large scale production. In the near future this land will simply be useless. If biofuels don't take off, the areas will probably be abandoned, as some operations already have been. And even when these multinationals and other parties use the huge tracts of land they 'purchase' for food production, it is produced for export, with bugger all in taxes or wages or anything else going to the developing countries. It's hard to estimate the numbers of people who have been displaced, dispossessed and otherwise abused by land grabbing, biofuel production and food production that is exclusively produced for export to rich countries.

Most farmers in developing countries are small farmers. They have never made a decent living from contributing small amounts of cash crops to big operators, and they never will. They need to concentrate on producing food for themselves, their families and the local market. People such as Geldof, with little or no knowledge of the conditions under which people in developing countries live, should do some research. The man has tens of millions of dollars, he could even afford to pay someone to do the research for him. I hope in the future he will admit his mistake and campaign against land grabbing in all its forms and especially against biofuel production.

Geldof and other 'philanthropists' may well boast about all the money they have raised for the developing world but they seem to have little idea of how much is being extracted from these countries. The money they claim to raise is puny compared to the amounts of money being extracted by food companies, biofuel producers, mining operations, pharmaceutical companies, healthcare companies, textile companies, sweat shops (or whatever they are now called) and just about any multinational you can name.

Instead of ranting on about things they don't understand, these people could try concentrating on some of the areas where vast amounts of wealth are stolen from developing countries by multinationals, rich governments and even some of the very people who think of themselves as philanthropists. It's time for some development by omission: development through reducing the exploitation of developing countries by the rich.


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