Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Biofuels: Stealing Land to Steal Food and Water from Africa

Western countries wring their hands and rush for their mobile phones to pledge money to whatever catastrophe happens to be fashionable enough to attract the attentions of some brainless celebrity. But they are not so interested when it's a matter of stopping their country from causing the next catastrophe.

Eight million Kenyans (out of a total of about 40 million) are currently short of food. They are not short of food because there isn't enough of it. They just can't afford the food that is produced in their own country. Europeans can afford to buy agricultural products that are grown in Kenya, even though they produce so much in Europe they have to dump a lot of it, sometimes in Kenya.

A number of factors have driven up the cost of basic foods in recent years. Food has been treated as a commodity that can be played with by speculators. Costs of agricultural inputs have become more and more under the control of a few multinationals. And rich countries have been buying up land in developing countries for a song so that biofuel crops destined for these rich countries can be grown there.

Despite what the landgrabbers say, they are not paying fair compensation for the land, the land is not marginal (if it was it would be of no use to them), the land is not unoccupied, nor virtually so, and large numbers of people are not being employed in producing biofuels. Nor is there any environmental payoff. In fact, environmental destruction on a massive scale is often required before these vast tracts of land can be used to produce biofuels, causing even more environmental damage.

According to an article in the English Guardian, British firms have been grabbing more land than any other country. This contrasts with their recent boasts about how they have increased aid spending and even improved the quality of foreign aid. Aid spending is a piffling amount compared to what can be extracted through biofuel and other forms of exploitation.

In addition to competing for land and water, and thus increasing the price of food, the type of farming involved is totally disempowering to local communities. Where once many families subsisted, now none do. Where once whole communities were employed, now a mere handful are. Instead of relatively harmless practices that allowed a healthy ecosystem to remain, biofuel production will destroy everything in its path, irreversibly.

It would be useful to contrast these disadvantages with some advantages, but there are none for the poor farmer. Whatever advantages there are accrue to the landgrabber alone. They are coming up with fancy brochures to impress investors but this is just the usual rose tinted excrescence that goes with foreign exploitation of all African resources, gold, uranium and other minerals, sugar, coffee, cocoa, anything that can be produced cheaply without those profiting having to leave much behind in the form of tax, royalties, skills, assets or even investment.

The last thing African countries need is to lose their rights to their land and water, given that these are among the means of production for food, to feed themselves and to export. Coupled with the current threat of genetically modified organisms (GMO) being imposed on the continent, rates of poverty, dispossession, endemic disease and starvation are only going to increase.

Not content with making our fat asses fatter, we're proposing burning the potential for growing food in our cars, at the expense of people who are dying for lack of food and water. So we needn't see ourselves as being so generous whenever another disaster hits the news, considering we're happy to allow even greater disasters to occur just so we can fulfil our consumerist dreams. There is enough food, but not if we use it all up on power games and car fuel.


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