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December 07, 2011

The messy link between agrofuels, land grabs and hunger

by Kanya D'Almeida

Part 1

While the United Nations climate talks in Durban continue their political feet-dragging, researchers and peasants around the world are busy connecting the dots between so- called "green climate solutions," industrialised agriculture and chronic hunger.

New research released by the U.S.-based Oakland Institute (OI) reveals the nexus between "false" fuel alternatives such as the development of agrofuels and agroforests and the massive land grab underway in Africa that is stripping thousands of peasants of their land and means of subsistence.

The research cites the hypocrisy of major industrialised actors like the U.S. and the European Union, as well the World Bank Group (WBG) and other development agencies for pouring money into assisting victims of famine and natural disasters, all the while making massive investments in schemes that heat the earth and stifle local development.

Industrialised agricultural practices currently produce 13.5 percent of all green house gas emissions, mostly methane and nitrous oxide. The latter is emitted in huge doses through the spraying of fertiliser, which is used 800 times more frequently today than it was 100 years ago.

The production of fertilisers themselves requires the burning up of fossil fuels, emitting up to 41 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

On top of this, heavy farm machinery spits about 158 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, while the water needed for industrial-style irrigation is pumped using fossil fuels that release another 369 million tonnes of C02 into the atmosphere.

And yet, powerful governments like the U.S. and various players from the eurozone, together with the WBG, continue to advocate for the proliferation of agrofuels, which employ the same dirty, large-scale farming techniques described above, as a "green solution" to the climate crisis.

In fact, the production of mono crop agrofuels guzzle thousands of gallons of freshwater, are processed into biodiesels – the very products that have overheated the planet to begin with – and create long, oil-thirsty transport chains to carry the product. The OI report estimates that the "conversion of rainforests and native grasslands into fields to produce agrofuel crops will release between 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that would be reduced following the replacement of fossil fuels with agrofuels. The increase in agrofuel use may release between 44 and 73 million additional tons of CO2 equivalent per year."

The U.S. alone has vowed to increase its use of agrofuels by 30 percent in the coming years.

According to OI's research, five million hectares of land throughout sub-Saharan Africa are currently under cultivation for agrofuel crops like palm trees and eucalyptus, in a multibillion dollar scheme that profits major transnational corporations and their government allies.

The Chinese government now owns eight million hectares of land in the Democratic Republic of Congo for palm oil production, while Crest Global Green, a British bioenergy giant, holds deeds to 900,000 hectares combined in Mali, Guinea, and Senegal.

"We were also shocked to find, during our research, several Scandinavian churches making land investments in countries like Mozambique, in schemes that involved thousands of hectares of illegally acquired land," Frederic Mousseau, the policy director of OI, told IPS.

"We have come to expect this from hedge funds, but not from churches," he added.

"The emergence of carbon trading and carbon markets has also been a major factor in the land grab, with carbon credits being touted as a green solution to the problem of carbon emissions," Mousseau added.

In fact, "the trade in carbon credits involves corporations and governments buying and selling credits in one part of the world in order to continue polluting domestically. Carbon trading not only assigns rights to developed countries and corporations to pollute, but also represents what some are calling "global climate malgovernance"," according to the report.

"Since this is a relatively new phenomenon, we have not yet seen all possible manifestations of the problem," Moussa told IPS. "All we know for sure are the immediate negative consequences of this practice such as investors planting non-native crops which destroy the local environment, replacing rich grasslands with mono crops and denying indigenous groups their rights to land and their traditional practices that respect biodiversity."

David Deng, research director of the South Sudan Law Society, told IPS, "In South Sudan, government officials rarely know what biofuels are, much less carbon credits. As a result, they are often willing to give away these rights for free."

"For the time being, the uncertainty of the transitional context has prevented companies from beginning operations but if these "green" deals (carbon credits and agrofuel projects) in the newly established South Sudan move forward, we will see a massive transfer of wealth from landowning communities in South Sudan to transnational companies in the global North," he added.

Meanwhile Green Resources Ltd, a Norwegian timber company, has embarked on a plan to replace nearly 7,000 hectares of natural Tanzanian grasslands with monocultures of pine and eucalyptus, destroying the local biodiversity, displacing smallholders and burying jobs.

The loss of local employment has been a particularly thorny issue in Sierra Leone, where investments by the Socfin Agricultural Company in the Pujenhun district have marginalized workers in the area.

"Older people who have lost their land are not employed and women have to leave their homes as early as 4:30am to queue for daily wage jobs, which they seldom get," Joseph Rahall, the director of Green Scenery in Sierra Leone, told IPS.

"Vast tracks of land are now being cleared to make way for oil palm monocultures, which cannot be compared to a biodiverse flora. Families from the upland farms used to grow multiple crops capable of absorbing the shocks of food scarcity but many of these families have stopped planting for fear that multinationals will occupy their land," he said.

"Community members who were peacefully protesting the illegal occupation of their land were arrested and are now facing trials in court. The Northern countries' preference for biofuels has deprived countries like ours of basic human security," he added.


Part 2

The forests in Africa absorb over 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon annually. With these diverse and natural forests, grasslands and prairie lands disappearing under investment schemes and the development of monoculture plantations for supposed "green" energy alternatives like agrofuels, not much else remains to absorb the shocks of hunger and climate change.

"Whether they are for energy or for exports on global markets, monocropping schemes are really testing the limits of the ecosystems," Olivier De Schutter, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on the right to food, told IPS. "They are thirsty in water, fail to regenerate the soils and often result in an overuse of pesticides because the natural defences of nature (thanks to the diversity of plants) are missing."

"Raising food production 70 percent by 2050 is a figure habitually wheeled out," he added.

"Fertiliser and pesticide-driven yield increases, coupled with the ploughing up of rainforests and other remaining carbon sinks, could just about squeeze the extra tonnage of food out of the earth before the self-sustaining capacities of ecosystems are fully saturated."

Any approach of this nature is a race against time that will eventually be lost, and through which we will only accelerate the onset of climate change and its potential to devastate harvests," he said.

In a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council back in 2010, De Schutter presented comprehensive data on the need for agroecology: traditional practices that enhance soil productivity and use beneficial trees, plants, animals and insects to ward off pests rather than relying on fertiliser.

"To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80 percent in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116 percent for all African projects," De Schutter said. "Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop yields over a period of three to 10 years."

"The tragedy of rushing headlong into a second 'green revolution', where industrial solutions are sought on a global scale, is that other solutions are literally right within our grasp," he told IPS.

Very little capital would be required to promote agroecological practices, but the land grab in Africa, fueled by the rush for carbon reducing alternatives, has been coupled with blanket tax holidays for the multinationals buying up the continents' land, effectively robbing many impoverished states of desperately needed domestic revenues that could be invested in local development schemes, critics say.

For example, the U.S.-based Oakland Institute found that the government of Mozambique is offering generous fiscal incentives to a firm called EmVest Asset Management, which is on the verge of swallowing 2,000 hectares of the country's land for crop and livestock production.

The company's exemption from income tax obligations between 2010 and 2015 represents a loss of public revenue amounting to a million dollars.

In a similar project, the company AgriSol negotiated tax breaks with the government of Tanzania for income earned on a 325,000 hectare plot, for which the agro-giant will likely net an annual profit of 275 million dollars. This sum surpasses the Tanzanian ministry of agriculture's total yearly budget.

A report by the East African NGO Uwazi estimates that "2009/10 tax exemptions in Tanzania amounted to 425 million dollars. That money could have financed 40 percent more resources for education or 72 percent more resources for health between 2009-2010."

Henry Saragih, the general coordinator of the international peasants' network La Via Campesina, which represents 200 million peasants and farmers worldwide, told IPS, "If we look back to the past, we see that one of the primary objectives of colonisation was to find and absorb from the colony all the resources needed by the coloniser. Oil, gas and mining came later. It was first land and food that was stolen."

"Not just in Africa, but also in Indonesia, Malaysia, Honduras and numerous other countries the peasantry and indigenous and local communities are fighting to take back their land and territory," he added.

Comparing the cost of land in Africa with its developed counterparts paints a picture of colonial acquisition. While the U.S. leases its land for 16,000 dollars per hectare for just one year, Ethiopia leased 10,000 hectares of land to the Saudi Star for free over a 60- year period, while Mali leased 100,000 hectares for free over a similar time period.

"Our research found that actors like the World Bank Group (WBG) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) not only push governments to privatise land but also work to change local legal systems of land tenure," Frederic Mousseau, the policy director of the Oakland Institute, told IPS.

In numerous African countries, WBG officials work closely with national governments to quietly overturn the few flimsy laws that peasants and farmers had hitherto held as the only protection of their basic land rights.

Back in 2007, Susan Hume, the country manager for Mozambique, urged the government to reconsider its property rights, speed up VAT refunds for private firms and adopt a "guillotine" on land licenses, adding, "The World Bank would be pleased to assist the government in this process, through Technical Assistance and with help from the Foreign Investment Advisory Service."

"By publishing this research on the relationship between the land grab, climate change, energy policies and investment practices, we're trying to break the "silo" approach to development that looks at each issue independently of the other," Mousseau told IPS.

"We feel it's important to challenge the development paradigm that is 'marketing' and privatising land and we hope this research promotes the return to communally owned land," he said.

Activists echoing these sentiments have teamed up with grassroots networks and coalitions in Durban to draw together these ideas under the banner of ecosocialism, a nascent global movement that is agitating for economic transformation with earth rights as a central guiding principle.

Joel Kovel, co-founder of the U.S.-based Ecosocialist Horizons, told a convergence of hundreds of peasants and farm workers in Durban last week that capitalism began with the enclosure of the commons.

"Examples like the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S. is people's attempt to reclaim these commons and reassert control over the means of production," Kovel told IPS. "Capitalism cannot be reformed, nor can it be voted out of power. It can only be defeated by the creation and proliferation of autonomous zones of eco- socialist transformation and production, which have earth rights at their centre."

"This is what we need to build now. This is what we're building in the U.S. and South Africa, while the U.N. gambles away our collective future," he added.

"People on the streets of South Africa are calling the U.N. talks 'genocidal'," Quincy Saul, author of "Reflections of Crisis: The Great Depression in the 21st Century", told IPS.

Quoting Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Saul added, "By delaying a binding agreement on global warming to 2020, the U.N. is effectively condemning 100 million Africans to death by the end of the century."

"To the majority of people on this continent, the U.N. is no different from Wall Street: it is the one percent," he said.


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