Monday, June 04, 2007

Biofuels: a danger for Latin America

Renewable fuels, in particular Biofuels, energy sources derived from agricultural crops have suddenly won the support from the United States. This is partly due to George Bush's recent 5-nation tour of Latin America to wedge out unity and push through ethanol accords. Development funds and corporations hope that Latin America, especially refining sugarcane into fuel in Brazil and soybeans in Argentina, can spur the US's booming biofuel industry demands. Corporate experts and financiers held the First Biofuels Congress of the Americas in Buenos Aires this month to promote biofuel production in the region. Former US Vice President Al Gore addressed investors, NGO's and soy producers at the congress to spearhead renewable fuel production in Argentina.

Northern hunger for "bio" fuels

Inexpensive land, cheap labor and plentiful bumper crops of soybeans make Argentina a prime target for the production of ethanol and bio diesel. Argentina is already offering tax-incentives to step up investments for the biofuels market which is expected to triple by 2015. The South American nation wants 5 percent of its fuel supply be biodiesel or ethanol-based in three years. The government has eagerly pushed through pro-biofuel policy but has ignored worries over food supply, the environmental effects of mono-agricultural production and the social side-effects of biofuel production on the rural population.

Argentina's vice-president Daniel Scioli welcomed international financiers to the Biofuels Congress, saying that Argentina is eager to develop biodiesel technology and production. "Argentina is already exporting biodiesel. We are hopeful and are creating favorable conditions to lure investments to this sector. We are developing the necessary infrastructure, improving our highways and ports to transport and store the fruit of our applied intelligence."

"We are completely convinced that alternative biofuels will convert Argentina into a global leader in renewable energy," said Scioli at the Biofuels Congress. Investors and institutions attending the First Biofuels Congress of the Americas paid 500 dollars a head to attend the event, which was closed off to media outlets not allied to biofuels.

A study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that neither ethanol, which is corn derived, nor bio-diesel, which is soy-produced can replace petroleum without having an impact on food supply. However, biofuel proponents brushed off any criticism of the renewable energy industry during the First Biofuels Congress of the Americas.

Juan Carlos Iturregui president of the Foundation for InterAmerican Development said that biofuels can only bring positive results. "Biofuels can propel development. They bring a very important factor which is the ability to compete and develop. This has already been proven, let's not get tied up with supposed theories and false debates. There can be food for everyone. There can be biofuels for everyone."

Soybean plantations bump off small farms

Argentina is the third-largest soybean producer in the world after the United States and Brazil. Top soil erosion and pollution caused from pesticides and fertilizers have been just some of the side effects to soybean plantations which have expanded exponentially at a rate of 10 percent annually.

Many foreign financiers have been eager to invest in the booming biodiesal industry. Dynamotive, a Canadian biofuels developer, will invest up to 120 million in six plants in Argentina that would use lumber- and paper-industry waste to make biofuel. The Spanish-Argentine oil and gas company Repsol YPF has already invested 30 million in dollars in a biofuel refinery in the province of Buenos Aires, expected to produce 100,000 tons a year as of 2007.

According to Oscar Delgado, a farmer from the northern province of Salta, soy production has also led to the violent eviction of small farmers and indigenous from lands cleared for soy bean plantations. "In the northern region of Argentina, in the provinces of Jujuy and Salta, local residents are witnessing a crisis because of the expansion of the mono-crops. Most serious is the expansion of trans genetic soy in Salta that has produced the eviction of small farmers and indigenous from lands. The local government in Salta supports these evictions; the government is supporting these new businessmen coming to the province."

Shortly after Al Gore's visit to Buenos Aires, seven small-scale farmers were arrested for resisting eviction from lands in the Northern province of Santiago del Estero. The farmers form part of MOCASE, a provincial grassroots movement of campesinos that promotes sustainable agriculture to build community. Their land will be cleared for soy production. The Santiago del Estero provincial government, which ordered the arrests, co-sponsored the First Biofuels Congress of the Americas, which paid Gore 170,000 dollars to give a 40 minute presentation derived from his award-winning film The Inconvenient Truth.

Goodbye food sovereignty

Local environmental groups and farmers held a parallel event to shed light on the dangers of biofuels, especially the effects on food production and prices. They also held a protest outside of the hotel where the Biofuels Congress of the Americas was held.

With surgery masks and megaphones on hand, they chanted "Food sovereignty, Yes! Biofuels, No!" Soledad Ogoliano, from the assembly for food sovereignty said that multi-nationals like Monsanto and Repsol YPF, a Spanish-Argentine petroleum company, speculate large profits while putting Argentina's food production at risk. "The immediate effect of this kind of production is the massive disforestation like we are seeing now in the forests in Chaco, the Amazon, and other areas that are large sources of biodiversity that are destroyed for mono crops, only one agricultural crop, generally transgenetic like soy." She added "We are talking about production that is highly concentrated because it requires large amounts of capital and investments in technology. It is no longer agricultural food production in the hands of local communities, but simply large scale production of commodities."

Food prices have already been affected due to soy and corn production for export. Economists worry that plant-based fuels will cause food prices to soar in Argentina, where food inflation continues to rise over 15% annually. The nation has unsuccessfully imposed export limits on certain foods like milk and beef, where production is plentiful but supply for the domestic market scarce and expensive for consumers.

A drive in food prices will hit the nation hard, with over 30 percent of the population under the poverty line. The policies promoting biofuel exports over domestic food production in developing countries could be an ecological and social recipe for disaster. In addition to Argentina, small farmers in Brazil and Paraguay have been pushed off of lands cleared for soy production at an exponential rate. In Mexico, consumers are fighting a tortilla war, a battle over increased prices in tortillas partly due to the nation's increase in ethanol production.

Groups will have to fight an uphill battle against corporations that have a tight hold on growing biofuel production in Latin America promising quench the North's thirst for energy at the cost of food sovereignty and biodiversity. Local environmental groups in Argentina will organize a series of protests against the corporations investing in biofuel in the coming months. Subsequent bio-fuel congresses will take place in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil this year.

Marie Trigona is a writer and independent radio producer based in Buenos Aires. She can be reached at

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