Via Campesina Confronts the Global Agrofuel Industrial Complex

On October 19, 2008, at the opening ceremony of the Fifth International Via Campesina Conference in Maputo, Mozambique, over 600 representatives from more than 50 countries gathered to hear a welcome address by the president of the Republic of Mozambique, Armando Emilio Guebuza. While Guebuza had some encouraging remarks about the future of peasant agriculture, his suggestion that jatropha was a solution for Mozambique’s energy crisis was not well received by many in the audience. Jatropha is one of a whole host of crops, including maize, soya, canola (rapeseed), sugarcane, cassava (manioc), plantain, sunflower, palm, coconut, and castor, among others, now being promoted as feedstock for the global agrofuel industrial complex. Such crops are often genetically engineered, grown in monoculture plantations, and destined for export markets.

As the leading umbrella organization for peasant farmers, fishers, foresters, pastoralists, and indigenous peoples in the world, Via Campesina has been a harsh critic of agrofuels since their inception. In its 2008 report titled “Small Scale Sustainable Farmers Are Cooling Down the Earth,” Via Campesina identifies agrofuels as one of several false solutions to the climate change crisis. To quote the report: “Leaving aside the insanity of producing food to feed cars while so many people are starving, industrial agrofuel production will actually increase global warming instead of reducing it. Agrofuel production will revive colonial plantation systems, bring back slave work and seriously increase the use of agrochemicals, as well as contribute to deforestation and biodiversity destruction.”

Inspired by a similar statement from European counterparts, five U.S.-based groups (Rainforest Action Network, Global Justice Ecology Project, Food First, Grassroots International, Family Farm Defenders, and the Student Trade Justice Campaign) issued a call in 2007 for an immediate moratorium on further U.S. incentives for agrofuel development. Over 50 groups from around the world signed on to this statement in solidarity, including Mozambique’s own National Farmers’ Union (UNAC), host of the Fifth Via Campesina Conference. And just prior to the Via Campesina conference in October 2008 in Mozambique, UNAC met with Justica Ambiental, African Center for Biosafety, Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE), and the Center for Food Safety to reaffirm their opposition to any form of agrofuel development that undermines food production and food sovereignty.

Yet the forces of corporate globalization have apparently already approached Mozambique’s president. Chief among these agrofuel peddlers is the Nairobi-based Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), bankrolled by the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations and chaired by former UN Secretary Kofi Annan. At a June global food crisis conference in Rome, three major UN institutions—the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Food Program (WFP)—all signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations to advance AGRA’s agenda. Over $150 million has already been set aside to push this latest version of the Green Revolution across Africa over the next 5 years.

While some leaders, such as former U.S. President George Bush Sr., have argued that the lifestyle of the North is not negotiable, the current food versus fuel debate dominating media headlines is hard to ignore. According to the FAO, food prices skyrocketed 88 percent worldwide between March 2007 and March 2008, triggering riots in dozens of countries with some demonstrators even being killed in Cameroon, Senegal, and Mozambique. The crisis has been attributed to a vicious convergence of several factors—runaway speculation in commodity markets, weather-related crop failures induced by global warming, and the boom in agrofuels.

Though there is a fuel crisis in Africa, the continent’s own petroleum producers are not even allowed to meet the needs of their own people, as corporations based in the North still control the supply chain and find global markets more lucrative. Many of these same oil giants with a horrific track record of violence and corruption—British Petroleum, Chevron, Total, Royal Dutch Shell—are now primary investors in the agrofuel sector, along with other notorious grain, timber, biotech, and finance corporations (such as ADM, Cargill, Bunge, Dreyfus, Monsanto, Syngenta, Marubenji, Tate & Lyle, Weyerhauser, Tembec, Misui, Mitsubishi, JP Morgan Chase, Societe Generale, and the Carlyle Group, to name a few). Agrofuel industry cheerleaders with deep financial pockets and cozy political ties include former Florida governor Jeb Bush; Brazil’s former minister of agriculture Roberto Rodrigues; and the current president of the Inter-American Development Bank Luis Moreno.

Contrary to their greenwashed image, today’s agrofuel industrial complex has been constructed around the same destructive infrastructure and corporate exploitation of other globalized commodities. The industry is dominated by ethanol derived from sugar cane and maize, and biodiesel from soy, canola (rapeseed), and palm. Yet, biotech giants such as Sygenta and Monsanto are gearing up to introduce new genetically engineered (GE) crops specifically tailored for the agrofuel industry, such as maize with a built-in fermentation enzyme and other crops engineered to have a lower lignin content. Other work is being done on cellulosic ethanol using switchgrass, stover, and fast growing trees as the feedstock, as well as biodiesel derived from GE algae.


A jatropha plantation (above) and a palm plantation displacing village crops (below)


To illustrate the impact of large-scale agrofuel development, one need look no further than the U.S. It currently takes up to 6 gallons of water to produce one gallon of corn-based ethanol, with another 13 gallons of waste water. If plans proceed to build more ethanol plants in the Midwest, the Environmental Defense Fund estimates the endangered Oglalla Aquifer could be drained of an additional 2.6 billion gallons per year simply to irrigate and process these agrofuels. Nearby residents report massive groundwater contamination and airborne pollution from the existing facilities, including clouds of biotech crop dust that harm workers and other “non-target species.” Even the distillers’ waste, a leftover from ethanol production long touted in the U.S. as a feed supplement for livestock in factory farms, is now being found to be unhealthy for animals. Many of the farmers who invested their life savings to pioneer ethanol cooperatives in the U.S. in the early 1990s have since gone bankrupt or been muscled out of the market by agribusiness. There are about 130 ethanol plants operating in the U.S. In 2003 over half were farmer controlled, today 90 percent are in corporate hands.

This consolidation of the agrofuel industry has been encouraged by massive taxpayer subsidies. In Canada, where legislation recently passed requiring a 5 percent ethanol content in fuel by 2010, agrofuel boosters now expect to receive $2.2 billion in subsidies. Over 10 nations in the European Union also provide various forms of agrofuel incentives, which translated into a whopping 60 percent of the EU’s entire canola crop going into biodiesel in 2006. The U.S. alone is spending over $7 billion per year to promote agrofuels—a subsidy of $1.38 per gallon for ethanol. During the recent U.S. Farm Bill debate, ADM and Cargill threatened to import Brazilian ethanol if the White House did not provide sufficient “incentives” to keep domestic agrofuels globally “competitive.” The upshot was even more taxpayer subsidies for development of cellulosic ethanol and for the use of sugar as another potential agrofuel feedstock—conveniently coinciding with Monsanto’s introduction of GE sugar beet. If the U.S. were to meet its proposed renewable energy mandate of 15 billion gallons of ethanol per year, over half of the country’s corn acreage could be devoted to energy rather than food production.

Such unrealistic goals mean massive agrofuel imports from somewhere, which will probably be additionally subsidized through the manipulation of carbon credits. Under the Kyoto Protocol, 20 percent of global energy is to come from renewable sources, including agrofuels, by 2020. But none of the greenhouse gases linked to the production of agrofuels will be included in the Protocol’s transport sector, despite the fact that biodiesel combustion alone generates 50-70 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the petroleum it would replace. Instead, agrofuels will be counted as part of the agriculture, industry, and/or energy sectors. This false accounting gets even worse. Under Kyoto, a country in the North that imports agrofuels from the South can use them to offset its own greenhouse gas inventory. The upshot is that wealthy polluters are able to outsource greenhouse gases and claim carbon credits by encouraging corporate investment in monoculture agrofuel plantations halfway around the globe.

Where will these agrofuel carbon credits come from? Brazil already has six million hectares devoted to agrofuel production and plans to increase its sugarcane acreage five-fold to meet expected ethanol export demands. In December 2007—with hardly any public comment on an earlier draft—the South African government released its final Biofuels Industrial Strategy with a goal of 2 percent agrofuel out of total liquid fuel demand, or 400 million liters per year, by 2013. The South African-based Tongaat-Hulett investment group has proposed a $200 million renovation of the Hippo Valley sugarcane plantation and Triangle ethanol plant in the Limpopo Valley once the political crisis in Zimbabwe is resolved. Colombia plans to increase its oil palm from 188,000 hectares to over 1 million hectares. Communities who stand in the way of these expansion plans have already fallen victim to death squads. Indonesia intends to establish the largest oil palm plantation in the world—1.8 million hectares in Borneo. Dubbed “deforestation diesel,” this palm oil bonanza has cleared vast tracts of pristine rainforest, jeopardizing biodiversity and indigenous peoples alike. Compared to other agrofuel fuelstocks, though, palm oil is by far the most productive, generating 6,000 liters per hectare—versus only 446 liters per hectare for soya and 172 liters per hectare for corn.

Then there is jatropha. India has already earmarked 14 million hectares of “wasteland” for jatropha plantations, while a German consortium is negotiating to purchase 13,000 hectares in Ethiopia, including portions of an elephant sanctuary for the same purpose. As a drought-resistant largely inedible plant that requires little or no inputs, jatropha can be harvested up to three times a year. There are already 200,000 hectares of jatropha in Malawi and 15,000 hectares in Zambia, most under the control of the UK-based company D1 Oils. Jatropha planting is now underway in four Mozambican provinces: Inhambane, Manica, Zambezia, and Nampula.

The negative consequences of runaway jatropha development in Mozambique will likely be similar to those already experienced elsewhere. Food sovereignty advocate Ousmane Samake, of COPAGEN in Mali, has already documented how jatropha plantations encroach on traditional grazing lands, drain groundwater supplies, and exacerbate resource conflicts in that country.


Via Campesina delegates march at their October conference in Mozambique

The world will not be able to escape the food versus fuel debate as long as governments continue to subsidize agrofuels to the detriment of sustainable agriculture as practiced by millions of peasant farmers. Similarly, the world will not be able to achieve genuine food sovereignty, as advocated by Via Campesina, without rejecting the agrofuel panacea offered by the likes of the Gates Foundation, AGRA, and their corporate cheerleaders. The government of Mozambique would do well to heed the call for a moratorium on agrofuel incentives as endorsed by dozens of grassroots organizations around the world, including Mozambique’s National Farmers’s Union (UNAC). It is time to end corporate domination over the world’s food supply. An essential first step is to dismantle the global agrofuel industrial complex that would rather feed a gas tank than a hungry child.



John E. Peck is executive director of Family Farm Defenders, Madison, Wisconsin.