By François Houtart
As always, in a capitalist project, externalities are ignored, that is, what does not enter into the market calculation. The price of these "externalities" not paid by capital but by the community and by individuals is appalling.
The idea of extending the cultivation of agrofuels in the world and particularly in the countries of the South is disastrous. She is part of a global perspective of solution to the energy crisis. In the next 50 years we will have to change the energy cycle, moving from fossil energy, which is increasingly rare, to other sources of energy. In the short term, it is easier to use what is immediately profitable, that is, agrofuels. This solution, as investment possibilities are reduced and fast returns are expected, seems the most required as the financial and economic crisis unfolds.
As always, in a capitalist project, what economists call externalities is ignored, that is, what does not enter into the market calculation, for the case that concerns us, ecological and social damage. To contribute a percentage between 25 to 30% of the demand, to the solution of the energy crisis, hundreds of millions of hectares of arable land will have to be used for the production of agro-energy, mostly in the South, since the North does not have enough arable land. It will also have, according to certain estimates, to expel from their lands at least 60 million peasants. The price of these "externalities" not paid by capital but by the community and by individuals is appalling.
Agrofuels are produced in the form of monocultures, destroying biodiversity and polluting soils and water. Personally, I have walked kilometers in the Choco plantations, in Colombia, and I have not seen a bird, a butterfly, or a fish in the rivers, due to the use of large amounts of chemicals, such as fertilizers and pesticides. Faced with the water crisis that affects the planet, the use of water to produce ethanol is irrational. Indeed, to obtain one liter of ethanol, from corn, between 1200 and 3400 liters of water are used. Sugarcane also needs huge amounts of water. Soil and water contamination reaches levels hitherto never known, creating the "dead sea" phenomenon at the mouths of rivers (20 km² at the mouth of the Missippi, largely caused by the extension of the monoculture of corn intended for ethanol). The extension of these cultures leads to a direct or indirect destruction (due to the displacement of other agricultural and livestock activities) of the forests and jungles that are like carbon pools due to their absorption capacity.
The impact of agrofuels on the food crisis has been proven. Not only does its production conflict with food production, in a world where, according to the FAO, more than a billion people suffer from hunger, but it has also been an important element of speculation on food production over the years. 2007 and 2008. A World Bank report states that in two years, 85% of the increase in food prices that drove more than 100 million people below the poverty line (which means hunger), was influenced by the development of agroenergy. For this reason, Jean Ziegler, during his mandate as United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, described agrofuels as a "crime against humanity" and his successor, the Belgian Olivier De Schutter, has called for a 5-year moratorium on their production.
The extension of monoculture also means the expulsion of many peasants from their lands. In most cases, this is done by fraud or violence. In countries like Colombia and Indonesia, the armed forces and paramilitaries are used, who do not hesitate to massacre recalcitrant defenders of their lands. Thousands of indigenous communities, in Latin America, Africa and Asia, are dispossessed of their ancestral territory. Tens of millions of peasants have already been displaced, especially in the South, due to the development of a productivist way of agricultural production and the concentration of land ownership. The result of all this is wild urbanization and both internal and international migratory pressure.
It is also necessary to note that the salary of the workers is very low and the working conditions are generally inhumane due to the demands of productivity. The health of workers is also seriously affected. During the session of the Permanent People's Court on European multinational companies in Latin America, held in parallel to the European-Latin American Summit, in May 2008, in Lima, many cases of children with poor training were presented, due to the use of chemical products in the monoculture of banana, soy, sugar cane and palm trees.
To say that agrofuels are a solution for the climate is equally fashionable. It is true that engine combustion emits less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but when the complete cycle of transformation production and product distribution is considered, the balance is more attenuated. In certain cases, it becomes negative in relation to fossil energy.
If agrofuels are not a solution for the climate, if not in a marginal way, to mitigate the energy crisis, and if they have significant negative consequences, both social and environmental, we have the right to ask ourselves why they have so much preference. The reason is that in the short and medium term they increase the rate of capital gain considerably and rapidly. This is why multinational oil, automobile, chemical and agribusiness companies are interested in the sector. They have as partners financial capital (George Soros, for example), businessmen and local landowners, heirs of the rural oligarchy. So the real function of agroenergy is in effect to help a part of capital to come out of the crisis and to maintain or eventually increase its accumulation capacity. Indeed, the agro-energy process is characterized by an overexploitation of labor, ignorance of externalities, the transfer of public funds to the private, all of which allows quick profits, but also a hegemony of multinational companies and a new form of dependence on the South with respect to North, everything presented with the image of benefactors of humanity since they produce "green energy". As far as the governments of the South are concerned, they see there a source of useful foreign exchange to maintain, among other things, the level of consumption of the privileged classes.
Therefore, the solution is to reduce consumption, especially in the North, and to invest in new technologies (especially solar). Agroenergy is not an evil in itself and can provide interesting solutions at the local level, provided that biodiversity, soil and water quality, food sovereignty and peasant agriculture are respected, that is, the opposite of the logic of capital. In Ecuador, President Correa has had the courage to stop the exploitation of oil from the Yasuni natural reserve. Let us hope that the progressive governments of Latin America, Africa and Asia have the same firmness. Resisting in the North as in the South, to the pressure of the economic powers is a political and ethical problem. Therefore, denouncing the agrofuel scandal in the South is a duty.
François Houtart, Former professor at the Catholic University of Louvain, founder of the Tricontinental Center and author of the book: Agroenergy, a solution for the climate or a way out of crisis for capital? Ruth Casa editorial and Ediciones Sociales La Habana, 2009. Article published in the World Forum of Alternatives and Tlaxcala.