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Biofuels: The Beautiful Dream and the Painful Reality

October 2007

In the last month or so, magazines as diverse as the venerable National Geographic and the next-gen Wired have featured stories about the almost magical properties of industrial-scale agrofuel production, claiming that biofuels will lift the rural poor out of misery by providing high-paying jobs, reversing global warming and ending war in the Middle East.

We were a little dismayed to read the claim in National Geographic that cane cutters in Brazil earn $250 a week (equivalent to about five times the minimum wage). It’s possible that that’s the base rate paid to the workers, but the reporter either got it wrong or forgot to ask about the costs of food at company stores and housing in plantation barracks.

Stan Lehman’s Associated Press article from earlier this week seems closer to the reality that we’ve seen with our own eyes in the cane cutting region, and to the horror stories of slavery and starvation wages that our partners, like the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights (Rede Social)[ Portuguese site featuring reports in English] have been telling us.

Lehman reports that top earners may make $420/month, but that most earn much less and many are fired, unpaid, because they can’t meet the overwhelming quotas that are demanded of them. (In the past three years in the state of Sao Paulo alone, 18 workers have literally been worked to death, dying of exhaustion, Lehman reports.)

Wired’s package is more about an almost sci-fi near future, where genetically modified super-composter organisms do double duty, acting as sugar-digesting bacteria and alcohol producing yeast in one slick, single-celled package. It’s an exciting possibility (if you don’t mind the idea of unleashing a new super-bug that’s really great at eating and rotting things in a way no single organism has ever been before), but it’s one of many that researchers have been saying is just around the corner for decades. (Also, as is often the case in this kind of techno-utopianism, no speculation on how we’ll grow all the cellulose we need without increasing deforestation or decreasing food production.)

A BBC story about U.S. farmers moving to Brazil to grow crops, including soy for biodiesel, cited the “wide open spaces” of western Bahia.

It would probably come as news to the families who used to earn their living on small plots in the region that their former homes were “wide open spaces.” They’re only wide open now that those families have been driven off their rented plots as land prices skyrocketed and international conglomerates of investors bought up all the land. The hundreds of thousands of landless workers who have been waiting for the government to allot land that they can use to sustain themselves and their communities might also be surprised. (The few jobs that come with mechanized, industrial-scale agriculture don’t come close to making up for the loss of sustainable livelihoods from those driven off the land.)

Small towns are disappearing from western Bahia and the edges of the Amazon and everywhere that palm and sugar and soy plantations have sprung up. The rural culture of those communities, not to mention the species of wildlife that depend on disappearing habitat, are creeping closer to extinction.

Once they’re gone, they aren’t coming back.

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