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Brazilian activists weigh in on U.S. environmental policy

April 2009

Representatives of two of Grassroots International’s Brazilian partners were in the San Francisco Bay Area April 22 – 29 to meet with U.S. allies and help educate the U.S. public about the damaging impacts of agrofuel production in Brazil. Altacir Bunde is an economist and leader of the Popular Peasant Movement (MCP) and coordinator of the Creole Seeds Project in Goiás, Brazil. Altacir has been a leading voice in the movement to protect agro biodiversity and defend against the expansion of large scale single crop plantations in the Central Plateau of Brazil.

Representatives of two of Grassroots International’s Brazilian partners were in the San Francisco Bay Area April 22 – 29 to meet with U.S. allies and help educate the U.S. public about the damaging impacts of agrofuel production in Brazil. Altacir Bunde is an economist and leader of the Popular Peasant Movement (MCP) and coordinator of the Creole Seeds Project in Goiás, Brazil. Altacir has been a leading voice in the movement to protect agro biodiversity and defend against the expansion of large scale single crop plantations in the Central Plateau of Brazil. Maria Luisa Mendonça is a journalist, documentary filmmaker, author and director of the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights (Rede Social). Rede Social has been a leading voice in the agrofuels debate in Brazil and across Latin America, documenting and speaking out about human rights violations of rural workers and displaced rural families.

On April 23 they accompanied other environmental and food sovereignty activists led by Rainforest Action Network to rally outside of a California Air Resources Board hearing in Sacramento (CARB) to express concern over the inclusion of agrofuels in the Low Carbon Fuels Standard (LCFS). Intended to reduce the carbon intensity of fuels, the LCFS will serve as a model for national and state policy, including the recent Waxman/Markey draft climate legislation. The mission of the activists was to make sure that the LCFS does not boost demand for industrial biofuels.

“Agrofuels are not low carbon,” said Andrea Samulon of Rainforest Action Network. “Their inclusion in the Low Carbon Fuel Standard threatens to undermine the Governor’s intent in creating the standard. We encourage CARB to be safe, rather than sorry, by excluding agrofuels from the LCFS given current evidence of their serious impacts on water, forests, climate and food security.”

“Corporations are stealing community land and destroying rainforests to produce agrofuels,” said Altacir Bunde. “Ruining forests and land in Brazil has made my nation the fourth-largest climate change emitter in the world. Brazilian people must have sovereignty over their own land and how it is used.”

Maria Luisa Mendonça

Later that day California air regulators approved the world’s first plan for reducing carbon emissions from transportation fuels. The Air Resources Board’s 9-1 decision is aimed at achieving a 10 percent reduction in motor vehicles’ emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and spurring commercial development of low-carbon fuels like hydrogen, cars that run on compressed natural gas and electric vehicles like plug-in hybrids that run on both gasoline and rechargeable batteries — to compete with second-generation ethanol. That fuel, known as cellulosic ethanol, is expected to be made in commercial amounts from non-food feedstocks like switchgrass and fast-growing trees.

Understanding the biofuels debate

Our food and energy systems are becoming increasingly entwined as agribusinesses invest heavily in the production of energy crops. Faced with dwindling fuel reserves and the intensifying impacts of climate change, a global debate has erupted over the best sources of renewable energy. “Biofuel” proponents speak of meeting future energy needs while raising farm incomes and renewing rural economies. This approach has become increasingly popular with U.S. corporations and policymakers,and is enshrined in state and federal “renewable fuels” statutes as a presumed solution to climate change. According to a mandate passed in the Energy Independence and Security Act last December, the U.S. plans to satisfy about 15 percent of its fuel requirements with agrofuels by 2012.

Critics, however, warn that agrofuels produced in industrial systems actually extract wealth out of communities, degrade the soil, and pollute the environment. Due to the huge amounts of energy required to grow these crops, research has shown that the production of first-generation ethanol from crops such as soy, corn, sugarcane, and oil palm is actually accelerating climate change. For example, a recent study by Friends of the Earth UK showed that since a similar standard was enacted in Britain in April 2008, the increased use of agrofuels has led to extra emissions equivalent to putting 500,000 more cars on the British roads.

In an attempt to reduce the demand driving agrofuel expansion, Grassroots International continues to work with the Global Justice Ecology Project, RAN and others in an international campaign calling for a moratorium on U.S. incentives and mandates for agrofuels. As a member of the work group that developed this moratorium call, Grassroots is playing a leading role in advocacy against the expansion of large-scale industrial agrofuel monocultures that cause deforestation and environmental damage, exacerbate climate change, and threaten food and land rights of indigenous people and the rural poor. The group prepared a policy background brief and a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi regarding the Renewable Fuel Standards’ targets in the U.S. Energy Bill.

Of particular concern is the rapid expansion of agrofuel plantations in many Global South countries, including Brazil. Forests are being burned and cleared to allow for crop monoculture plantations. These are “green deserts,” often planted with genetically modified (GM) crops which threaten biodiversity, guzzle water and consume massive chemical inputs. In the name of “sustainable energy,” indigenous and peasant communities are being forced – often violently – off their land to make room for energy crops. Alticir Bunde spoke first-hand about the disintegration of entire communities in Goiás as farmers are displaced from their land and forced to migrate to cities or other states. Cases of suicide are on the rise as farmers face the loss of livelihood and ancestral land to sugarcane plantations. With the agrofuels boom, Brazil’s territory, natural resources, and labor are once again being exploited to perpetuate unjust and unsustainable consumption patterns in the North. Fuel crops are competing with food crops – and small farmers and poor consumers are losing out.

Brazil and agrofuels production

Brazil, currently the world’s largest producer of ethanol, is one of the countries most impacted by the expansion of agrofuels for export. Brazil is practically self-sufficient in energy production; therefore the central objective of expanded investment and production is to meet the needs of other countries, largely developed nations in the North. The expansion of monocultures for agrofuels production is displacing indigenous and peasant communities in the Amazon and Central Plateau regions of Brazil and jeopardizing basic human rights. Sugarcane is the primary fuel crop in Brazil, and about a million people toil away on the plantations and in Brazil’s ethanol factories. Sugar plantations are notorious for exploiting rural workers as slave labor. Government investigators occasionally liberate a handful of cane workers, but in such a big country the officials are few and far between. Skyrocketing land prices and the increasing occupation of fertile land for fuel crops is impeding the process of agrarian reform, whereby land is distributed to landless families for productive use. The environmental impacts of industrial agrofuel production are just as alarming. The indiscriminate use of natural resources is degrading soil and water and accelerating deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, one of the primary causes of carbon emissions and climate change.

The Brazilian states of Maranhão (in the Northeast) and Goiás (in the Central Plateau) are especially hard hit. Rede Social and other local organizations are concerned about the damaging effects of rampant agrofuels expansion in these regions. The pace of destruction of the natural landscape and community life in the pre-Amazon region and Central Plateau is unprecedented. Forest reserves are being logged with heavy machines, clearing the space for sugarcane and soybeans. Families living in these areas face increasing fear, hunger and displacement. Agribusiness corporations pressure communities that choose to remain and resist displacement by clearing and cultivating the land around their settlements, thereby cutting them off from surrounding resources and sources of livelihood. According to Maria Luisa Mendonça of Rede Social, “The expansion of sugarcane production will not benefit Brazilians since the country is already self-sufficient in fuel production. The increased production is to supply the international market at the expense of rural families in Brazil.”

Farmers, rural workers, consumers, environmentalists and their allies all over the world are questioning and resisting this model of industrial agriculture. In places as varied as India, Indonesia, Palestine, Mozambique, Senegal, France, Guatemala, Brazil and the U.S., organized communities are questioning the logic of a food and energy system that puts corporate profits over basic human rights, the natural environment, and health. Many of these groups are part of the Vía Campesina, an international network of small producer organizations representing over 150 million farmers, fishers, foresters and agricultural workers on six continents.

The Vía Campesina is an outspoken critic of what they call the global agrofuel industrial complex. “Such crops, often genetically engineered, grown in monoculture plantations, and destined for export markets, hardly deserve to be called ‘biofuels’ since they have no life affirming qualities and undermine all the basic principles of food sovereignty… 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.”

Farmers and consumers are demonstrating the power of resistance to take back control of their communities. New ways of integrating sustainable energy and agriculture that benefit community food security are surfacing, from small farmer settlements in Brazil intercropping energy and food crops, to family farms in the U.S. using locally made biodiesel for farm machinery. With support from Grassroots International, small farmers, indigenous peoples, and environmentalists are using these examples to further explore the connections between sustainable energy, food sovereignty, and rural development. Energy solutions should be both sustainable and just, for producers and consumers.

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