Skip to content

Food Sovereignty and Biofuels

March 2007

Article three in a three issue series on biofuel in Brazil.

The memorandum of understanding between Brazil and the United States signed during the visit of President Bush to Brazil early this month has been under intense scrutiny. For one, the high U.S. tariffs on Brazilian ethanol make the initiative unrealistic for now. But speculative investors are already rushing to expand the “green desert”, as activists have taken to calling the vast areas of monocrops like sugar cane, soybean and castor seed that bring high profits for agribusiness and industry at the cost of rural livelihoods and biodiversity. This expansion takes land and water rights and the possibility of a dignified livelihood away from rural families.

The industrial agriculture model, combined with the current, export-oriented trade perspective is destroying the livelihoods of family farmers, peasants, indigenous, fishermen, and afro-descendents communities. Food sovereignty-when peoples and communities have the right to control their own food and farming systems-is only possible if the resource rights of these communities are protected.

Social movements in Brazil are resisting because they see that the expansion of ethanol production and the green desert of the monocultures will cost dearly in terms of the already scarce resources of rural communities. They, like their counterparts in the U.S., are also developing local initiatives of social and environmental justice that supports local agriculture, family farmers and other small producers and the right for food for all.

The answer from Mali

Rural and urban social movements from around the World gathered last month in Mali to discuss the strategies to protect the food sovereignty of the poor. Here’s an excerpt from the final declaration of the Food Sovereignty Conference in Mali:

“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers.”

It is obvious that large scale biofuel production will move small-scale farmers, peasants, indigenous and afro-descendents communities in Latin America further from their food sovereignty, increasing hunger and dependence rather than improving the lives of the vast rural majority. Their human rights to food and a dignified life will be seriously threatened to supply a tiny percentage of the voracious energy demands of the U.S. and Europe.

Water and land rights in Brazil

Last year, Grassroots International interviewed several partners in Brazil about the expansion of sugar cane and other crops to the production of biofuels. Our partners had a unanimous response: that the expansion of sugar cane plantations will take away the dreams of thousands of peasants and rural workers to own a piece of land to grow food and raise their families. Today, it is clear that increased value of ethanol in the international market has inflated the price of land in some regions of Brazil, has also contributed to a worsening of the concentration of land ownership and has put pressure on even some small farmers to produce biofuel crops in hope of a small profit, rather than growing food for themselves and their hungry neighbors.

The infamous project of the Watershed Transposition of the São Francisco River, led by President Lula, also arose several times in our interviews. The watershed transposition project is a Pharaonic plan to re-route the waters of the already-overtaxed São Francisco River , which will be implemented through the construction of miles-long water canals and aqueducts to bring water to dry interior sections of Northeast Brazil. Marilene Melo, a member of the Pastoral Land Commission, told us that the resistance of state governors to the project is being overcome with promised expansion of investments in ethanol production.

Pernambuco state, for instance, is willing to back the project with the concession of federal land to grow sugar cane in the middle of the semi-arid region. Cultivation of sugar cane in the area will only be possible using the water of the already overexploited São Francisco River. Already, more than 10 million people in the semi-arid region live without enough clean, safe water to meet their basic domestic needs. Increasing irrigation for export will only make matters worse.

Brazil has decided to stick to the old playbook: economic growth based on corporate power. Instead of fulfilling his promise with the 800,000 landless families, President Lula is taking another route of development. His policies will favor the expansion of 9 million hectares of sugar cane alone, while landless rural workers are forced to cut cane instead of being provided with land to grow food, a right they are guaranteed under the Brazilian constitution.

The geopolitics of energy supply is based on the unsustainable dependency of the U.S. on fuel

As I write this it has been two weeks since President Bush visited Brazil. In that time the U.S. has consumed more than 280 million barrels of oil. The oil dependency of the U.S. has guided U.S. foreign policy into an unsustainable situation. The geopolitics of petroleum-in some cases put in place mostly through military power-has isolated the U.S. from the rest of the world and inflicted untold damage on the nations and people that stood between the U.S> and the oil that it wants.

Some supporters of a U.S.-Brazil biofuel trade agreement say that it will alleviate these problems, as it will contribute to lowering the U.S. dependency on oil.

This seems like wishful thinking. With consumption growing every day, it seems unrealistic that this shift to ethanol will be enough to make a real impact on the nation’s petroleum addiction. Also, given that many of the same corporate and political power players are pushing biofuel as pushed the oil agenda, including top petroleum corporations and ex-governor of Florida Jeb Bush, it seems more likely that we will see slight changes in the cast of characters but little difference in the plot of the story.

The new geopolitical map will simply shift some focus from the Middle East to Brazil, Guatemala, Haiti, and Dominican Republic. It won’t be the first time these countries have been asked to pay for our short-sighted energy policies. When interest rates rose as oil dollars dried up in the 80s, these countries fell into deep debt. Twenty years later the same nations will serve as the producers of biofuels. We expect the people of Latin America to hemorrhage sustainable rural livelihoods, land and water rights and a clean environment in order to put a band-aid on U.S. energy dependency.

Latest from the Learning Hub
Back To Top