We need agrofuel, not biofuel, right?
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
by Henry Saragih, Jakarta
Amid the heated controversy over global warming and fossil fuel shortages, developed countries and major companies have raised the issue of biofuel. But can alternative energy from agricultural commodities (palm oil, soy beans, corn, jatropha, etc.) become a panacea, a substitute for fossil fuels?
Biofuel could instead turn out to be a catastrophe. A large number of social movements, ranging from peasants to animal rights activists, are rejecting the deceptive term "biofuel". The word biofuel seems to trick us into believing that this vegetable-based energy is more environmentally friendly. It also implies that biofuel is renewable energy though the reality is the opposite.
The majority of plants that can produce energy grow in tropical or subtropical climates. Indonesia is one of many countries having agrifuel euphoria. The palm oil, jatropha and sugar cane plantation expansions are horrifying. The government is planning to open at least 5.5 million hectares of land for so-called biofuel plantations. Big agro-processing industries also are starting to sniff profits.
Imagine the devastating impact from opening land for these agrifuel plants. It will cause huge deforestation for the sake of renewable energy. The entire forest ecosystem will disappear. Although some say that jatropha can be grown on critical land, the majority of biofuel development programs always cause forest devastation, as has been the case in China, Brazil and Ecuador.
According to a report by the West Sumatra Peasants Union, thousands of hectares of forest in the province have been demolished to grow oil palms for agrofuel. Similar problems have been encountered in Jambi and Riau.
According to the government’s phyto-fuel development strategy, the country expects fresh supplies from a newly opened 750,000 hectares of sugar cane and 1.5 million hectares each of cassava, jatropha and oil palm plantations by 2010. The government fully supports this target, as stipulated in Presidential Regulation No. 5/2006 on national energy policy and a president instruction on biofuel.
Other issues that will haunt us in the near future — besides environmental and biodiversity obliteration — are related to food supply. With the agrifuel industry booming, one can expect the shifting of food crops such as corn, soybean and cassava to biofuel plantations.
The land conversion to energy crops will certainly decrease domestic food supplies and most likely will threaten the people’s food sovereignty. This is quite worrisome. Indonesia is currently a net importer of soybeans (two million tons), corn (one million tons), sugar (1.5 million tons) and rice (1.3 million tons).
Producing food crops for fuel and converting farmland into agrofuel plantations is something that even Shell company, the well known energy giant, saw as "morally unethical" (Global Forest Coalition, 2007).
The term biofuel is clearly inappropriate. Its negative impacts on the future will be fatal, especially for an agrarian country like Indonesia.
Furthermore, world energy demand is actually dominated by the rich countries. Powerful, rich countries seem intent on reliving the colonial era through the agrifuel issue because human and natural resources will again be exploited in developing countries.
In the Indonesian context, we still have many fundamental problems that need to be solved, rather than allowing ourselves to be sucked into the mainstream of the agrifuel fad. One classical problem in this country is food. Not to mention the chronic poverty suffered by our peasants, which will worsen with their land expropriated for the agrofuel business.
It is time for the peasants, indigenous communities and the general population to oppose the monoculture-industrialization model and keep working on food crop agriculture for the sake of people’s food sovereignty.
The government should focus its attention more on our most fundamental problems, rather than following global trends and capitalistic interests.
The writer is secretary-general of Federasi Serikat Petani Indonesia (FSPI) and the current general coordinator of La Via Campesina, International Peasant Movement.
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