Colonialism and Agroenergy

Maria Luisa Mendonça and Marluce Melo
Tuesday 3 April 2007 by LRAN

- Maria Luisa Mendonça is a member of the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights.

- Marluce Melo is a member of the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT).

"We could construct projects for poor countries so that rich countries aren’t just seen as exploiters". This proposal, made by President Lula during Bush’s visit to Brasil on March 9th, synthesizes the principal objective of the meeting—to improve the image of the United States government in Latin America. Towards this end, Bush’s official agenda in Brasil utilized agroenergy as the central theme.

“All of us feel the obligation to be good environmental citizens,” affirmed Bush in his official discourse. Lula added, “We want to see biomass generate sustainable development in South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa.” Brasil and the United States are responsible for 70% of the production of ethanol in the world market. Under the pretext of contributing to the “good of humanity” (a phrase utilized by Lula in his discourse), the reunion actually represented Bush’s marketing strategy for transnational corporations that intend to profit from agroenergy, and for Brasilian industrial plants, accused of violating workers’ rights and destroying the environment. Days later, Lula affirmed that Brasil’s industries are “national and global heroes.” The principal result of the meeting between the two presidents was the signing of a memorandum of intention to stimulate the production of ethanol in several countries. According to the Subsecretary of Political Affairs of the US State Department, Nicholas Burns, this partnership could result in a “world revolution.” Despite the efforts of both governments to frame the meeting as a success, the US government didn’t accept the suspension of a tariff on Brasilian ethanol imports.

The idea is to bring the matter to the WTO (World Trade Organization). Through this move, Lula is proposing that Brasil and the United States come to an agreement in order to again take up the Doha Round negotiations of the WTO. There are speculations that Brasil would negotiate an agreement at any price, influencing other countries to do the same. For Bush, the objectives are clear: improve his image to the international public opinion, since the United States are responsible for 25% of all atmospheric pollution in the world, and, principally, challenge the influence of Latin American countries where strong anti-imperialist sentiment exists, such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. As a result, beyond confronting protests and building security measures never before seen in history (in the city of São Paulo 35km were blockaded around the site of Bush’s visit), Bush’s trip to Latin America was obfuscated by the simultaneous tour of Hugo Chavez in the region. Wherever he stepped, President Chavez was received with great receptions and manifestations in his support. In Argentina, speaking to a public of 40,000 people, he affirmed that "it’s crazy to use the good land and freshwater sources that are left, to feed the cars of the North".

The United States government offers fiscal incentives for their industries to increase the percentage of vegetable oil used in common diesel. However, it would be necessary to utilize 121% of all agricultural land in the US to supply the current demand of fossil fuels in that country. In this context, the role of Brasil would be to supply cheap energy to wealthy countries, which amounts to a new phase of colonization. The current politics of the sector are substantiated by the same elements that characterized Brasilian colonization: appropriation of territory, natural resources, and labor, which led to a larger concentration of land, water, profit, and power. The false concept of “clean and renewable” energy

It’s necessary to demystify propaganda about the supposed benefits of agrifuels. The concept of “clean” and “renewable” energy should be discussed from a broader vision that considers the negative effects of these sources. In the case of ethanol, the harvest and processing of sugarcane pollutes soil and freshwater sources, as they use large quantities of chemical products. Each liter of ethanol produced consumes close to 12 liters of water, which represents a risk of larger scarcity of natural sources of water and aquifers.

The burning of sugarcane serves to facilitate its collection, and for this reason the practice destroys a large part of the microorganisms of the soil, pollutes the air, and causes respiratory diseases. The processing of sugarcane by industrial plants also pollutes the air through the burning of waste, which produces smoke and dust. The National Institute for Spatial Research (INPE) has declared a state of alert in the sugarcane growing region of São Paulo (the largest producing region of sugarcane in the country) because burnings have brought the air quality to extremely low levels, between 13% and 15%. In the case of soy, the most optimistic estimates indicate that the balance of renewable energy produced for each unit of fossil fuel energy input used for the harvest is 0.4 units. This is due to the high consumption of oil utilized in fertilizers and agricultural machinery. Beyond this, the expansion of soy has caused enormous devastation of forests and savannah in Brasil.

Even so, soy has been paraded by the Brasilian government as the principal crop for biodiesel, since Brasil is one of the largest soy producers in the world. "Soy crops are profiled as a jewel in the crown of Brasilian agribusiness. Soy could be considered the cradle that allows for the opening of the biofuel markets," affirmed researchers of the Brasilian Business for Agroindustrial Research (Embrapa). The government estimates that more than 90 million hectares of Brasilian lands could be utilized to produce agrifuels. In the Amazon alone, the proposal is to cultivate 70 million hectares of palm oil. This product is known as “deforestation diesel.” Its production has already caused the devastation of large extensions of forests in Colombia, Ecuador, and Indonesia. In Malasia, the largest producer of palm oil, 87% of the forests have been destroyed. Beyond the destruction of agricultural lands and forests, there are other contaminating effects in this process, such as the construction of transport and storage infrastructure, which demand large quantities of energy. It would be necessary to increase the use of agricultural machinery, inputs (fertilizers and pesticides) and irrigation to guarantee an increase in production.

In Brasil, the expansion of monocropping for production of agrifuels should increase land grabbing in large areas of public lands by soy-producing companies, as well as “legalizing” land grabbing in existing areas of land invasion. The cycle of land grabbing in Brasil traditionally begins with deforestation, usage of slave labor, followed by cattle ranching and soy production. Currently, with the expansion of the production of ethanol, this cycle may end with monocropping of sugarcane. These lands could be used for agrarian reform, for the production of food crops, and to attend to the historic demands of close to five million families without land. In many regions in the country, an increase in the production of ethanol has caused the expulsion of peasants from their lands, and has generated dependence on the so-called "sugarcane economy," where only precarious jobs in the canefields are available.

The land monopoly by sugarcane plants generates unemployment in other economic sectors, stimulating migration and the submission of workers to horrible conditions. Despite propaganda about “efficiency,” the agrienergy industry is based on the exploitation of cheap labor, and even slave labor. Workers are paid according to the quantity of cut sugarcane, and not for hours worked. In the state of São Paulo, the largest producer in the country, the goal of each worker is to cut between 10 and 15 tons per day. Between 2005 and 2006, 17 workers’ deaths were registered due to exhaustion in the canefields. This type of exploitation is present in the sugarcane industry throughout Latin America, and would now be expanded under the false argument that it represents a source of “renewable” energy. During the so-called “oil crisis” of the 1970s, Brasil began to develop technology for the production of ethanol. In this period, the project called Pro-Alcohol was fought by oil companies, including Petrobras.

Currently the situation has become inverted, as oil companies are very interested in the possibility of profiting from the distribution of agrifuels. Car companies also foresee an increase in sales of “flexfuel fleets,” which may be fueled both by gasoline and ethanol. The expansion of agrienergy production is also of great interest for businesses that produce genetically modified organisms such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, Dow, Basf and Bayer, who hope to obtain larger public acceptance in order to promote genetically modified products as sources for “clean” energy. In Brasil, the company Votorantin has developed technology to produce transgenic sugarcane for ethanol production. Many of these businesses have begun to develop kinds of crops that can not be consumed as food products, only for the production of agrienergy. As there are no ways to avoid contamination of GMOs in native crops, this practice places food production at risk. The expansion of agrifuel production places food sovereignty at risk, and may aggravate the problem of world hunger. In Mexico, for example, the increase of corn exports to feed the United States ethanol market caused an increase of 400% in the price of corn, which is the principal dietary source of the Mexican population.

Experiences in the production of raw material for agrienergy by small farmers demonstrate the risk of dependence on large agribusinesses, who control prices, and the processing and distribution of production. Peasants are used to give legitimacy to agribusiness through distribution of “social agrifuel” certificates.

This model causes negative impacts for peasant communities and indigenous people, whose territories are threatened by the constant expansion of capital. Beyond this, a lack of policies to support food production could force peasants to replace their food crops for agrifuel crops, and, with this, compromise their food sovereignty. In Brasil, small and middle-sized farmers are responsible for 70% of the food production for Brasil’s internal market. Historically, peasant rebellions against the advance of capital in the rural environment have guaranteed food for our people. Large multinational corporations dispute control of natural resources such as land, water, and biodiversity, which places at risk peasant identity, and even the survival of our societies. For this reason, what is at play is a confrontation with the colonial model, with all of the characteristics unique to colonization— predation, destruction, exploitation, and violence.

This is the true face of the agrienergy industry, controlled by the same oil companies, automotive companies, and agricultural companies that have destroyed forests and contaminated the environment. Under the pretext of creating a new “photosynthesis civilization,” or the supposed benefits of a new energy matrix based on agrienery, large transnational corporations and local elites seek to expand their monopoly on our territories. Maria Luisa Mendonça is a member of the Social Network for Justice and Human Rights.


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