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A Green OPEC?

Despite the underwhelming emphasis on climate change at the World Social Forum, there were a few interesting sessions and issues worth noting, many of which might not have been labeled as strictly ‘climate change’ sessions.
One in particular was a workshop on biofuels, organized by the Global Forest Coalition.

The workshop couldn’t have been more timely given George Bush’s recent pronouncement that the US will ramp up investment and production in biofuels in order to reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels by as much as 20 per cent within the next decade. Speakers, mainly from Southern groups and movements, described a catalogue of problems associated with this burgeoning biofuels ‘revolution’ that appears to be under way.
Here’s an extract from a sign-on statement originally released at the Nairobi climate change summit a few months ago, and circulated at the session:

‘…international trade in biofuels is already causing a negative impact on food sovereignty, rural livelihoods, forests and other ecosystems, and these negative impacts are expected to accumulate rapidly. Large-scale, export-oriented production of biofuel requires large-scale monocultures of trees, sugarcane, corn, oilpalm, soy and other crops. These monocultures already form the number one cause of rural depopulation and deforestation worldwide.
The rapidly increasing demand for these crops as a source of biofuel will lead to:

  • increased land competition leading to further land concentration, the marginalization of small-scale agriculture and the widespread conversion of forests and other ecosystems;
  • arable land that is currently used to grow food being used to grow fuel, leading to staggering food prices and causing hunger, malnutrition and impoverishment amongst the poorest sectors of society;
  • rural unemployment and depopulation;
  • the destruction of the traditions, cultures, languages and spiritual values of Indigenous Peoples and rural communities;
  • the extensive use of agro-chemicals, which deteriorate human health and ecosystems;
  • the destruction of watersheds and the pollution of rivers, lakes and streams;
  • droughts and other local and regional climatic extremes; and
  • the extensive use of genetically modified organisms leading to unprecedented risks.’

A scenario of an ‘energy farmer’ growing genetically engineered ‘energy crops’ restrictively licensed by ‘biocorporations’ (who control the patents) for export to fuel a global ‘bioeconomy’ was outlined as major biotech, agricultural and petrochemical industries cash in. All these concerns and more are certainly cause for alarm over the biofuels boom.
An interesting dynamic of this bioeconomy is that Southern countries such as Brazil, India and China are already positioning themselves as major players; all of whom are looking at biofuels as a partial solution to their overdependence on fossil fuels within their own economies, but also as a viable new source of export revenue. This raises interesting questions of energy sovereignty (topic of another workshop here), and in particular with regards to fuels for the transport sector where few alternatives to fossil fuels exist.

Another issue is that of North-South relations, as in some cases, biofuels investment, expansion and technology transfer are South-South. Questions are already being asked about China’s status in Africa and whether it should be considered ‘neo-colonial’ (something I’ll write more about later). This was the focus of a number of meetings held here, buoyed by the presence of some Chinese activists and scholars. China just recently announced that it aims to replace 25 per cent of its domestic oil use with biofuels by 2020.
The growth in the biofuels sector is certainly moving apace in Africa as well.

Abdoulaye Wade, president of Senegal, convened the first meeting of the newly formed Pays Africains Non-Producteurs de Pétrole (PANPP) or the Pan-African Non-Petroleum Producers Association in English. This grouping of 15 African States formed in July 2006 to promote the biofuel sector and reduce energy prices in Africa is, according to Wade, intended ‘to serve as a green version of OPEC’. Oh dear!

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