Biofuel production pushes farming communities off land - report

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 28 Feb 2013 11:08 GMT
Author: Chelsea Diana
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By Chelsea Diana

LONDON (AlertNet) - Increased demand for biofuel production has driven farmers and forest communities from Brazil to Indonesia off their land, threatening those people’s wellbeing and food security, a report from GRAIN says.  

Research conducted by the Spain-based non-profit, which supports small farmers, found growing need for biofuels has driven about 300 land “grabs” worldwide, forcing forest clearance and draining of wetlands, with Europe at the forefront of the global demand.

In the past decade, 17 million hectares, an area of arable land equal to the size of Germany, were taken from the control of local populations in South America, Africa and Asia, according to the report. Predictions show demand for biofuel reaching 172 billion liters by 2020, which would require an additional 40 million hectares of land to produce, GRAIN said.

“Many of the land grabs for biofuels are targeting countries that are already dealing with serious food insecurity issues,” said Devlin Kuyek, a GRAIN researcher.  “ . . . The conversion of food crops to biofuels and the conversion of lands that are used for food production towards the production of biofuel crops puts pressure on global food supplies.”  

Farmers in Sierra Leone, for instance, the report said, lost 10,000 hectares to a bioenergy company in 2012, with the land turned to sugar cane plantations to produce ethanol for Europe. Community members told GRAIN they now must buy rice because they can no longer plant their own, and some people are going hungry.

The renewable energy company leased the land in exchange for giving the farmers on it a small amount of compensation and promising to train them in order to soften impacts from economic displacement, according to an African Development Bank report.

Biofuel companies insist their projects are creating jobs, bringing agricultural investment and helping reduce the use of fossil fuels that drive climate change.


Climate change already underway, however, is expected to accelerate increases in already rising food prices. In particular, the percentage of the world’s farmland affected by drought may rise from about 15 percent to as much as 44 percent by 2100, the report said.

With demand for food expected to rise by 70 to 100 percent by 2050, and with a growing share of agricultural land degrading, GRAIN said that using farmland to produce biofuels is irresponsible.

Of the three major markets for biofuels - America, Europe and Brazil - Europe is the major driver of land grabs, GRAIN said. Europe imports the majority of its raw materials needed to make biofuel, the report said and is expected to have the greatest demand for more biofuels in the coming decades.

European companies have claimed more than five million hectares of land in Africa, Asia and South America for growing biofuels, with serious effects on local communities, the report said. European land buy-ups for biofuel are expected to double by 2020 if regulations are not changed.

“EU governments are contributing directly to the problem through mandates for biofuels that generate greater demand for the production of biofuel crops and, in some cases, by using public money to back the companies grabbing lands for biofuels production,” Kuyek said in an interview.


The day after the GRAIN report was published, energy ministers from the European Union debated the future of biofuels in Europe.

During the meeting of energy ministers from 27 EU states on February 22, proposed changes to biofuels laws were announced, including a cap limiting the percentage of biofuels from crops to 5 percent of total renewable energy resources.

To reduce the amount of biofuel imports, GRAIN suggests the EU should drop its biofuel subsidiaries to the renewable energy industry. Without these, the report claimed, demand for biofuels would diminish and pressure would be taken off  the farmlands of rural communities.

The EU proposal will be debated further at a meeting of environment ministers in March.

Chelsea Diana is an AlertNet Climate intern.