Agrofuels in Latin America
João Pedro Stedile is one of the leaders of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), Brazil’s Landless Movement. In its recent conference in Brasilia, attended by 18,000 activists, the MST spoke out strongly against the damage being caused by agrofuel monoculture (http://www.mst.org.br).
You were involved in the decision to start using the term “agrofuel”, rather than “biofuel”, weren’t you?
At the World Forum on Food Sovereignty, recently held in Mali in Africa, we and other delegates discussed how capital has manipulated terminology by adding the prefix “bio”, which signifies life, to renewable plant-based fuels. This is ridiculous, because all living things are “bio”. We could call ourselves bio-people, bio-John Smith, bio-soya, etc. Companies use the prefix “bio” to encourage the public to see their products as a good thing, as politically correct. So, at the international level, Vía Campesina has agreed to use more accurate terminology. These fuels and energy are produced from agricultural crops and so the correct terms are agrofuels and agro-energy.
What is the impact of the agrofuels craze in Brazil?
We are very worried. What we are seeing is a major alliance between three sectors of transnational capital: the oil companies, which want to reduce their dependence on oil; the car companies, which want to continue profiting from the current individual transport model; and agribusiness companies such as Bunge, Cargill and Monsanto, which want to continue monopolising the world agricultural market. International capital now wants an alliance with the big landowners in the South, especially in Brazil, to use large areas of land to produce agrofuels. They want to do this only to maintain their profit margins and standard of living. Unlike us, they are not the least bit concerned about the environment, global warming or anything else. Capital has one objective – profit – and now it is single-mindedly trying to use agriculture to produce fuel for vehicles.
What impact is this having on agriculture and food production?
The rules of economics operate for all capitalist agricultural production and are based on the average rate of profit. If it is more profitable to produce ethanol or other agrofuels than corn, cotton, wheat or beans, the farmer will, of course, replace food crops, which generally have a lower profit margin (because consumers have low incomes) with crops suitable for the production of agrofuels. This is a rule of capitalism. It is not something that needs predicting or planning. This is what is happening in Brazil. The area with sugar cane is increasing, because it is more profitable, and the area with beans, corn and dairy cattle is falling.
Another effect is that agrofuels are leading to an expansion of monoculture. Large areas of fertile land are being taken over by sugar-cane or soya monoculture to produce feedstocks for ethanol or biodiesel. Monoculture is harmful to the environment, because it destroys other plants and reduces biodiversity. Research into soya and sugar-cane production in Brazil shows that monoculture changes the pattern of rainfall, which becomes more concentrated at a particular period of the year and more torrential. As there is less vegetation to soak up the rainfall, it flows more quickly into the rivers or underground aquifers. Other studies show that the average temperature has been increasing and droughts are becoming more frequent in regions where monoculture prevails. In the case of sugar cane, the problem is made worse by the use of fire to clear the land, which releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Very bad working conditions are also a feature of sugar-cane production. Workers are brought in from distant regions to make it more difficult for them to organise and stand up for themselves.
What is happening to land ownership?
Agrofuels are having an enormous impact on the concentration of land ownership. They encourage big companies to expand the area under monoculture and, in alliance with finance and international capital, to buy large areas of land. For example, in recent months, Cargill bought the biggest alcohol distillery in São Paulo, along with its 36,000-hectare sugar-cane plantation. This is the country’s biggest sugar-cane plantation. Other multinationals are doing similar things. Last year sugar-cane cultivation increased to a record 4 million hectares in São Paulo state alone. Many factories are planning to expand. The idea is to increase the area to 7 million hectares in only three years. Neighbouring states Goiás, south-east Minas Gerais and Mato Grosso do Sul are also increasing sugar-cane production, and will build no fewer than 77 new distilleries during the next five years. Petrobrás has already begun to lay alcohol pipelines from Cuiabá (the capital of Mato Grosso, in the centre-west of the country) to the port of Paranaguá, in the state of Paraná on the south-east coast, and another from near Goiânia (the capital of Goiás) to São Paulo’s port, Santos. The whole region will be taken over by large sugar-cane plantations. This is an extraordinary concentration of land ownership, strengthening the presence of international capital, in the form of companies such as Cargill. Many foreign investment funds, including those controlled by George Soros, are buying shares in Brazilian alcohol companies.
How would you sum up Brazil’s experience after more than 30 years producing alcohol from sugar cane?
The production of alcohol from sugar cane for use as a fuel in vehicles had a positive impact on Brazil’s trade balance. It reduced the country’s dependence on oil and kept the price of fuel down. However, it also caused many environmental problems. Many scientists argued in favour of production in small units, integrated into peasant agriculture, for local consumption, with a view to promoting energy sovereignty. However, the dictatorship of that time chose monoculture and large factories. Many rural districts became immense sugar-cane plantations, completely dependent on other parts of Brazil for food. And there hasn’t been a reduction in pollution. First, because the production of sugar cane itself requires diesel, and fertilisers are made from petroleum products. So, in fact, there was a 25 per cent increase in oil consumption in these regions. Second, vehicles using a mixture of petrol and alcohol still contribute to global warming, because of the high number of vehicles and people in big cities. So the use of alcohol didn’t resolve any environmental problems or stop the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Very much to the contrary, in fact. In addition, it aggravated social problems by promoting the concentration of land ownership, reducing employment in rural areas and promoting the rural exodus. The sugar-cane regions in Brazil are the areas with the greatest concentration of wealth and the greatest incidence of poverty. I always use the example of Ribeirão Preto, a town in the centre of São Paulo state, considered by the bourgeoisie to be a kind of Brazilian California because of its high technological expertise in sugar-cane production. Thirty years ago, this was a rich area that produced all its own food and had a thriving peasant agriculture and an equitable distribution of income. It is now an immense sugar-cane plantation, and about 30 distilleries own all the land. About 100,000 people live in shanty towns and 3,813 people are in prison, more than the number of people working in agriculture, which is only 2,412 including children. This is the sugar-cane monoculture model of society: more people in prison than working on the land!
How do you think we should deal with the energy and fossil-fuels crisis?
There should be a major public debate to discuss the problem at various levels. First, and most important, we have to change the transport system. We must end our dependence on vehicles that transport individuals and consume a lot of petrol and alcohol. We must promote public transport, which can use gas, electricity and other less polluting forms of energy. Second, we need to change energy sources throughout society and encourage small-scale alternatives that have less impact on the environment, such as small and medium-sized hydroelectricity plants, agrofuels, wind power, and so on. Third, we need to promote the idea of energy sovereignty. Each community, each district, should seek its own local solutions so that it does not depend on imported energy. Obviously, large cities are not going to achieve this completely, but they can greatly reduce their dependence on outside sources. It is possible to find non-polluting forms of energy that preserve the environment. We hope that the negative consequences of global warming and climate change, which the urban population is already becoming aware of, will educate the public and encourage it to put pressure on governments for change. We can expect nothing from companies and capitalists, who have no commitment to people, only to their own profit margins.
What does the MST propose to do to change the government’s policy on agrofuels?
The MST and Vía Campesina are continuously discussing these issues. The first step is to halt the expansion of sugar-cane and soya monoculture and stop the advance of transnational capital. The second is to increase public debate about alternatives and to promote the idea that trade in energy, including agro-energy, should be controlled by a public sector company that can develop policies that are in the interests of the people and not in the interests of capital. This will be a long and difficult battle. But that battle has already begun and it will decide the future of humanity.