Agrofuels in Central America

Agrofuels in Central America

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The production of so-called "green fuels" is linked to food insecurity in Central America. Although these are not basic crops, the fact is that large areas of land formerly in the hands of peasant families dedicated to corn and rice have been displaced by private companies that have intensified crops destined to generate biofuels.

Biofuels and the agri-food crisis

By Olivia Acuña Rodarte.

In terms of the food crisis, the World Bank classifies Latin America as a region of “moderate losers”. Although its effects are incomparable compared to those suffered by Africa, natural disasters have exacerbated poverty in nations such as Haiti, Honduras and Cuba and food shortages have deepened. Considerations of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) stand out in the sense that the rise in food in 2007 prevented approximately four million people from exiting poverty and indigence in the region that year. The same institution pointed out that in 2008 the effect was greater, since the increase in food costs accumulated since 2006 produced poverty and indigence in 11 million people in Latin America.

Central America differs from the rest of the subcontinent by the weight that agricultural activity has in its economy and by the presence of 50 percent of its population in the countryside. According to the Central American Agricultural Council, the direct contribution of the agricultural sector to GDP represents 20 percent in Guatemala and Nicaragua; between 10 and 15 in Honduras, El Salvador and Belize, and less than 10 percent in Costa Rica and Panama. The same organism indicates that around 70 percent of its exports are of agricultural origin. Despite this, primary activity is characterized by low productivity and the poverty of its population: 64 percent of the poor in Central America are concentrated in rural areas.

Food dependency is another characteristic in Central America. Since the early 1980s, food from abroad represents around 80 percent of all agricultural imports, and the value of the latter has increased significantly: in Belize and Nicaragua it has doubled and in the rest of the countries of the region. have quadrupled.

This situation indicates that although the 2008 food crisis exacerbated the problem of food availability in the Central American region, its origins lie in stagnant food production and with a growing rate towards external dependence. This situation "took off" practically from the 90s, when neoliberal policies began to have their first effects on primary activity. Thus, between 1990 and 2000, dependence on cereals had an alarming behavior. A diagnosis of the Central American Agricultural Council determined that in Belize, El Salvador and Nicaragua the need to purchase cereals from abroad represented 30 percent of their total supply in that period; in Honduras and Guatemala, 40 percent; 60 in Panama and almost 80 percent in Costa Rica. It should be added that other factors such as the region's high vulnerability to natural disasters (hurricanes, floods, the El Niño phenomenon, volcanic eruptions and landslides, among others) have seriously affected the agri-food sector, expelling millions of peasants towards the migration as the only survival resource.

At the end of 2006, the first signs of food shortages were evident, and by the first months of 2008, Central America was fully facing a food crisis. Two elements contributed in an important way: the constant rise in the international price of grains and accelerated inflation caused mainly by the daily increase in the world price of oil.

In 2007, the region recorded inflation of six percent, oil expenditures of around six billion dollars, and a trade deficit of more than 24 billion dollars. This situation was accompanied by the scarcity and the increase in price of wheat, corn, rice, beans, vegetables, greens, sesame and small livestock (pork, chicken and other birds). A report by ECLAC showed that between December 2006 and September 2008 the consumer price index rose by 20.5 percent on average in the region and at the same time the food price index increased more than 27 percent . FAO reported that in Guatemala and Honduras the retail price of maize was between a quarter and a third higher in November 2008 than in the same month of the previous year. Rice prices, mainly imported, have risen since the beginning of the year in most of the countries of the region, and in November 2008 they were 54 percent higher than a year ago in Nicaragua.

It is observed then that although Central America presented a complicated situation of food dependency derived from the structural transformations in the 80s and 90s throughout the region, the situation of the rise in prices linked in this case to the production of biofuels, placed the area in a scenario of extreme vulnerability.

Undoubtedly, the production of so-called “green fuels” is linked to food insecurity in the region, since in recent years Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama have become important suppliers of ethanol to the European Union ( EU). Germany, Italy and Spain have promoted, together with the Inter-American Development Bank, the production of biofuels in Central America, even Finland financed in 2007 a biodiesel plant in El Salvador.

However, the case of Guatemala stands out, which based on sugarcane and African palm in large areas, has significantly increased the production of ethanol and biodiesel, both exported mainly to the European Union. The expansion of this agribusiness has even been promoted by other Latin nations such as Colombia, which with a view to positioning its technology in the production of biodiesel, has donated pilot plants for this energy source in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

In 2007 alone, Guatemala produced about 800 thousand liters of ethanol, which, within the framework of the Association Agreement between the EU and Central America, were exported duty-free. Faced with the trade “opportunity” that this activity represents, the fact that Guatemala has the highest malnutrition rate in the continent is in contrast.

The scenario for Central America seems not very encouraging, as the latest FAO forecasts for the 2008/09 marketing year (June / July) point to further increases in the use of cereals for biofuel production: a total of 104 million tons, 22 percent above the estimate for 2007/08. This figure represents 4.6 percent of world cereal production.

In the United States, the total use of crops for transformation into agrofuels is expected to increase to about 93 million tons (of which 91 million are corn), 19 percent more than the 2007/08 level. Previous forecasts indicated a more rapid increase in the use of corn for biofuels, but the sharp decline in oil prices and the slowdown in the world economy lowered these expectations in recent months.

The great paradox is that nations with a high vulnerability in their food supply, such as Central Americans, have made biofuel production a productive and economic "alternative" for their agricultural field. Undoubtedly, this situation is due to neo-colonizing strategies, in this case of European countries, in complicity with neoliberal governments that have allowed and promoted the use of agricultural land for the production of new energy sources.

The critical condition in terms of food availability in Central America should force national governments to review their agri-food policies. The shortage suffered particularly in 2008 associated with the production of biofuels, made evident the fragility in which these countries find themselves in terms of food. Reviewing and reversing this policy will necessarily have to go through revaluing peasant agriculture, which historically was the sector that, with state support, managed to guarantee food self-sufficiency in this region.

Agrofuels? No thanks

By Alberto Alonso Fradejas.

After rivers of ink spilled in the debate on the substitution of a good part of the fossil fuels (derived from oil or the use of coal), consumed in the economic North (especially), by fuels of agricultural origin, it seems that little remains to be added.

The verdict is clear in the case of ethanol production from basic grains. Academia, peasant movements, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), numerous Southern States (including Mesoamerican and Brazil) and even the Fund International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, exceptionally coincide in blaming corn ethanol for being an important factor (although not the only one) after the increase in basic prices, without major net contributions to reducing polluting emissions.

For a change, the exception to this discursive anti-biofuels derived from basic grains, generated by the so-called progressive and "green" Obama administration with its decision not only to generate a change, is surprising, more because of the stupidity than the lack of powerful motivations. endorse, if not even try to exceed the goal of consuming 36 billion gallons of agrofuels in the United States by 2020, set as a result of the Energy Independence and Security Decree (and the “fight against climate change”?) . A goal that, like those of the European Union, are intended to be achieved using what is their own and especially what is foreign.

Now, this almost unanimous opposition takes a 180-degree turn when it comes to questioning agrofuels derived from crops that apparently save more energy than they consume. Specifically, due to its implications in Mesoamerica, I want to refer to ethanol derived from sugar cane and the diesel that can be obtained from African palm oil.

A question of inputs. The main bottleneck for the massive sale of biofuels is not financial or technological, but the availability of sufficient agricultural raw material at the lowest possible cost. A new demand from the international market, whose profitable satisfaction motivates capitals and States to expand the sugarcane / palm large estate on the basis of renewed processes of territorial domination (since in addition to land, these monocultures need water, and occasional, but predictable, availability of workforce) derived from the spatial and temporal displacement that agribusinesses linked to the production, transformation or distribution of any of the products derived from sugarcane and palm have undertaken in the region.

A displacement that combines strategies aimed at diverting currently surplus capital towards the exploration of future uses, with the adaptation of rural territories for the extensive production of sugar cane and palm. Strategies made viable by the same historical configurations of the Mesoamerican States and supported by mass communication policies and academics at the service of the highest bidder, to facilitate the formation and circulation of fictitious capital (with monetary value and documentary existence, but without material support), which is already a traditional mechanism for accumulation in stages of capitalism where financial capital predominates over productive capital.

Ultimately, a discourse is formed that identifies these monocultures with the new panacea of ​​rural territorial development in Mesoamerica, and that legitimizes the totalizing public offer around sugarcane, palm and their derivatives. Official support that has a strong impact on regional integration processes and mechanisms - for example, via the Mesoamerican Biofuels Commission, promoted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and led by Colombia and Guatemala in the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project ( the well-known PPP), the Central American Energy Strategy 2020, the Central American Common Agricultural Policy or the epidemic of free trade agreements that proliferate intra and extra regionally - and that also have serious implications on the rights and living conditions of the population of the "Target territories".

Contrary to what this hegemonic discourse promotes, and based on our work in Guatemala (, sugarcane and palm generate up to ten times less land wealth than peasant crops and much less employment than these on a territorial and national scale. If to this we add the forced displacements due to the processes of agrarian (re) concentration, the hoarding of water sources, the degradation of the soil due to greater use of agrochemicals, the substitution of food crops and / or the expansion of the agricultural frontier that alters / destroys entire ecosystems, the adaptation of the social relations of production to the flexible accumulative regime of these agribusinesses and the attack against the community-social-organizational fabric and the collective territorial patrimonies, we will have more than enough legitimizing arguments of the opposition and manifest resistance many indigenous, mestizo, Afro-descendant and peasant populations that defend Mesoamerican rural territories as collectively appropriate spaces.

Make no mistake, the debate between "good" and "bad" biofuels is just another smokescreen to divert attention from the consequences of the new cycle of accumulation, dispossession and territorial dominance in Mesoamerica.

Olivia Acuna Rodarte is Professor-researcher at UAM Xochimilco - Mexico

Alberto Alonso Fradejas He is Head of Studies at the Institute of Agrarian and Rural Studies of the Coordination of NGOs and Cooperatives of Guatemala (Idear-Congcoop)

La Jornada del Campo - Mexico -

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