Biofuels: Catalyzing Development or Excluding the Poor?August 25, 2008 By Wilson Center Staff
The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently issued Fuelling exclusion? The biofuels boom and poor people’s access to land, a report that examines how the biofuels boom is likely to affect access to land. “Policy and market incentives to turn land over to biofuels production will tend to raise land values. While in some cases this could give new opportunities to poor farmers, it could also provide grounds for displacement of poorer people from land,” explain the authors. They conclude that “biofuels are not necessarily bad news for small-scale farmers and land users” but that this depends on the “security of land tenure.”
The Brazilian experience with biofuels and land tenure deserves further attention. Traditionally, land tenure has been fairly insecure in Brazil, as it is difficult for the federal government to exert its authority over the nation’s periphery.
The authors cite evidence that large-scale Brazilian soybean and sugarcane outfits have concentrated their land holdings at the expense of small-scale farmers. These findings are consistent with Brazil’s long-term trend of acreage concentration, which has diminished the participation of small-scale farmers in the country’s agro-industry. Since smaller family farms tend to employ more workers than more-efficient large-scale producers, acreage concentration may increase inequality in Brazil and further strain the provision of public goods and services in urban areas, where displaced farmers tend to migrate. Given the recent surge in biofuel production, this trend is likely to continue.
Although the report itself is fairly neutral, some of the specific claims the authors make regarding biofuels, land concentration, and violence in Brazil are undermined by weak supporting evidence. The report’s section on violence and land concentration in Brazil cites Van Gelder and Dros’ (2006) description of a 2004 labor inspection raid that “freed an unknown number of slaves” who worked in soy fields. Yet Van Gelder and Dros lack a citation for this event and provide no information regarding whether or not these soy fields were being used to produce biodiesel. We also don’t know whether this soy farm was on newly acquired land (i.e., we don’t know if it relates to the expansion of biofuel production). Slave labor exists in Brazil and is a serious problem, but it is not identical to the violent land conflicts generated by the expansion of biofuel production—the subject of this report.
Moreover, the authors of Fuelling exclusion? cite another source regarding land concentration and violence—Noronha et al. (2006)—that seems a bit questionable. A rural exodus from certain parts of Brazil is well-documented, but Noronha et al. try to argue that biofuel expansion has driven this migration, relying on macrodata showing increasing urbanization and decreasing rural populations. There is certainly some overlap between increases in biofuel production and this internal migration, but these data are not sufficient to substantiate a causal relationship. Even more troubling is that Noronha et al. maintain that over a 12-year period, there were 16 assassinations linked to the biofuels industry, citing an op-ed written by a union leader as their source. Yet the op-ed only cites the occurrence of 13 deaths—and not by assassination, but from illnesses possibly related to working in the fields. It’s not that there haven’t been deaths associated with the biofuels industry, it’s just that the sources cited by the authors of Fuelling exclusion? don’t prove as much.
There are real concerns about the social consequences of increased ethanol production in Brazil, particularly for the workers who harvest sugarcane by hand. Nevertheless, ethanol production has given Brazil a unique degree of energy independence and economic vitality. To the extent that this vitality is responsible for Brazil’s ability to (thus far) weather the latest international economic storm, it is possible to argue that it is at least indirectly responsible for the nation’s economic stability and the recent rise of the middle class. Yet until the government uses this stability to provide better land security for its rural population, the benefits of biofuels are likely to continue to accrue mainly to Brazil’s middle and upper classes.
By Brazil Institute Program Assistant Alan Wright and Brazil Institute Intern Matthew Layton.
Photo: Sugarcane plantation near Capixaba in Acre, Brazil. Courtesy of Flickr user visionshare.