In Brazil, production through agriculture of a new energy model is present every day in the mass media and increasingly the development of this field is gaining social endorsement and economic justification. Rapidly, the use of land to produce food is sharing its space with the fuel production. This change in social perception is very evident in the repeated news features showing farmers and landowners as the new “oil field” owners.
Within the world panorama substituting oil by a “renewable” energy, Brazil appears as a world leader in agro-energy because of its tropical climate, its vast arable lands, availability of water resources and regional facilities. Furthermore, the advantageous position of Brazil in this world leadership is further strengthened by the creation in 2005 of a national agro-energy programme and an ambitious private investment fund for the sector, planned and presided by the Minister of Agriculture of President Lula’s first government, Roberto Rodrigues. This fund will endeavour to attract some 200 million dollars within the country, added to international investment (for example a Dutch bank that appears to have the leadership in funds for this type of project) aimed at shareholding in agro-business agro-energy projects and also in purchasing land, private research funding, project feasibility orientation and submission of proposals to the government, thus acting as a lobby agent. These two factors, a public programme and a private fund are concrete examples of how the country is preparing for this great and historic opportunity announcing the biofuel era.
Regarding the convictions of those guiding the plans in this new era, Décio Gazzoni, an agronomy engineer with over 30 years work as a researcher for EMBRAPA (the public agriculture research and development company) and in charge of the preparation of the national agro-energy programme, recently declared that “we must be pragmatic and allow reforestation of the Amazon with African palm trees” (“Dinheiro Rural”, year III, no. 25, November 2006), which will enable production of biodiesel. Because, according to him “if we do not find an economic option, we will continue to log forests.” The only problem in this vision would be the environmental groups and legislation, which only permits reforestation to be done using native species.
This “pragmatism” in the new frontier for the expansion of agro-business defended by the technician who prepared the national agro-energy programme is the same as that supported by various projects for the plantation of eucalyptus, planned and financed in synergy with mining and steelworks for the production of coal, particularly as the energy input for the pig iron industry, one of the most important items on the Brazilian export balance.
An example of the way the world views Brazil as the great agro-energy frontier is the international conference on bio-fuels to be held from 11 to 13 December in the city of Londrina, Parana State, where specialists from various countries will get to know and discuss the advantages of bio-diesel, ethanol and thus be able to better assess which alternative is more profitable.
In the case of Brazil, the amount of public and private investment and the contracts involved in the construction of bio-fuel processing and refining plants is being consolidated on a medium and long term basis. In addition to the productive facilities, an important energy geo-policy and appropriation of natural resources exists leading to greater pressure on the agricultural frontier areas, increasing the value of land and thus having a direct impact on the agrarian reform. The promotion of biofuels is strengthening land occupation with the expansion of monoculture sugar cane plantations for the production of alcohol, in addition to economically diversifying soybean use which, in relation to other oilseeds used in making biodiesel, is the most advantageous because it already has consolidated productive chains (credits, inputs, warehouses, transportation, etc.) and because its by-product oilcake, is used for as food for livestock breeding.
The devastating effects of soybean cultivation in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay are well known, in addition to the chain of violation of human rights, deforestation and environmental destruction arising from soybean cultivation. For its part, since it was started during the first Colonial economic cycle, monoculture sugar cane plantation unequivocally repeats a model exploiting nature and labour.
Bearing this in mind, it is important to make a critical assessment of the endorsement of agro-energy as the new ‘renewable’ source of energy also serving to ‘renew’ the ideological rhetoric of agro-business and its land occupation strategies and to strengthen the rural development model based on industrial monoculture agro-exports, controlled by major capital holders and trans-national companies, whose ecological and social impacts are presently the hub of environmental struggles and peasant movements in Latin America.
It is important to remember that land concentration in Brazil is still one of the greatest in the world, that “hunger” is essentially a political question and that the implementation of a comprehensive agrarian reform is still a structural challenge to democracy in the country. But most important, the story of the struggle for land in Brazil generated a peasant movement acknowledged all over the world, the MST (“Movimento dos sem terra” – the Movement of the Landless), which in turn is part of the Via Campesina, the international peasant coordination. Via Campesina and the MST in Brazil and other rural movements in various other countries are all linked by their common defence of food sovereignty:
“Food sovereignty is the right of all peoples to define their own agricultural policies and regarding food, to protect and regulate national agricultural production and the domestic market in order to attain sustainable development goals, to decide how far they want to be self-sufficient, to prevent their markets from being flooded with surplus products from other countries that dump them on the international market, and to give preference to local fisherfolk regarding control of the use of and rights over aquatic resources. Food sovereignty does not reject international trade but rather defends the option of formulating those trade policies and practices that best serve the right of the population to avail itself of safe, nutritious and ecologically sustainable methods and foodstuffs. Food sovereignty is the right of all peoples, their nations or unions of States to define their agricultural and food policies, without dumping involving third-party countries.” (VIA CAMPESINA, introduction to the DECLARATION ON FOOD SOVEREIGNTY, 1996).
The defence of food sovereignty as a political policy would therefore be the peoples’ right to produce their own foodstuffs in accordance with the conditions of their territories and their food culture. In the twenty-first century, questions such as agrarian reform and peasants’ rights continue to be central in responding to serious environmental and social issues (such as rural exodus and migrations) arising from the expansion of urban and industrial society affecting humanity as a whole and not only the rural population.
Before hastily taking up the task of producing the fuel that the world needs, at a pace imposed on by this model of industrial production and consumption and capital accumulation, it is crucial we think of what we want and what we are planting for the future. Are we in fact breaking away from our Colonial mould of dependency or are we merely updating the terms of exploitation and repeating ancient equations of submission? How far are the biofuel production plans going to serve the needs of the Brazilian people? Or what will be produced to subsidize with energy the rationale of the export monoculture? In this framework and before it is too late, a critical examination should be made of the discourse promoting energy sovereignty to find out how far this sovereignty will be achieved at the expense of mortgaging the premise of food sovereignty.
By Camila Moreno, research worker CPDA (postgraduate in Development, Agriculture and Society) / Rural Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, member of Terra de Direitos, Brazil.