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Agro-Fuel Debate Takes Root in Central America

Danilo Valladares* - Tierramérica

GUATEMALA CITY, Feb 24 2011 (IPS) - The debate is growing in Central America over the scope of industrial crops in forested areas or subsistence farming zones, and their impact on the source of food for the rural population.

Farmers plant African palm in the northern Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz.  Credit: Laura Hurtado, Courtesy of ActionAid Guatemala

Farmers plant African palm in the northern Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz. Credit: Laura Hurtado, Courtesy of ActionAid Guatemala

“There is a dramatic reduction of the area used for growing basic crops because when the small farmers sell their plots they stop planting them. And the impact is not just on the family that lost or sold the land, but the three or four families that rented it,” activist Laura Hurtado, of the non-governmental organisation ActionAid Guatemala, told Tierramérica.

In this country, where half of the 14 million inhabitants live in poverty and 17 percent are extremely poor, the rural population subsists on growing maize, beans and vegetables.

But Hurtado said that “big agricultural businesses are buying up vast areas to grow sugarcane and African oil palm, which threatens the livelihoods of these families.”

Guatemala’s leading crop after coffee is sugarcane, with 28.4 percent of the permanent farmland, according to the latest National Agricultural Census, in 2003. But as much as 40 percent of the farming area is suitable for that crop.

African palm is the fifth leading crop, growing on 4.7 percent of the farmland, with a potential for 40 percent, according to the report “Sugarcane and African Palm: Fuels for a New Cycle of Accumulation and Control in Guatemala,” published in 2008 by several non-government entities.

The total area planted with sugarcane grew from 84,000 hectares in 1985 to about 220,000 in 2009, especially along the southern coast. In 2008, palm was grown in 56,000 hectares in the north and northeast, with another 11,000 to be added that year, according to the ActionAid study “The Biofuels Market: Sugarcane and African Palm Production of Guatemala,” published in 2010.

The agri-businesses expanded, acquiring land often through coercion of farmers, “who then have to live on a low salary and without access to resources like water, firewood and other forest products,” said Hurtado.

Ovidio Pérez, of the Guatemalan Centre for Sugarcane Research and Training, qualified those statements, however, noting that sugarcane is concentrated in the south, in areas already degraded by livestock or other monocultures like cotton. As such, “it is not displacing or affecting the environment,” he told Tierramérica.

More than threatening food security, sugarcane provides jobs for thousands of people, he added. “I don’t think there is any other crop that generates so many sources of work and development for the communities,” Pérez said.

Another ActionAid report, “Plantations for Biofuels and Loss of Land for Food Production in Guatemala,” from 2008, lays out examples of land concentration, like the San Román farm, in Sayaxché, in the northern department of Petén.

The 90,000-hectare property had been occupied beginning in 1978 by families displaced by Guatemala’s civil war (1960-1996), which left 200,000 people dead or disappeared.

After the conflict, and a long process of legalisation, the National Land Fund handed over property titles to 2,113 families in 2001.

But others interested in buying the land “followed the distribution to offer money (to the farmers) in exchange for the deeds. By June 2008, 60 percent of the land had been concentrated in the hands of oil palm entrepreneurs,” says the report.

In neighbouring Honduras, farmers and activists echo those complaints.

“While oil palm and sugarcane prosper, the production of basic grains is on the decline, to the point that the country has been forced to import maize and beans,” Miriam Miranda, leader of the Black Honduran Fraternal Organisation, an umbrella of 46 Garífuna communities in that country.

“By the beginning of the 1990s, there were 40,000 hectares of African palm, and today there are 120,000,” concentrated in the north, in Valle del Aguán and in the department of Cortés, she said.

The expansion of oil palm is opposed by many of the Garífuna, descendants of African slaves and indigenous Caribs who still remember the boom and bust of banana plantations in the first half of the 20th century.

As a result of encroaching crops, the Garífuna communities are losing their “functional habitat,” in which they plant cassava and other crops.

Further south, in Nicaragua, “oil palm monoculture has become one of the main threats to natural resources,” complained environmentalist Saúl Obregón, of the Fundación del Río (River Foundation).

In El Castillo, a biological reserve on the banks of the southern San Juan River, a company obtained a permit to plant oil palm on 3,200 hectares, but expanded that to more than 6,000 hectares, Obregón told Tierramérica.

“Every time that company buys a farm it means the selling family buys new property in the area of the reserve or stops producing food, and its members turn into farm labourers,” he said.

“In 2009, the forested area was reduced by as much as 60 percent. Meanwhile, the African palm saw an increase of 92 percent between 2002 and 2009,” states a report published in September 2010 by the Fundación del Río.

Aída Lorenzo, of the Guatemalan Association of Renewable Fuels, responded that “there is a great deal of disinformation” about biofuels, sugarcane and oil palm.

In Guatemala, she said, “African palm is not used to produce biodiesel, but vegetable oil.” Nearly half of the production is used in the national food industry and the rest is exported, said Lorenzo.

Furthermore, “we don’t need to cultivate more sugarcane to produce ethanol. All of the cane is used to make sugar in Guatemala,” which is the world’s fifth leading exporter, she said, while alcohol is made from by-products of sugar refining.

Five distilleries produce 180 million litres of alcohol, of which more than 90 percent is exported, according to industry figures. In 2008, more than 74 percent went to industrial use, and 24 percent to fuel alcohol. The leading markets are the European Union and the United States, according to the report “The Biofuels Market.”

Thanks to the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences Plus, Guatemala has sold ethanol to the bloc tariff free since 2006.

If Guatemala were to mix ethanol and gasoline at a proportion of 10 percent, “it could save 67 million dollars annually” in imported fossil fuels. “That is what we are promoting, because it also reduces emissions” of climate-changing gases, said Lorenzo.

In the opinion of Ricardo Navarro, director of Friends of the Earth – El Salvador, agro-fuels are not the environmental answer. Although combustion of biofuels releases less greenhouse gases than gasoline, “to produce ethanol requires many inputs which themselves require fossil fuels,” and frequently, “in order to produce agro-fuels means destroying a jungle.”

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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