Monday, February 23, 2009

Food or Fuel?

Biofuel in Mindanao: Feeds who? Fuels what?

The Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao (AFRIM), a non-government
research and advocacy organization, expresses its concern on the potential
impact of biofuel (also known as agrofuel) production to Mindanao’s
poorest of the poor.

“Huge areas needed to be planted with Jatropha will add up to existing
large tracts of lands already used for monocrop plantations here in
Mindanao. With the growing global demand for biofuel, it will only be a
matter of time before investors eat up the remaining arable lands of small
landowners/farmers in rural communities.” said Mary Luz Feranil, the
Executive Director of AFRIM.

Jatropha, a succulent plant variety locally known us tubatuba, produces
seeds containing up to 40% oil, which can be used as biodiesel to fuel
diesel engine cars. Although it is considered as one of the best
candidates for biodiesel production, long term impact of large scale
production of Jatropha on both soil quality and the environment is yet

The United Nations estimates that 60 million people worldwide face
displacement from their lands to make way for biofuel plantations. Many
end up in slums in search of work, others on the very plantations that
have displaced them with poor pay, squalid conditions and virtually no
worker rights. Women workers are routinely discriminated against and often
paid less than men. Even the International Monetary Fund had to admit that
fuel crops pose a threat to food prices resulting in inflation affecting
primarily the poor.

Along with tubatuba, sugarcane has also been identified as vital to the
biofuel program. The Philippines Biofuel Program, authored by Senator Juan
Miguel Zubiri, is patterned after Brazil’s model using sugarcane for
bioethanol production and that of India using jatropha for biodiesel.

“What we want to achieve is a higher standard of living for our people in
the countryside and produce biofuels without being subjected to OPEC’s
$100 per barrel gasoline.” Zubiri said in a press statement.

Feranil, however, pointed out that while Biofuel is among the best
alternative forms of renewable energy, rural communities are faced with a
more urgent problem: food scarcity.

“We are for the promotion of renewable energy. However, compromising a
rural farmer’s access to grow staple crops to pave way for biofuel
production is as good as opting to prioritize a car’s fuel than providing
food on the table.” Feranil added.

Cautionary reports from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) indicate that
industrial biofuels will not cut greenhouse gasses, but will put rural
livelihoods and food security of communities at risk.

Likewise, Oxfam, an international NGO based in Europe, is also alarmed
with the possible threat of European Union’s (EU) biofuel promotion on
food security particularly in developing countries such as the
Philippines. In a press statement on its website, Oxfam stated that the
proposed EU policy will only push people more into poverty and will
further concentrate lands in the hands of a few.”

Jatropha oil is vegetable oil produced from the seeds of the Jatropha curcas, a plant native to Central America that can grow in wastelands. Jatropha curcas grows almost anywhere, even on gravelly, sandy and saline soils. It can thrive on the poorest stony soil and grow in the crevices of rocks. The hardy jatropha is resistant to drought and pests, and produces seeds containing up to 40% oil. When the seeds are crushed and processed, the resulting oil can be used in a standard diesel engine, while the residue can also be processed into biomass to power electricity plants.

The plant yields more than four times as much fuel per hectare as soybean, and more than ten times that of corn. A hectare of jatropha produces 1,892 liters of fuel.

Growing crops from which biofuels are extracted could drastically change farming practices and land use in a way that creates even more problems than they solve. Farmland, especially in our archipelago, is a limited resource. Since a ready overseas market for biofuels already exist, and if production turns to be a highly lucrative business, agricultural producers could opt to cultivate crops for biofuel rather than for food.
Development of biofuel plantations must not result in the devastation of the Philippines’ remaining natural forests. The current promotion of biofuels will displace our already threatened biodiversity and further sacrifice our country’s food security needs — and for what? All in the sake of feeding Japanese and European cars.

as posted in: Haribon website


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