Brazilian biofuels: Who benefits?

5 April 2007 - 4:03pm

What follows is our translation and adaptation of an extract from an article published in Sem Terra, the MST's magazine, in March 2007.



Behind the debate on renewable bio-energy is the issues of the production of biofuels - fuels that come from crops like sugar cane, Soya and castor seeds. With almost 200 million hectares of arable land, Brazil looks set to play a central role in the production of biofuels, but the impact to the environment and to small-holder and subsistence farmers' livelihoods has not been accounted for.

Who is leading the biofuels debate?

Biofuels are gaining favour because they are a renewable alternative to fossil fuels. But little attention has been paid to the effect on small-scale agriculture the government's increased focus on ethanol will have. So far, discussions on biofuels have taken place behind closed doors, with a few carefully chosen 'experts' and little space for debate. The voices of social movements such as the MST and Via Campesina, another War on Want partner, have been left aside.

The interest in bio-energy could provide Brazil with a serious opportunity to reform its model for agricultural production, but instead Brazil's entrance into the biofuels market seems to offer little scope for protecting the environment and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. Instead of encouraging small farmers, government policy will continue to push for the large-scale production of crops to produce biofuels. This will only increase the economic hardship subsistence and small-scale farmers already confront, while pursing the same unsustainable social and environmental practices that only benefit those who are already well off.

Government incentives hurt small-scale farmers

"You have a clean fuel, produced in a dirty way - the way it uses the labourer's manpower is socially perverse" - Brother Sergio, of Via Campesina Brazil

Brazil's small farmers have already lived through disastrous agricultural policies. The National Alcohol Programme (NAP) of the 1970s saw the government encourage sugar cane plantation owners to produce ethanol. In theory this incentive should have encouraged small- and medium-scale farmers to install alcohol distilleries. But for political reasons the NAP benefited only a handful of the largest landowners and refineries - many of which had feudal labour practices that reeked of slave labour. This experience has been engraved into the collective memory of Brazilians, and the MST warns the current policy could have the same consequences.

In an attempt to protect farming families the federal government created the Social Fuels Stamp, but the reality puts small farmers at a further disadvantage. The programme offers incentives to large companies who source their biofuel seeds through small-scale farmers. This is intended to prevent small farmers from becoming too dependent on one crop. The reality however, suggests that Social Fuels Stamp actually encourages reliance on one crop, particularly castor seeds in Southern and North-eastern Brazil. The Social Fuels Stamp also promotes direct interaction between large agribusiness and small farmers, which puts the small farmers at a disadvantage and often results in their economic exploitation.

Diversifying Production

Organisations of rural agricultural workers such as the MST are sceptical about the move towards a biofuel industry. They are certain that the popular interests of social justice will lose out to the protection of the environment and capitalism. For organisations such as Via Campesina there are some basic requirements that need to be met before they would consider any commitment to the cultivation of crops for the production of biofuels. These would include:


  • The prioritization of food crops
  • The combination of fuel-related crops with other crops to avoid systems of integration with large enterprises
  • Participation in as many stages of production as possible in order to generate a model that produces foods and biofuels simultaneously



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