Later this year, the Bush administration is set to have discussions with lawmakers on whether the US import tariff (US $0.54 per gallon) on ethanol should be allowed to expire or not. Designed to protect US corn-based ethanol makers from cheaper imports, elimination of this import tariff is expected to have wide implications for ethanol exporting countries, especially Brazil that accounts for more than 70% of imports (2006 figures).
While Brazil’s leadership on biofuels – particularly sugarcane-based ethanol – has been held as a global model for sustainable biomass production, a new report from the Oakland Institute and Terra de Direitos, Food & Energy Sovereignty Now: Brazilian Grassroots Position on Agroenergy, describes the opposition that biofuels face from the Brazilian social movements and civil society, as formulated at the First National Agroenergy Conference, held in Curitiba, Brazil in October, 2007. The report also exposes how the ‘ethanol factor,’ within the current drive for ‘energy security’ in the US, is becoming the integrating force in the region that is shaping a new geopolitical configuration in Latin America.
"Today what makes Brazil distinct from any other country is that ethanol/biofuels, purported to be a "clean" energy, have become a bargaining tool and are the central focus for Brazil’s economic and political aspirations internationally, while they exacerbate social and environmental problems domestically," said Camila Moreno, researcher at Terra de Direitos and lead author of the report. "Biofuels and the agroenergy strategy depends on massive expansion of industrial monocultures and biotechnology (GMOs) under the corporate-controlled industrial agricultural system. A drive through the Brazilian countryside shows how the expansion of biofuels is turning millions of hectares of valuable natural ecosystems, including the Cerrado (grasslands) and the Amazon, into one major monoculture. This expansion of monocultures under corporate-controlled industrial agricultural system today determines access and control over common natural resources (land, water, forests, biodiversity, oil, gas) and is at the root of nearly all socio-environmental conflicts in Brazil, as throughout the rest of Latin America," she continued.
Nonetheless, even given the heightened conflict that expanded biofuel production is sure to spark, Brazilian foreign policy makers are working hard to grade ethanol as a key "eco-friendly" environmental good under the WTO, thus contributing to ‘making trade work for the environment’ – a sensitive but increasingly important task amid rising concerns over global warming. The report makes the case that biofuels are in fact, a Trojan Horse to promote free trade agreements.
"More and more studies demonstrate that biofuels make global warming worse, since a range of biofuel crops release far more carbon dioxide into the air than they absorb. In spite of the damning evidence, international entities such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are promoting biofuels initiatives using a "development" framework. Rich nations are adopting mandatory blend targets to increase the use of biofuels while they lack the agricultural land and production capacity necessary to achieve these targets. These mandatory targets depend on production in southern countries, siphoning off valuable resources like land and water," said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute and coauthor of the report.
Food & Energy Sovereignty Now: Brazilian Grassroots Position on Agroenergy challenges the corporate strategy which has come to determine the official discourse on climate change and how to tackle it. The report contends that instead of taking measures to fight the root causes of climate change, biofuels are helping create new political arrangements aimed at maximizing corporate profits and perpetuating global power imbalance. This crucible moment of "greening" corporations, or "de-carbonizing" the economy to "save the planet" only promotes free trade, while disguised as a commitment to tackle global warming and enforced as an "energy security" strategy. The capacity to mix fossil fuels and agrofuels will prevent a rapid phase-out of oil-based infrastructure and economy, further postponing the required structural changes in the way of life (and patterns of consumption) in the developed world and a structural transition to a post-oil society.
The ecological crisis brought on by the industrial society and its energy demands cries for a paradigm shift in our production and consumption patterns and in the way we depend on nature to provide our basic needs and ensure daily survival. Social movements in the South are building the concept of Energy Sovereignty as an essential component, along with Food Sovereignty, to attain social and environmental justice – "an expression of peoples’ right to self-determination, Food and Energy Sovereignty stem from the right to democratic access and effective control over common natural resources, thereby guaranteeing communities and nations the ability to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development, and to determine their political status," the report proposes.