Growing Fuel Instead of Food: Agro-fuels in Chiapas

In November 2008 La Jornada correspondent Hermann Bellinghausen defined ‘the four horsemen of progress’ for Chiapas: tourist development, mineral exploitation (mining), oil, and ‘biocombustibles’. The four horsemen are four routes used by multinational corporations, in conjunction with the Mexican (and US) government, to steal and plunder the land and its natural resources, the rivers and forests, the mountains and valleys, and to evict and destroy the indigenous peoples, their lands and territories.

“Capitalism also makes its wealth from plunder, or theft, because they take what they want from others, land, for example, and natural resources…… they also want to privatize electricity and water and the forests and everything, until nothing of Mexico is left, and our country will be a wasteland or a place of entertainment for rich people from all over the world,…..but there are Mexican men and women who are organizing and making a resistance struggle…. there are indigenous, and they are making their autonomy and defending their culture and caring for their land, forests and water” – from the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.



The state government promotes expansion of the cultivation of agro-fuels

In November 2008 La Jornada correspondent Hermann Bellinghausen defined ‘the four horsemen of progress’ for Chiapas: tourist development, mineral exploitation (mining), oil, and ‘biocombustibles’. The latter are commonly known in Latin America as agro-fuels, to remove any connotation of environmental benefit that ‘bio’-fuels might suggest. The four horsemen are four routes used by multinational corporations, in conjunction with the Mexican (and US) government, to steal and plunder the land and its natural resources, the rivers and forests, the mountains and valleys, and to evict and destroy the indigenous peoples, their lands and territories. It is the resistance against these four horsemen that Hermann records and celebrates with such dedication.

The article records that as part of the Mesoamerica Project, the federal and state governments had agreed to build an agro-fuel power plant in 2009, and had set aside 3000 hectares of land to grow enough Jatropha to produce 10,000 litres of fuel daily from this plant. Much of this land was in zones adjoining ecological reserves, and this scheme had generated considerable opposition, particularly from “the Zapatista autonomous municipalities, communities of the Other Campaign and other independent organisations”.

In August 2009, the governor of Chiapas, Juan Sabines, with representatives from ten Mesoamerican countries in attendance, opened an agro-diesel plant in Puerto Chiapas, which was intended to produce more than 12,000 litres of agro-diesel per day from Jatropha and oil palm. This factory was built using Colombian technology and expertise. Two similar plants in Mexico, funded by the state at a cost of $US 500,000, had previously been abandoned due to the lack of a market for this relatively expensive form of fuel.

Use of agro-fuels for aviation

In July 2010 a meeting was held in Chiapas entitled “Flight-Plan toward Sustainable Bio-fuels for Aviation in Mexico”, aimed “towards the promotion of a larger vision for the use of agro-fuels in Mexico’s aviation sector” (It should be noted here that Mexico’s largest airline, Mexicana de Aviacion, filed for bankruptcy at the end of July 2010). During the event, the president of the National Institute of Ecology (INE), Adrián Fernández Bremauntz, said that Chiapas is the state that has most promoted the cultivation of agro-fuels in Mexico; he said Chiapas has dedicated 50,000 hectares to the production of palm oil and 10,000 to Jatropha. Gilberto López Meyer, director general of Airports and Auxiliary Services (ASA), made the assertion that the expansion of the cultivation of agro-fuels “would, if carried out, result in a better quality of life for the residents of this planet.” Chiapas state governor, Juan Sabines Guerrero, claimed that the example set by his government could serve to put an end to the problems of poverty in Mexico and of climate change in general. He added that the state of Chiapas will always remember President Calderón as the great promoter of agro-diesel. These astonishing claims merit closer attention.

The loss and destruction of indigenous lands

In Colombia, the source of the industrial expertise now being used in Chiapas, the agro-fuels industry has resulted in the deforestation of vast areas, where all the campesino and indigenous communities have been forcibly evicted from their lands to make way for oil palm and other agro-fuel crops. 

All over the world, indigenous peoples and forests are suffering in the same way. A report presented to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), meeting in New York in 2008, referred to ‘increasing human rights violations, displacements and conflicts due to expropriation of ancestral lands and forests for agro-fuel plantations.’ One of the report’s authors, UNPFII chairperson Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, said that if agro-fuels expansion continues as planned, 60 million indigenous people worldwide are threatened with losing their land and livelihoods.

In November 2009, the highly respected movement for tribal peoples, Survival International, released a report entitled ‘the most inconvenient truth of all: climate change and indigenous people’ which shows how measures to stop global warming risk being as harmful to original peoples as climate change itself. The report sets out the four key threats:

– Agro-fuels, “much of the land allocated to grow them is the ancestral land of tribal people”

– Hydro-electric power, which leads to dams being built and land being lost

– ‘Forest Conservation’, i.e. the eviction of indigenous people in the name of conservation, as in the Montes Azules biosphere reserve

– Carbon offsetting, which leads to forced evictions and the stealing of indigenous lands.

The report concludes: “the world’s indigenous people, who have done the least to cause climate change and are most affected by it, are now having their rights violated and land devastated in the name of attempts to stop it”.

Food insecurity: ‘a crime against humanity’

“Hunger is palpable in Mexico. Beggars line the streets of the cities with their bowls and their children, pleading for coins: ‘Para comer, Senor, para comer?’ Whole families rifle through the trash bins in front of the fast food franchises hunting for discarded scraps”. – John Ross

According to the 2008 findings of Mexico’s National Evaluation Council on Social Development (CONEVAL), nearly 49 million Mexicans – over 46 percent of the country’s population – were then suffering from some form of food insecurity. Included within these 49 million are 11.2 million individuals who consume less than the line at which CONEVAL marks the base-line of extreme material poverty, in addition to nearly 2 million ‘chronically malnourished’ children. The report found that 26.3% of people in Chiapas were suffering moderate or severe food insecurity at the time of research.

Figures just released by CONEVAL (July 2010) show that poverty in Mexico is increasing. In the last quarter of 2009 food poverty rose by 6.8 percent, which means that from 2008 to 2009 the number of people living in some degree of food insecurity increased by 3.2 million people, making a total to date of 52 million. This means that half the population of Mexico do not have enough to eat. 

World Bank statistics from 2006 showed that 15.5% of Mexican children under 5 were stunted by malnutrition. Hunger in Mexico is especially acute among indigenous groups; CONEVAL’s 2008 report states that 33.2% of indigenous Mexican children under 5 are stunted through malnutrition. Chiapas has a high indigenous population.

The Mexican government aims to have 200,000 hectares of its productive lands dedicated to agro-fuel production by 2013, despite the fact that the growing of plants for agro-fuels is increasingly becoming a serious threat to food security, especially for those already vulnerable to malnutrition. The cultivation of agro-fuels competes with the production of crops for human consumption, and agro-fuel plantations also require far more water than other crops.

The state government of Chiapas is committed to expanding the production of agro-fuels in order to maintain the position of Chiapas as the leading state in agro-diesel production in the country. Thousands of hectares where people used to grow crops for their own needs have been replaced with plants that can be converted into fuels, thus putting the most vulnerable and impoverished sections of the community at risk of hunger, malnutrition, even starvation.

Jean Ziegler, former Special Rapporteur for the United Nations on the Right to Food, declared the production of agro-fuels to represent a “crime against humanity.”

Jatropha curcus, pinion, or the Black Vomit Nut

This plant, a native of Central America, is not a food plant. In fact it has toxic properties, which can affect humans and animals. As few as three seeds have been found to produce a toxic reaction, leading to the plant being banned in parts of India. There are already more than 10,000 hectares of this plant growing in Chiapas. It is popular because it can be grown in dry, marginal soils, but these are often the only lands available to indigenous peoples. Hermann Bellinghausen records how already millions of jatropha seeds have been distributed among campesinos throughout Chiapas, including the Lacandon Jungle area. He also reports how communities engaged in the tree-planting programme Proárbol have been given seeds of jatropha instead of trees to plant.

Palm oil, ‘the forest-eater’

There are two main types of Oil Palm, the African Oil Palm, Elaeis guineensis, native to west Africa between Angola and Gambia, and the American Oil Palm, Elaeis oleifera, native to tropical Central America and South America. Under a scheme called “productive reconversion” 50,000 hectares of the Chiapas countryside no longer grow food crops, they are now planted with African palm in a scheme designed to make the countryside more profitable, even though the crop is recognised to cause substantial, often irreversible, damage to the natural environment. There are now six oil palm extraction plants in Chiapas, and it is planned to have 100,000 hectares under cultivation by 2012.

Monoculture oil palm plantations are one of the main causes of deforestation. In the words of the World Rainforest Movement, they “replace tropical forests and other ecosystems, leading to loss of biodiversity, flooding, the worsening of droughts, soil erosion, pollution of water courses and the apparition of pests due to a breakdown in the ecological balance and to changes in food chains”. Oil palm plantations are great consumers of water, deplete fresh water sources, and jeopardize the availability of water in their area. The plantations require agrochemicals that poison workers and local communities and contaminate soil and water.

Oil palm in the Lacandon Jungle

There is also the question of land evictions, the forcible removal of peoples from their lands to provide areas for oil palm cultivation. The following alert was released in February 2010: “Families from the Biosphere of Montes Azules, Lacandon Jungle, are being evicted from their land in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. The evictions, being forced by police operations, are to make way for palm oil plantations. Friends of the Earth International call on you to demand an end to the evictions and the proposed developments.”

The Latin American Network against Monoculture Tree Plantations (RECOMA) reported “Last January, the Chiapas State Congress approved funding for the construction of a palm oil processing plant. Shortly afterwards, dozens of families were evicted from their territory, in order to give way for the expansion of monoculture oil palm plantations. Heavily armed police arrived in helicopters and with aggressive violence evicted men, women and children from their homes, which they then burnt down and, with no explanation, removed the community to the city of Palenque. While the government talks about conservation and protection of the zone, it evicts those who have been truly responsible for making this conservation possible. At the same time, it replaces local ecosystems by oil palm monocultures”.

The evictions in this area are part of a plan of seizure of indigenous lands, not only for oil palm plantations, but also for the creation of luxury ‘eco-tourism’ complexes, construction of roads, dams, and airports, and the plundering of natural resources – timber, water, oil, minerals.

Deforestation of the Montes Azules biosphere reserve has now reached 80 per cent. Over 40 communities have now been evicted from the area. One of the two communities uprooted from their lands in the January 2010 displacements described above was a Zapatista support base settlement. A Zapatista spokesperson stated, “To make the situation clear to the public about the new phase of aggression that has restarted against our compañer@s … we made public our position regarding the defence of the Mother Earth in a written declaration dated 23rd January 2010. In this declaration we clearly stated that we would defend the land and its natural resources.”

In April 2010 plans for more evictions in the area were denounced by the Zapatista autonomous authorities (JBG): “For us the land belongs to those who work it, therefore we make clear that…we will not allow one more eviction, we will not tolerate these actions, we will not allow them to take place; we will defend our land whatever happens, because for us the land is not for hire, not for rent, let alone an object for sale….We love the Mother Earth; we work it, care for it, and protect it. For this reason we are ready to defend it at all costs.”

The Zapatistas have never identified themselves as an environmental movement. Their struggle has been, and remains, one for land and dignity, for the right to live collectively, in their own way, and for democracy, liberty and justice. But it naturally all comes together. The indigenous peoples of the earth once again have to become its defenders.

Further information: Rechazo de pueblos indígenas a proyectos de supuesto desarrollo en tierras chiapanecas, Hermann Bellinghausen “La palma africana en México. Los monocultivos desastrosos”, Gustavo Castro Soto, Otros Mundos, AC/Amigos de la Tierra México, International Declaration against the ‘Round table on Sustainable Palm Oil’ (RSPO) “Pobreza y derechos sociales en México”, Miguel Concha, La Jornada 31st July 2010 Javier Sethness, June 2010 Jeff Conant, August 2010 Survival International Report ‘the most inconvenient truth of all – climate change and indigenous people’, 2009. people/ La Jornada: Denuncian que habrá más desalojos en áreas zapatistas The right to Food and the Impact of Liquid Biofuels (Agrofuels) FAO, 2008 The study examines the impact of biofuel production on the enjoyment of the human right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger. It explores the extent to which biofuel production has undermined, or is likely in the future to undermine, access to food for vulnerable people, and whether there are any overriding ethical concerns that can justify biofuel production even if it harms access to food.