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Agroenergy: Myths and Impacts in Latin America

Realizado por Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos y Comissão Pastoral da Terra

10 / 2007

The Energy Matrix

Recent studies on the negative impacts of fossil fuels have contributed to agrofuels becoming one of the most important issues of the day. Currently, the global energy matrix is composed of petroleum (35%), coal (23%), and natural gas (21%). Just ten of the wealthiest countries consume close to 80% of the energy produced in the world. Among these, the United States is responsible for 25% of the atmospheric pollution produced by this energy.

Brazil is the fourth largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world. Its contributions to global warming are largely a consequence of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, which accounts for 80% of the country’s carbon emissions. The expansion of monoculture agricultural production tends to exacerbate this problem, as it expands the agricultural frontier and places ever larger pressures on the Amazon and the Cerrado (savannah). Brazil is practically self-sufficient in energy production. As a result, the central objective of the expansion of agroenergy production is to meet the needs of other countries. This will result in the acceleration of global warming instead of contributing to the preservation of the planet.

The acceleration of global warming is a fact that places all life on our planet at risk. As a result, it becomes necessary to demystify the propaganda promoted by corporations in regards to the supposed benefits of agrofuels, which are pointed to as the primary solution. The concept of “renewable” energy should be discussed from a broader perspective that considers the negative effects of these energy sources.

Large agriculture corporations, biotechnology companies, oil companies and the automotive industry, taking advantage of the legitimate concern of international public opinion, are now pursuing agrofuels as an important source of profit.

Since no alternative source of energy would be capable of meeting the current energy demand, a shift in the current patterns of consumption, principally in the countries of the Northern hemisphere, is indispensable, However, the option of reducing consumption has been practically excluded from the official debate about the means by which atmospheric pollution may be diminished. The first step should be massive investment in public transport, well beyond policies of rationalization, waste containment, and energy efficiency. Implementing a diversity of alternative sources that are truly renewable is imperative.

During the 1920s, after the First World War, a phase of capitalism known as “Fordism” was constructed, based on a powerful automotive industry created by Henry Ford. The industry had strong ties to oil companies. “Humanity during the industrial era sacrificed time, space, natural resources, and, sometimes, their own lives to machines, to which public relations campaigns attributed magical qualities,” describes journalist Antonio Luiz Costa, in the magazine Carta Capital.

In 1973, vehicles were responsible for 42% of carbon dioxide emissions. This rate increased to 58% in 2000, and the tendency continues. Analysts estimate that, within 25 years, the global demand for oil, natural gas, and coal will increase by 80%.

The World Health Organization has warned that 1.2 million people die, and 50 million people become disabled per year due to the consequences of car accidents. In the United States, automotive accidents are the principal cause of death for ages younger than 44 years old. In that country, vehicles occupy 43% of all urban space; 33% of which are streets, and 10% of which are parking lots. 770 cars exist for every 1000 people.

To think that the solution to saving the life of our planet is by continuing to supply the same quantity of vehicles with fossil fuels or agrofuels is, in the least, ingenuous. The extensive production of agrofuels causes serious environmental problems, as we will see in this text.

Wars over energy sources

The majority of wars fought in previous decades have had as their main objective the control of energy sources. In this scenario, the energy policy of the United States, followed by other countries in Europe, has the ability to determine armed conflict or invasion of foreign territories as policy options. Beyond representing the central theme of its foreign policy, the government of the United States seeks to guarantee large corporations’ monopoly control over energy sources (traditional or alternative).

Many armed conflicts and processes of militarization also involve an interest in the control of natural water sources, which, among other functions, is also capable of producing energy.

According to United Nations (UN) estimates, 1.2 billion people do not have access to potable water. Each year, close to 2 million children die from illnesses caused by contaminated water. In the poorest countries, one of every five children dies before they reach five years old due to illnesses related to water contamination. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, characterizes this situation as a “silent genocide.”

Water is an irreplaceable natural resource. If the current rate of destruction of natural water sources continues, half of the world’s population will have no access to potable water within the next 25 years. The increase production of agroenergy tends to worsen violations of the fundamental right of access to water for human consumption.

As a result, a lifestyle based on high energy consumption is guaranteed for the privileged sectors of central and peripheral countries, while the majority of the world’s population is left without access to basic services. According to the World Energy Statistics Institute, per capita consumption of energy in the United States is 13,066 kilowatt hours (kwh), while the global average is 2,429 kwh. In Latin America, the average is 1,601 kwh.

With the privatization of these services, there is an even greater interest on behalf of the majority of transnational corporations to profit from these policies. The private monopoly of energy sources is guaranteed through clauses included in Free Trade Agreements (bilateral or multilateral), in policies implemented by the World Bank, and by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which stimulate the mercantilization of natural resources.

In Latin America, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) stimulates the agrofuel production through the argument that we should utilize our “enormous potential in arable land, climactic conditions, and labor costs.” The Bank recently announced its intention to invest US$3 billion in private agroenergy projects.

The Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) also promotes a series of large energy projects. As a result, this model of integration follows the historical pattern of colonization, in which the role of our countries is to export cheap, raw materials and natural resources to central countries.

In this context, the role peripheral countries are meant to play is to generate cheap energy for rich countries, which represents a new phase of colonization. The current policies for the sector are sustained by the same elements that characterized colonization: the exploitation of territory, natural resources, and labor.

* This file is also available in french, spanish and portuguese.

Table of contents

In Central America, the planting of sugarcane is one of the most profitable agroindustrial activities, but this business panorama contrasts with the lived reality of the workers in sugarcane plantations throughout the region. These plantations are owned, throughout the region, by members of the elite classes, who subordinate small- and medium-sized sugarcane producers as suppliers of raw material.

Guatemala is the third largest sugar exporter in Latin America, and the largest in Central America. In order of importance, Guatemala is followed by El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Panama.

* Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras

* Guatemala

Common problems related to sugarcane plantations in Latin America and the Caribbean

– Workers are stimulated through competition and “award-giving” to cut more sugarcane. This practice has caused serious health problems and even death of workers.

– Sugarcane workers, principally in Central America, are prohibited from organizing unions. When organizations exist, they are frequently controlled by the companies.

– Workers have no control over the weight of their production, which stimulates stronger exploitation.

– Labor contracts are normally not negotiated directly with the plantations owner and/or sugarcane supplier, but rather by an intermediary. As a result, the plantation owners avoid the responsibility of complying with labor legislation.

– Children and adolescents are not able to attend schools because of their work in the sugarcane fields.

– In some countries, women work at the sugarcane fields, but the payment is only given to the male workers.

– Living conditions on the plantations are extremely difficult, and workers lack adequate sanitary conditions, sufficient access to food and water.

– The diet of workers is precarious. Many companies distribute chemical substances to stimulate the workers’ energy during hard labor.

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