Social impacts of current biofuels
Competition with food production
Since the major biofuel crops like maize and wheat are also food crops, and they grow on arable land, using food to fill car tanks inevitably raises pressure on the world food system. At a time when it is estimated that the number of hungry people will reach historic levels of up to 1.02 billion by the end of 2009 (FAO/World Bank) the expansion of large-scale biofuel production directly competes with community resources such as land, water and labour for food production. This increases dependency on food imports; and with the increasingly volatile agricultural commodity prices (OECD/FAO, 2008), low income families who are net food-buyer are vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition.
Though biofuel is not the only factor contributing to the rapid price increases during the past several years, it is nonetheless a major one. An estimate by Rosegrant (2008) from the International Food Policy Research Institute has shown that the increased biofuel demand during 2000-2007 have accounted for 39 percent of the increased in real prices in maize, 21 percent of the increase in rice prices and 22 percent of the rise in wheat prices.
Social impactsLarge-scale plantation companies are causing various social impacts in developing countries, where they do not respect local customary rights or even national / international labour laws.
Plantation developments have caused numerous land conflicts around the world. In Indonesia, since indigenous people and other rural communities rarely have formal land rights, palm oil companies have taken over large tracts of customary right lands and community forest, which traditionally provide a livelihood to 40 million people. Such developments often lead to numerous, persistent and often violent conflicts between local communities and companies. Until July 2001, there have been 261 conflicts which involved 566 villages for about 569 000 hectares of land recorded in Indonesia (FoE, 2005b). In Colombia, it is estimated that between 1.87 and 3.83 million of people have been displaced by violence such as murder or massacres, threats, kidnapping and torture. Their lands are seized and some of those are now planted with oil palm (Mingorance, 2006). Tens of thousands of people’s livelihoods are threatened as well as the Tana Delta in Kenya becomes a valuable target for various land leases. One of such is the lease agreed between the Government of Kenya and Qatar of a total of 40,000 hectares of land to grow vegetables and fruit in exchange of support to build a $2.4 billion port off the coast of Kenya.
Often labour rights are poorly understood or not recognised in developing countries, and this leads to horrific working conditions or near slavery. In Brazil, sugarcane cutters earn a little over one dollar per tonne of cane they cut, working in 12 hours shift with temperature over 30°C – 14 cutters reportedly died of exhaustion during the harvests of 2004/05 and 2005/06 (Oxfam, 2007). Women in Indonesia often work without pay on oil palm plantations, in order to help their husbands meeting production quotas. In many cases, women working on plantations are discriminated in terms of employment benefits and exposure to occupational safety and health risks (FAO, 2008a).
Sometimes, smallholders or migrant workers are forced into slave labour due to debts bondage to plantation companies either from credit for starting cost for smallholders, or from transportation and rent costs for migrant workers (Oxfam, 2007). In fact in June 2007, over 1,000 workers were released from “conditions analogous to slavery” on sugar cane plantations in Brazil. (Amnesty International 2008). There are also a series of issues like health hazards, poor housing, low wages, as well as inequalities between permanent and day labours. Since the bargaining power of unions or workers are so weak that their requests are often ignored by foreign companies or state government agencies (FoE, 2005b).
Amnesty International Report (2008): The State of the World’s Human Rights. Available at: http://thereport.amnesty.org/document/101 (20 January 2009).
FAO (2008a) Gender and equity issues in liquid biofuels production. Minimizing the risks to maximize the opportunities. Available at: ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/ai503e/ai503e00.pdf
Friends of the Earth (2005b) Greasy palms. The social and ecological impacts of large-scale oil palm plantation development in Southeast Asia. Available at: http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/reports/greasy_palms_impacts.pdf
Mingorance, F. (2006) The flow of palm oil Colombia-Belgium/Europe. A study from a human rights perspective. Coordination Belge pour la Colombie. http://www.cbc.collectifs.net/doc/informe_en_v3-1.pdf
OECD/FAO (2008) Agricultural outlook 2008-2017. Available at: http://www.agri-outlook.org/dataoecd/54/15/40715381.pdf
Oxfam (2007) Bio-fuelling poverty. Why the EU renewable-fuel target may be disastrous for poor people.
Oxfam (2008) Another inconvenient truth.Rosegrant, M.W. (2008) Biofuels and Grain Prices: impacts and policy responses. Testimony for the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. International Food Policy Research Institute. Available at: http://www.ifpri.org/pubs/testimony/rosegrant20080507.asp
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