Biofuel Expansion in Central America and the Myth of Vacant Land

Globally, biofuels are being promoted as a kind of nicotine patch to wean the world off its dirty and expensive fossil fuel addiction. Known by some as “aboveground oil fields,” biodiesel (made from vegetable oils and fats) and ethanol (made by fermenting the sugars in corn and sugarcane) present the opportunity to grow fuel feedstock on agricultural land—plots that can renew every few years rather than every few million. Biofuels lie at the intersection of a myriad of government goals, including energy independence, climate change mitigation, and rural development. Buttressed by 46 national regulatory policies worldwide that support the industry, liquid biofuels provided about three percent of global road transport fuels in 2011, up from two percent in 2009. What is taking place is essentially an agro-fuel revolution—one that will reverberate across millions of hectares, livelihoods, and lives.

The most straightforward biofuel-promoting policy is a blend mandate: E10 fuel, for instance, delineates a 10 percent ethanol blend. Though Central America has not been at the forefront of biofuel policy until very recently, three countries in the region—Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama—now have legally binding biofuel mandates in place, and two more have either targets for the future (Honduras) or blend mandates under review (El Salvador).Though Central American biofuel production is modest compared to other countries in Latin America, these policies will still have significant consequences for land-use change on the isthmus as millions of hectares are set aside for growing sugarcane, African palm, jatropha, castor, and other biofuel feedstocks.

In response to global criticisms that biofuels drive deforestation and threaten food security, Central American governments and interest groups specify that biofuel expansion will occur on “tierras ociosas”—or vacant, unproductive land. This may include land that was never fit for growing food crops, land heavily grazed by livestock, or land previously deforested. Nicaragua’s Ministry of Energy, for example, claims that 3.2 million hectares have the necessary climate and labor force to cultivate ethanol and biodiesel feedstock. Guatemala’s Renewable Fuels Association identifies an estimated 600,000 hectares of “tierras ociosas” ideal for growing jatropha without impacting food production. Honduras’s Ministry of Agriculture is promoting African palm plantations on more than 494,000 hectares of “abandoned farmland.”

Where do biofuels fit in? Hectares are finite, so expanding biofuel feedstock cultivation in Central America would mean reducing the hectares devoted to some other land use. Source: Graph created from FAO data 2009. FAO definitions: Agricultural land is the sum of arable land (land under temporary cultivation), permanent crops, and permanent meadows and pasture. 'Other land' is land that is neither forest or agriculture, including built-up land.

However some governments, such as El Salvador’s, are beginning to question the concept of “tierras ociosas”—and rightly so. There is no such thing, really, as ‘vacant land.’ Underlying this term is an embedded evaluation that the current land use is unproductive and that biofuel cultivation would be an improvement. The problem is that these assessments are often done implicitly rather than explicitly, with potentially devastating consequences for both people and ecosystems.

The case of Colombia, which has among the most aggressive biofuel targets in Latin America and has seen dramatic expansion of African palm cultivation, offers some insight into what might be on the horizon for Central America. I recently traveled to Colombia with the University of Michigan’s International Economic Development Program to research the economic, environmental, and social consequences of the country’s biofuel mandates. Colombia’s “tierras ociosas” lie on the eastern plains of the Andes where the cattle industry has downsized to about half its historical land use, leaving millions of hectares of pastureland available for palm cultivation. However, the idea of vacant land is especially contentious in Colombia, where 6.65 million hectares representing 12.9 percent of the country’s total agricultural land was usurped or abandoned over the last several decades due to violence. Some indigenous and Afro-Colombians have since returned to their homes only to find their cropland transformed into African palm plantations.

Empty land? A reported 3,000 indigenous people in the Valle de Polochic of Guatemala were displaced in January 2012 by an ethanol company, Chabil Utzaj, supported by the government. Corn, yucca, and bean crops were destroyed to make way for sugarcane feedstock. Source: Comité de Unidad Campesino

Central American countries developing their biofuels industries may be at risk for similar land-rights issues.  In Guatemala’s Valle de Polochic, a reported 800 indigenous families were recently forced off their land by the biofuel industry, their homes and crops burned to make way for ethanol feedstock production.

Even when biofuel production does not directly displace people, policies designating that biofuel feedstock be grown on the least productive land make vulnerable the most marginalized farmers, who have already been pushed to the outskirts of arable hectares to eke out a living. The prevailing narrative surrounding “tierras ociosas” also implicitly ignores small farmers’ self-determination in terms of land use. In Colombia, a representative from the human rights group Justicia y Paz told us that biofuels cultivation was inherently at odds with rural development in the country, since African palm does not fit the culture or traditional agricultural practices of subsistence farmers.

A recent report by FUNDE, El Salvador’s National Development Fund, echoed this conundrum. They found that the overall consequences of biofuel production are negative when done on a large scale, since industrial-scale biofuel production comes with the same ills that accompany industrial agriculture.  Unfortunately, small-scale biofuel feedstock production—despite its greater potential for true rural development—has so far proven economically infeasible.

The impacts of biofuels on natural ecosystems are also contentious. Critics of biofuels nickname it “deforestation diesel,” pointing out that many of the industry’s emissions and negative environmental impacts occur long before the fuel reaches vehicles. Despite laws to the contrary, biofuel cultivation has already led to incidents of deforestation in Central America. In Nicaragua, PALCASA is an obvious offender: in 2007, the company planted 1,200 hectares of palm in Boca de Sábalos, an area that had been declared off-limits by Nicaragua’s Forest Service. Biofuel expansion may also cause forest degradation indirectly by pushing out the edge of the agricultural frontier or by putting pressure on other crops.

Separate studies conducted by researchers from the Center for International Forestry (CIFOR) and the World Bank both found that the climate change benefits of biofuels can only be achieved if feedstock is grown on land with low carbon content—for instance heavily grazed pasturelands instead of dense rainforest. Choice of feedstock can also make a difference, but this choice is not straightforward: sugarcane yields the most liters of biofuel per hectare of feedstock planted, which may minimize land use, but African palm and jatropha can be grown on land that is more degraded. Even where feedstocks have been promoted as an improvement on previously deforested landscapes (jatropha and African palm are, after all, trees), monoculture plantations are inherently low on biodiversity indexes, limiting their ability to adapt to climate change and reducing broader ecological benefits.

Though it is certainly possible that biofuels constitute the best land use for some—perhaps many—hectares in Central America, the narrative surrounding “tierras ociasas” is a misleading one. While it makes sense that the biofuel industry would advertise statistics on vacant land for feedstock expansion, governments should not appropriate this language, but should instead talk about land-use change in terms of a trade-off of benefits and consequences, with self-determination as the trump card.

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