Biofuels are forcing poor off their land

Posted: 22 July 2008

The global biofuels boom risks harming poor people in poor countries by forcing them off land they depend on, says a new UN-backed report. But not all biofuels are bad, it says.

The report, published by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that biofuel production can also allow poor groups to increase their access to land and improve their livelihoods if the right policies are in place.

It points out that all biofuels are not equal and recommends policies that would increase the social benefits biofuels production can bring to the rural poor in developing countries.

"Despite the highly polarised debate, biofuels are not all good or bad," says lead author Lorenzo Cotula of IIED. "Biofuels can either help or harm the world's poor depending on the choice of crop and cropping system, the business model, and the local context and policies."

Biofuel production
Biofuel production
Biofuel production is set to expand in the coming years despite growing concerns about the role of biofuels in mitigating climate change, promoting deforestation and taking land formerly used to produce food.

Land rights

The report shows that that large-scale biofuel production is affecting poor people's access to land in African countries such as Mozambique and Tanzania), and in Asia and the Pacific, where farmers in India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea are suffering. It is also having a negative in countries such as Colombia in Latin America.

Elsewhere, however, small-scale farmers have been able to increase their access to land to seize opportunities that the biofuels boom brings.

"Biofuels can benefit poor producers but only if they have secure land rights," says Cotula. "In many places the rush to produce biofuels takes place where local land rights are insecure, which results in poorer people losing out. What are often lacking are both adequate land laws and the local people's capacity to claim and secure their rights."

The report shows that large and small-scale biofuels producers can co-exist, if governments and the private sector have the right policies and practices.

African smallholders

Commenting on the issue, IIED president, Camilla Toulmin, said "We must avoid treating all biofuels as equal in their environmental, social and economic impacts. As always the devil is in the detail. Cutting down rainforest to plant oil palm for biodiesel makes no sense if you want to save carbon and protect the livelihoods of local forest dwellers. But Brazil's ethanol derived from rainfed sugarcane in the far southeast of the country makes a lot more sense.

"Does biofuel production offer opportunities for smallholders in Africa to improve incomes and get a better return on their land and labour? After decades of falling prices for most agricultural commodities, rising prices are welcomed by many. Yet most smallholders are net food purchasers so lose out from price rises along with other consumers. The key issue is whether smallholders will be able to access high-profit markets and hold on to their land - which becomes more valuable by the minute as revenues from farming rise. This highlights the ever-more pressing need to help strengthen local rights to land and water resources so that agricultural growth brings benefits to the many not the few."

The full report: 'Fuelling exclusion? The biofuels boom and poor people's access to land' is available as a free download (PDF 1Mb) here

Source IIED newsletter July 22, 2008.

Related link

Secret World Bank report delivers blow to biofuels drive