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Biofuelling Poverty – EU plans could be disastrous for poor people

EU plans to increase the use of biofuels could spell disaster for some of the world’s poorest people warns international agency, Oxfam in a new briefing published today.

EU plans to increase the use of biofuels could spell disaster for some of the world’s poorest people warns international agency, Oxfam in a new briefing published today.

EU proposals will make it mandatory by 2020 for ten percent of all member states’ transport fuels to come from biofuels. In order to meet the substantial increase in demand, the EU will have to import biofuels made from crops like sugar cane and palm oil from developing countries. But the rush by big companies and governments in countries such as Indonesia, Colombia, Brazil, Tanzania and Malaysia to win a slice of the ‘EU biofuel pie’ threatens to force poor people from their land, destroy their livelihoods, lead to the exploitation of workers and hurt the availability and affordability of food.

“In the scramble to supply the EU and the rest of the world with biofuels, poor people are getting trampled. The EU proposals as they stand will exacerbate the problem. It is unacceptable that poor people in developing countries should bear the cost of questionable attempts to cut emissions in Europe,” said Robert Bailey from Oxfam.

Biofuels may offer the potential to reduce poverty by increasing jobs and markets for small farmers, and by providing cheap renewable energy for local use, but the huge plantations emerging to supply the EU pose more threats than opportunities for poor people. The problem will only get worse as the scramble to supply intensifies unless the EU introduces safeguards to protect land rights, livelihoods, workers rights and food security.

EU member states agreed that the ten percent target must be reached sustainably, but Oxfam warns that the current proposals contain no standards on the social or human impact.

“The EU set its biofuel target without checking the impact on people and the environment. The EU must include safeguards to ensure that the rights and livelihoods of people in producing countries are protected. Without these, the ten percent target should be scrapped and the EU should go back to the drawing board,” said Bailey.

“Let’s be clear, biofuels are not a panacea – even if the EU is able to reach the ten percent target sustainably, and Oxfam doubts that it can, it will only shave a few percent of emissions off a continually growing total.”

Published reports show that as much as 5.6 million square kilometres of land – an area more than ten times the size of France – could be in production of biofuels within 20 years in India, Brazil, Southern Africa and Indonesia alone. The UN estimates that 60 million people worldwide face clearance from their land to make way for biofuel plantations. Many end up in slums in search of work, others on the very plantations that have displaced them with poor pay, squalid conditions and no worker rights. Women workers are routinely discriminated against and often paid less then men.

In Indonesia almost a third of palm oil is produced by smallholders most of whom lost their land to advancing plantations and were ‘rewarded’ with a two hectare plot. These smallholders are bonded to the palm oil companies which provide them with credit and are required to sell to them – which means they do not get the best price for their oil.

Abet Nego Tarigan, deputy director of Sawit Watch, which represents communities, farmers and plantation workers affected by palm oil development in Indonesia, said:

“Decisions on biofuels made in Europe are directly affecting millions of people in Indonesia. In the relentless pursuit of biofuel gold, big powerful palm oil companies are callously clearing communities from land they have farmed for generations, workers and small holders are shamefully exploited and we are losing valuable agricultural land to grow the food we need to feed ourselves and make a living. The proposed EU policy will only make this worse – pushing more people into poverty and concentrating land in the hands of a few.”

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