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Brazil's agrofuel push in Sao Paulo III

No major breakthrough at International Biofuels Conference

By the end of these four days, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva unsurprisingly made a call for an end to tariff on ethanol, saying that it is "..hypocritical for countries to insist on slashing greenhouse gases while keeping tariffs on oil low and tariffs on ethanol high." "On Friday, an intergovernmental meeting between the Swedish Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Enterprise, Energy and Communication, Maud Olofsson, and Brazil's Minister of Mines and Energy, Edison Lobão, took place. According to the Conference website, they "discussed energy issues of mutual interest, especially renewable energies", and "they recalled the need for the creation of a global market for this renewable energy source and concurred that market distortions have to be dismantled". Indeed, in her speech one day earlier, Olofsen said that 'winners' in agrofuel production should be countries like Brazil and other 'developing' countries, that there should be only 'market based criteria' in order to 'not complicate everything in details' and that the GHG balance calculation should be 'fair', meaning that initial emissions from for example former grasslands should be allowed, and that synergies with paper and pulp industries should be sought. The Brazil agribusiness section in the audience was clapping fiercely when she was finished." The Swedish government has expressed interest in joining the efforts within the Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP), which was practically crashed during this Conference by the US government, demanding any reference to food security being an issue to be deleted. Both Ministers expressed 'hope' that the necessary legal proceedings for the entry into force of the 2007 "Memorandum of Understanding on Bioenergy Cooperation" between Sweden and Brazil would be concluded soon. In addition, the U.S. agriculture secretary Ed Schafer and Brazil's foreign minister Celso Amorim announced an agreement late on Thursday, to join forces to speed up research into cellulose-derived agrofuels. Scientific collaboration will be led by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) and Brazilian oil giant Petrobras' Center for Research and Development CENPES. Five countries were promised a rather meagre total of $4.3 million for agrofuel projects, namely Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Guinea Bissau and Senegal. Internationally, agrofuel related news these days is more dominated by the outrageous 99-year least at no cost for Daewoo Logistics of 3.2 million hectares of agricultural land in Madagascar for food and agrofuel production for South Korea. Many more examples pop up these days, including that of an Indian consortium looking for land in Paraguay, Uruguay and Myanmar. The Indian market has been facing difficulties in maintaining food supplies. Nevertheless, food insecurity was said at the International Biofuels conference to be not related to the growing use of agrofuels.

Thursday 20 November

Today, around 200 people belonging to social and environmental movements and organisations mobilised outside the International Conference on Biofuels in the Hyatt Hotel, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Held off at a safe distance, not to be seen from the conference center, speeches were held and songs were sung, after which the group went off to join the immense mobilisation in the center of Sao Paulo to celebrate the existence, self consciousness and cultural identity of the black communities of Brazil, that is held every 5 years. Inside the conference, however, the atmosphere had changed. Less party, more negotiations, although clearly not in the plenary sessions. A European delegate said that the Brazilians organised ‘special sessions’ that only selected people were invited to, and the rest only heard about it afterwards.

Frankly, I am not exaggerating if I say that today’s plenary sessions were a disgrace, an insult to intelligence and simply pathetic. I will give some examples below. The few reasonable contributions came from Venezuela, Cuba, African Union and Belgium. It did not really matter what the topic of each session was: sustainability, innovation or international market. Bureaucrat after Minister after embassador either advertised their countries’ available land and friendly people, ranted against sustainability criteria being non-tariff barriers to trade and therefore immoral, or claimed that non-food ‘second generation’ crops for agrofuels do not compete with food production and that ‘degraded land’ is both abundant and available for agrofuel expansion.

Another side meeting was held by GBEP, the G8-instigated Global Bioenergy Partnership. This platform claims to be working on setting an international standard for agrofuels, as most self-respecting institutions, universities and government bodies nowadays seem to be doing. However, the US is doing us a favour by yesterday causing GBEP to nearly crash. They suddenly fiercely opposed any criterion – no matter how neutrally formulated – referring to food security (something that even Brazil agrees to!); much to the astonishment of FAO and European participants.

Later in the plenary, the US delegate claimed that research has now shown that agrofuel production does not have an impact on food security, that the US nevertheless is ‘all for sustainable biofuels’ and does not mind criteria as long as they are voluntary and ‘science-based’.

The opposition – us – does however not waste time on debating criteria. The declaration presented yesterday in the confence states that: “The proposals for social and environmental certification of agrofuels, looking at different experiences (like FSC, RSPO, RTSB), do not reduce but rather hide the impacts, serving largely as an instrument to legitimise the international trade in agrofuels.” Another official delegate confirmed this, saying that BP is setting up projects sourcing RSPO-certified palm oil in possibly Ghana and of course East Asia. This shows how industry supported voluntary certification initiatives in the end serve to legitimise and facilitate the expansion of the market.

At the conference, Sweden claimed that ‘Brazil and African countries will be winners’ as agrofuel producers. She went on to say that it is really important to ‘assure consumers’ but things should not be so complicated that the market gets disrupted. She praised the Sweden-Brazil discussion on sustainability aspects, after which Brazil’s Environment Minister (who followed up after Marina Silva gave up, last May) thanked Sweden for its financial support to some Amazone saving project.

The Netherlands praised Brazil’s ‘leading role in developing biofuels in Africa and meet the global challenge of climate change’. Austria in its turn praised the great food provided at the conference, and announced that Austria would organise an EU-Latin America conference in spring 2009 on cooperation on renewable energies, with high level representation and a Business Forum.

Mozambique said that for them ‘biofuels are a strategic option that should be seen in the context of the Green Revolution’. Moreover, the delegate summed up that Mozambique “is a nice place to live, has a stable government, a favourable legal environment, low production costs regarding land and labour, an open business regime that is further improved through reforms, a friendly population.. come and see!” After this commercial break, Benin tried a different technique, saying that “biofuels are like a very nice girl on the beach of Rio” – no kidding – and that many ‘misunderstandings’ around agrofuels had been cleared during this conference. “We are waiting for Brazil to help us to develop biofuels”.

The Cameroon representative added that it has enough land to produce agrofuels without compromising food production, so why add sustainability criteria, they will only be a barrier to trade. The Zambian delegate claimed that Zambia has 42 million hectare of agricultural land of which currently only 5 million is under cultivation, of which only 10.000 for agrofuels.

The Dominican Republic bureaucrate said that “Brazil is great and good, and should teach us to be good and produce biofuels”. The spokesperson of the Guatemalan government added that ‘eco-hysterics’ should not be listened to.

The French said that if there had been a kind of world government, sustainability criteria would already have been in place, and the FAO recalled its Secretary General Diouff’s speech from yesterday, in which he apparently called for a ‘new agicultural order’, for which 40 billion US$ would be needed per year to invest in productivity and infrastructure.

Amidst all this madness, the delegate of the Belgian state gave a refreshing speech saying that “ the best energy is that what is saved”.

Very scary were also the many mentionings of ‘social inclusion’ of the poor in global agrofuel production. An old trick in a new jacket: incorporate small producers in a ‘productive’ project, make them dependent, and then let the market slowly finish them off. Isn’t Europe the best example in case?

Both the US and Denmark called for more PPP (Public Private Partnerships) in agrofuel innovation, involving governments, academics and industry.

In between, a little excursion to the adjoining Biofuels Exposition, gave a nice example of agrofuel applications: the first 100% alcohol airplane. – one to spray crops with pesticides!

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