Brazil's Agrofuel Push in Sao Paulo

CEO's Nina Holland reports from the International Biofuels Conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil

No major breakthrough at International Biofuels Conference

Friday 21 November -- 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.

Protest 1 Protest 2
MST and other social movements and organisations protest outside the International Biofuels Conference, 20 November 2008

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.

Inside the conference 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!

Opposition voiced at International Biofuels Conference
Piebalgs on tour with UNICA

Wednesday 19 November 2008 -- Today, participants of the international seminary "Agrofuels as an obstacle to food and energy sovereignty" read out their final declaration inside the International Biofuels Conference. The strong rejection of the current agroindustrial model in which agrofuel production is taking place, was voiced by Lucia Ortiz of Friends of the Earth Brazil, Placido Junior of CPT, and others. The declaration asks the EU to drop the 10% target, and rejects any form of certification for monoculture products, including FSC, the Round Tables on Palmoil and Soy, the Round Table on Sustainable Biofuels, etc.

At the official conference, today's main topic was how to promote agrofuels/ethanol as a global commodity. In the plenary, the spokesperson of the Global Bioenergy Partnership (GBEP), a G8-product, made a plea to classify ethanol as an 'environmental good'. More govenments present, such as the Dutch, are of the same opinion, despite all evidence of contamination and deforestation for sugar cane monocultures.

Despite the lower profile of the official conference than earlier expected, European Energy Commisioner Piebalgs has made the time to spend several days in and around Sao Paulo for this event. On Tuesday, Piebalgs and most of the EC delegation went on a tour organised by the sugar cane lobby group UNICA to one of its factories, Usina Santa Adélia, in the region of Ribeirão Preto (Sao Paulo). According to an UNICA spokesperson, Piebalgs was "impressed with the fact that all parts of sugar cane get used and recycled".

The Brazilian government is threatening the EU that if it imposes too strict sustainability criteria, it will start a claim at the WTO. UNICA claimed that Piebalgs reassured them that no criteria will be imposed that will be against the WTO. This means, first of all, no social criteria. This is again confirmed by the European Commission press release on Piebalgs' visit, stating that "The 10% binding target is an opportunity for foreign partners to export biofuels to the EU market. The implementation of sustainability standards will require an extra effort from producers but will ensure that use of biofuels will not contradict environmental goals." In other words, for a moment not regarding the fact that the real agenda of the EU is nothing to do with sustainability but with access to natural resources, the Commission maintains the totally crippled discourse of 'sustainability' excluding social issues. Referring to the Renewable Energy directive, UNICA gladly announces that "The EU Energy Commissioner anticipates that non-tariff barriers will be out of the document, to be issued mid-December."

UNICA is part of the industry-NGO "Better Sugar Cane initiative" (BSI), setting voluntary standards for sugar cane production. According to UNICA's Geraldine Kutas, these criteria in development will be a lot more ambitious than the EU criteria. When asked why then they oppose so fiercely the EU criteria, she answered: "Well.. the EU criteria are obligatory, whereas the BSI criteria are voluntary. That is why they can be a lot more ambitious." Right!

Meanwhile, many other meetings appear to take place in various hotels around town, such as the Round Table on Sustainable Biofuels and the Global Bioenergy Partnership, the latter working especially on 'mapping' various regions for potential expansion of agrofuel production.

Lula's Ethanol Show

17 November 2008, Sao Paulo -- The Hyatt hotel and conference center in the city of Sao Paulo is the heavily guarded scene of the International Biofuels Conference "Biofuels as a driving force of sustainable development". What was supposed to be President Lula's ethanol feast, turned out a less high profile event now that George W. Bush cancelled his participation. Lula, in turn, also declined to show up for the opening speech and sent his Minister Dilma Rousseff to replace him. Nevertheless, European Energy Commissioner Piebalgs, and an EC delegation around him, is still going to attend.

According to inside sources, the event is really not more than propaganda, with the Brazilian delegates refusing any real debate on 'sustainability' issues. And not only them. The Paraguayan delegate's objective is to get commitments from his Brazilian counterparts to act on the bilateral Memorandum of Understanding, and come up with something to offer. Present is also the Finnish public private research consortium on forestry, and use of cellulose for second generation agrofuels.

The Dutch government were told that the Brazilian government was too busy to have a meeting on the Dutch-Brazil bilateral Memorandum of Understanding, but it is more likely that the Dutch proposal to lower the current indicative agrofuel target for 2010, bothered them deeply.

On Monday, energy security was the main theme. Not coincidentally, as it's a public secret that not climate change nor development are the drivers for the agrofuel push. As Paul Robers, energy expert (US), stated, the main driver for agrofuels is the high price of oil, and the fact that the US and EU wish to get rid of their dependency on the Middle East for liquid fuels. He emphasised once more the convenience of agrofuels being a liquid fuel, therefore "not demanding any change of behaviour from the part of the consumer."

Another participant to this debate was Ibrahim Assane Mayaki (Sudan), "CEO from NGO HUBrural" (sic). The Rural Hub, with a closer look, itself seems to have an equally disturbed definition of 'civil society organisation', and present the West African Network of Chambers of Agriculture (RECAO) and the Africa Agro Export Association (AAFEX) as such in their network. It was therefore not surprising to hear Mr Mayaki talk about the 'development' opportunity of large scale agrofuel production, although some on the panel wondered why African countries would not produce to meet internal demand first.

Alan Kardec Pinto, Petrobrás' Biofuel president expanded on the 'trilateral partnerships' between EU countries, Brazil and Africa that have now become en vogue (see also: Cornering the market in agrofuels: Brazil’s bid to dominate the EU, Kim Bizzarri, Corporate Europe Observatory, November 2008), with state enterprise EMBRAPA as special agent, having set up shop in Ghana for example.

In another part of town, in the teachers' syndicate building at Praza Republica, an International Seminar is held "Agrofuels as obstacle to food and energy sovereignty", called for by Brazilian organisations and social movements, and supported by a range of organisations internationally. Here, the interrelations between the food, energy and financial crisis are exposed, and its implications for for example workers discussed.

On Wednesday, a declaration from this forum will be read inside the official conference. On Thursday, MST and other social movements and organisations, have mobilised for a protest against the conference.

For information on the official conference: www.biofuels2008.mre.gov.br