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The biofuel project is an agro-industrial development and politically contested policy process where governments increasingly become global actors. European Union (EU) biofuels policy rests upon arguments about societal benefits of three main kinds – namely, environmental protection (especially greenhouse gas savings), energy security and rural development, especially in the global South. Each argument involves optimistic assumptions about what the putative benefits mean and how they can be fulfilled. After examining those assumptions, we compare them with experiences in three countries – Germany, Brazil and Mozambique – which have various links to each other and to the EU through biofuels. In those case studies, there are fundamental contradictions between EC policy assumptions and practices in the real world, involving frictional encounters among biofuel promoters as well as with people adversely affected. Such contradictions may intensify with the future rise of biofuels and so warrant systematic attention.

Conclusions: frictions and contradictions

The EU policy on biofuels creates a market and thus incentives for agro-industrial biofuels development, both in the EU and in the global South. An emerging global biofuel market is illustrated here by interactions and inter-dependencies among Germany, Brazil and Mozambique. In these cases, the biofuel project encounters various frictions – inadvertent or intentional resistances to be overcome. The EU pro-biofuels policy has elaborated a narrative about several societal problems finding solutions in beneficent biofuels. The policy rests upon arguments about societal benefits of three main kinds – environmental protection, especially GHG savings; energy security through import substitution; and rural development, especially in the global South.

Each argument in turn involves several assumptions about what these putative benefits mean and how they can be fulfilled. In major respects, such assumptions are contradicted by practices, experiences and effects. Policy aims are sometimes impeded by conflicts among biofuel promoters, as well as between others who may be adversely affected. More than simply inconsistencies, here contradictions mean frictional encounters and practical dilemmas. For example, treating land as ‘marginal’ can justify its appropriation for agro-industrial biofuels, but may provoke protest from local poor people being dispossessed.

Meanwhile, agro-industrial plantations may create ‘employment’ but then also degrade its conditions and readily undermine other livelihoods in the informal economy. Finally, promoting such agro-industrial development creates conflicts with environmental protection law, which undergoes pressure to be softened, as in Brazil. Such conflicts arise from a specific normative account of rural development and sustainability. Opposing stringent proposals for EU sustainability criteria, many producer governments have argued that ‘if all the relevant criteria are taken into account, biofuel production is not sustainable’.

From a different starting point, many activists have warned that biofuel production undermines legal protections of commons and encourages dispossession of rural communities, while government policies downplay negative ecological and human consequences. Environmental and agrarian justice movements converge around arguments that the potential for GHG-savings from biofuels is undermined by their link to the intensive agro-industrial model.

Together such critics face a practical dilemma. Should they enter into discussions with biofuel promoters and parliamentarians about how to establish an effective system of monitoring sustainability criteria, thus serving to legitimise the agro-industrial biofuel project? Alternatively, suspecting that massive industrial production of biofuels cannot be done in a sustainable way, should they resist any monitoring system as pointless? Would they miss a potential opportunity to slow down the biofuels boom – or at least to derail a few harmful projects?

Such strategic questions may have no clear, single ‘right answer’. But most critics can agree that, at minimum, a critical perspective must continue to bring bottom-line sustainability criteria to public attention. Human rights organizations, for example, have thus focused on land use change and dispossession; they demand compliance with existing treaties and covenants protecting access to land and other productive resources and thereby access to food.11

The current contradictions are likely to intensify with any future rise of biofuels and so will continue to warrant systematic attention through critical research. Indeed, by early 2010 EU institutions were displaying more overt tensions between biofuels promotion and other EU policies. Biofuels promoters’ optimistic assumptions will remain a key reference point in public debates.

By critically comparing those assumptions against practices, critical research can highlight harmful effects, their causes and deceptive language which may conceal or sanitise those effects. It can also question the fundamental development models that corporate-led biofuels serve, and illuminate how those models are promoted through supposedly benign biofuels. In these ways, critical research can help to deepen understanding of the key challenges facing those who oppose the current corporate-led agrofuels project. Such research can thereby contribute to building and strengthening advocacy efforts with several aims – holding policies accountable for resultant harm, finding intervention points for changing policy frameworks, and counterposing alternative development pathways.


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