It’s cars versus humans

 Farmers all over the world are very worried about the escalating issue of agrofuel. At the Nyilini World Forum for Food Sovereignty in February, La Via Campesina, along with hundreds of other organizations, stressed that the prefix 'bio' in biofuel did not guarantee that this phyto-fuel was environmentally sound. Furthermore, the term is very misleading and politically incorrect.

In the global context, we are witnessing a major alliance among transnational corporations: oil companies, which want to reduce their dependence on oil; carmakers, which want to continue profiting from the current individual transportation model; and agribusiness companies, which want to continue monopolizing the world agricultural market. And not to mention the role of the developed countries, such as the United States and the European Union (EU), in their desire to maintain their hegemony over the global economy. Their effort to raise this issue is being countered by the new emerging forces in Latin America, which consist mainly of the world's leading oil-producing countrie

What will happen then if it becomes more profitable to produce agrofuel than rice, corn, cassava, cotton or soybeans? Farmers will, of course, replace food crops, which generally have a lower profit margin — because consumers have low incomes — with agrofuel crops. A friend of mine, Joao Pedro Stedile of the Landless Workers' Movement of Brazil (MST), dubs it a rule of capitalism.

In the Indonesian context, this topic is very much related to palm oil. The skyrocketing price of crude palm oil (CPO) and cooking oil is closely linked to the hype over CPO-based agrofuel. As the world's second largest producer after Malaysia, many of the major palm oil producers quickly sniffed the huge profits they could make from the trend. This can be seen from the plans by IndoAgri and London Sumatra to expand their plantations to 250,000 hectares by 2015.

Backed by growing concern over climate change and global warming, the EU parliament has set itself a target of substituting agrofuel for up to 5.75 percent of total vehicle fuel by 2010, and doubling this to 10 percent by 2020. The U.S., a country that has been firmly refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, has been playing the role of an environmental defender by utilizing up to 35 billion gallons per year of agrofuel as part of its effort to shrink its carbon emissions.

It is clear that these two global forces do not have enough farmland to meet their targets (Holt-Gimenez, 2007), and will resort to large-scale agrofuel importation. Major agribusiness corporations from tropical countries, where many of these energy-producing crops can grow, are trying to meet the EU and U.S. demand.

The rising price of cooking oil is making people here suffer as it is one of the nine basic commodities. Despite public disquiet, the corporations insist on exporting CPO to reap bigger profits. The government is almost helpless in responding to this situation since its ad hoc instruments, such as export tax and the domestic market obligation mechanisms, are unable to solve the problem.

At least 1.5 million tons of Indonesian CPO is exported to Europe, and nearly all is turned into agrofuel. On the other hand, hundreds of people have to queue for subsidized cooking oil. This shows that agrofuel gives rise to competition between cars and human beings. According to Monbiot (2007), human beings — and the environment — will lose this unfair battle. Those who can afford to drive are certainly richer that those who are in danger of starvation, and money is the major weapon in this capitalistic world.

Moreover, from the environmental point of view, agrofuel does not significantly contribute to curbing pollution, and may in fact exacerbate global warming. According to Monbiot, each ton of palm oil that is turned into agrofuel releases 33 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, 10 times more than the emissions released by fossil fuels.

This race could destroy our agrarian and food system. Farmers and peasants all over the globe have been crying our for years for an end to unjust agrarian structures. In the case of peasants in Indonesia, palm-plantation expansion has long resulted in the marginalization of local farmers, dating back in fact to colonial days. In 2006 alone, the expansion of oil-palm plantations produced 350 agrarian conflicts.

With this continuing capitalistic mode of production, only a few hands (the corporations) will end up owning more than 67 percent of the land intended for food production.

Farmers need a fundamental solution, which we call agrarian reform, which is economically and socially capable of addressing long-standing agrarian injustices. Legally, agrarian reform in Indonesia is based on Article 33 of the 1945 Constitution and the 1960 Agrarian Law.

The battle against agrofuel, of course, not only involves farmers and peasants. We need people, workers, youth, and environmentalists to actively get involved as agrofuel has already caused a catastrophe for our environment. Finally, we need consumers to voice our concerns. Otherwise, for the sake of capital and the agrofuel trend, we will lose our food and our livelihoods.

The writer is the secretary-general of the Indonesian Farmers' Union Federation (FSPI), and general coordinator of La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement.

Henry Saragih, Jakarta