From EntreMundos, in Quetzaltenango (Xela to its friends), is this article on the use of crops for food or for fuel with regard to those of the population for whom small changes in the price of food has major consequences.
Fields of Gold
When an eleven-year old girl comes home from school to tell you the price of tortillas in Zacapa, you know that something is amiss. All of her friends, her parents and neighbors have only one thing on their minds – the rising cost of food.
The Hungry Months
We have now entered what are traditionally known throughout Guatemala as the ˜hungry months’, the time when households start to run out of their food reserves from the last harvest that ended in January and depend on the market to buy food until the next harvest in August. This has always been a precarious time of year for the poorest households, the majority of which are found in rural areas where opportunities to earn a wage sufficient to live on are few and far between. The problem of low wages has intensified in recent years with unusually high rates of inflation, particularly for food. In 2005 the cost of food and drinks rose by over 13% while the previous year, the price of tortillas – the central, indispensable ingredient in the Guatemalan diet – had increased by two thirds.
This year, however, the situation is set to reach breaking point.
In March, George W. Bush toured Central and South America publicizing the US‘s strategy to reduce the country’s vast, and increasing, problem of carbon emissions by converting to biofuels. ˜Biocombustibles’ are liquid fuels, ethanol or diesel, made not from fossil fuels but from organic crops such as sugarcane, rapeseed or corn. Biofuels have been widely lauded, not only because they provide a much needed alternative to rapidly depleting world reserves of oil, but from an environmental point of view, they are heralded as the key to saving the planet. Burning biofuel generates up to 65% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional fossil fuels. What is more, the crops themselves actually act as ˜carbon sinks’ when they are growing, taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and giving off oxygen. Indeed, many countries in the North have latched onto the idea that by running cars on bioethanol or biodiesel rather than petroleum fuels, they will be able to meet their Kyoto Agreement targets for reducing CO2 emissions.
Meeting the Demand
The European Union has ruled that by 2010, member states must ensure that a tenth of all fuel they use comes from biofuels. The US aims to use bioethanol for a quarter of its transports needs by 2017. And it would seem that these countries are serious about reaching their targets. Last year more than a third of the entire US maize crop went to producing ethanol for fuel, an increase of nearly 50% since 2005. The UN predicts that global production of biofuels will double in the next four years. However, both Europe and the US are well aware that their own countries have nowhere near the land capacity to cultivate all the crops that they would need to meet their own targets, hence President Bush’s recent tour of the Americas. The US has looked to Central and South America, while Europe has targeted Asia to supplement their immense demands for biofuel crops.
Yet despite all the hype, environmental and social campaigners have issued grave warnings over biofuels, insisting that not only are they far from being the ˜green energy’ alternative Northern governments proclaim but also that biofuels will have devastating humanitarian impacts for countries in the South.
Saving the Planet?
According to Miguel Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at the University of California, biofuels do not actually reduce carbon emissions. Investigations show that it requires more energy to produce biofuels (including manufacture of machinery, harvesting and distillation) than they provide. The obvious benefit to countries such as the US is that emissions incurred elsewhere do not ˜count’ in their own carbon tally. Furthermore, pressure on agricultural land worldwide means that previously unfarmed areas will be turned over to monocultivation of crops for biofuels. Indeed, the British Environment Secretary has admitted that plantations of palm oil, a biofuel crop, are destroying 0.7% of the Malaysian rainforest every year. Not only does destruction of the rainforest reduce natural habitats, open a country to natural disasters and reduce the world’s ˜carbon sinks’, but burning forested land releases vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
The High Price of Fuel
While the environmental impacts of world demand for biofuels may not be fully available for a few years yet, the social and humanitarian impacts are already being felt by the world’s poorest. Increased global demand, teamed with insufficient supply has led to one inevitable consequence – the price of biofuel commodities has skyrocketed. Worldwide, prices for maize have roughly doubled in the past year, causing devastating consequences for ordinary Guatemalans whose staple diet is maize and beans.
Over the last fifteen years, Guatemala‘s land owning elite have moved away from the cultivation of basic grains, opting instead to cash in on more lucrative export crops such as fruit. To make up the internal shortfall in food supplies, the country has turned to outside markets and importation of maize rose by over 3000% between 1992 and 2002. This has left the country extremely vulnerable to the situation in which it now finds itself.
Full Tanks, Empty Bellies
The grim reality for countries in the South is that biofuel crops are vital to their lives, not for fuel, but for food. One tortilla now costs 0.50Q in Zacapa, double the price it was at the start of the year and every Guatemalan wants to know when it will stop. In a country that suffers from the third highest incidence of child malnutrition worldwide, it’s a desperate situation. Campaigners warn not only will biofuels result in crippling price rises for basic grains, but the fact that fuel crops are now so profitable means that farmers worldwide will chose to cultivate biofuel crops in place of other foods. The knock-on increase in the cost of all food will be hardest felt on the world’s poor. In Guatemala in 2003, the minimum daily agricultural wage wasn’t even enough to buy the ˜basic food basket’- the minimum food sufficient to satisfy a person’s protein and energy requirements). As we enter the ˜hungry months’ of 2007, the country waits to see what impact the North’s insatiable thirst for fuel will have on the lives of Guatemalans.
The author of this article, Claire Ellis, is a volunteer for ADIPSA in San AgustÃn, El Progreso.