Biofuels and Land Grabs

A biofuels plantation in the Dakatcha Woodlands, Kenya
Workers at a biofuels plantation in Kenya
Photo: Piers Benatar/Panos Pictures/ActionAid

Biofuels are being passed off as a green solution to climate change. But increased demand in the EU is fuelling hunger and land grabs in the communities where we work.

What are biofuels?

Promoted as a green solution to the EU’s energy needs, biofuels have become an integral part of the EU’s energy policy.

Faced with demands to reduce its emissions to tackle climate change and depleted oil reserves, EU member states approved the Renewable Energy Directive in 2010.

Under this policy, EU biofuels consumption is expected to double between 2010 and 2020.

But the EU’s renewable energy policies are having a massive impact on poor communities around the world and most will not actually deliver the promised emissions reductions necessary to fight climate change.

Increased demand for biofuels has resulted in a rush for land in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as companies seek to take advantage of targets and cash-in on the financial incentives on offer.

Such moves have resulted in land grabs and human rights abuses, as indigenous communities are pushed off their land to make way for biofuels plantations.

With no land to grow their own food, they are being forced to buy their food at local markets, where increased demand and reduced supply drives up local food prices, pushing even more people into hunger.

What are their effects on hunger and land rights?

EU countries do not have enough land available at home to grow the biofuels required to meet their biofuels targets.

This means that the food crops used to make industrial biofuels have to be grown on land outside of Europe.

As a result, foreign companies are grabbing large areas of land in developing countries and putting further pressure on scarce resources, such as water, that local communities already have to walk long distances to access.

The EU is implementing policies promoting the use of biofuels before the necessary safeguards are in place to protect peoples’ rights.

Land that is being targeted is not standing idle. It is used by small farmers – many of whom are women – farming on a small scale to grow food for their families or to sell at the local market to get money to send their children to school.

These farmers now face competition for their land from a multi-billion euro industry looking to profit from the EU’s renewable energy targets.

This goes against the EU’s development policy objectives and shouldn’t be allowed to happen, as it represents a breach of the EU’s obligation to ensure Policy Coherence for Development under articles 21 and 208 of the Treaty of Lisbon.

Why we campaign on biofuels

Land grabbing is not new but demand for biofuels, fuelled by government’s renewable energy targets, is taking it to a whole new level.

The people living in poor communities that we work with around the world, through our country-based offices and partners, are feeling the effects of this policy and their voices need to be heard.

As most of the biofuels that will be used in Europe up until the year 2020 are made from food crops, the price of food is expected to keep on rising, as food is diverted away from the table and into our fuel tanks.

A report by 10 international organisations, including the FAO, World Bank, OECD and World Food Programme released in June 2011 and commissioned for G20 leaders, found that the demand for food and feed crops for the production of biofuels is a significant factor in rising food prices and food price volatility globally.

We don’t think that food should be used to fuel cars whilst nearly one billion people around the world go hungry.

That’s why we want to see biofuels removed from the EU’s renewable energy targets.

How we do it

People and communities are at the centre of our work and we work with them to ensure that their human rights are respected.

But these are not the people who make the decisions on the EU’s biofuels policy so we work through our international federation to make sure that their voices are heard by European decision-makers in Brussels and officials in the EU’s 27 member states.

Throughout the years we have been campaigning against using food for fuel ActionAid supporters in Europe have joined us in signing petitions, meeting Members of the European Parliament, and creating public awareness about the consequences and negative impacts of EU's biofuels policies.

In September 2013 ActionAid colleagues and other NGO partners and our supporters are gathering in Brussels to raise awareness and bring attention to the opportunity right now to end food for fuel and one of the structural causes of poverty in the world. Activities will take place in Brussels and Strasbourg as the Members of the European Parliament decide how to vote on the 11th of September 2013.

What we’re campaigning for

The consumption of industrial biofuels is pushing up food prices and causing land grabs in poor countries.

Added to this, when the total emissions are taken into account, many biofuels do not actually reduce carbon emissions, as they were designed to do, so we want to see them regulated.

We think that the EU’s rush to include biofuels in its renewable energy policies has meant that it has not put the necessary safeguards in place to address the land grabs and food price increases that put people’s rights at risk.

Locally and sustainably produced biofuels could actually fill the energy gap faced by many people in developing countries.

But industrial biofuels produced on a large scale are never going to meet the targets set by the EU without causing large numbers of people to lose their land and pushing food prices way above what the world’s poor can afford to pay – so we want to see biofuels removed from the EU’s renewable energy targets.