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Exporting Commodities: Timber & Agrofuels

 Turning forests into fuel for the new ‘bio-economy?’

What Really Happens When Forests are Commodified 

Voices From Around The World


I) The Dark Side of Green


Brazil’s ethanol boom is driving a massive expansion of the country’s sugar cane plantations. ETH Biofuels in Mato Grosso do Sul, for example, currently has 170,000ha but plans to expand production to close to 1,000,000ha. But this expansion comes at an extraordinarily harsh price for many: 40,000 Guarani Kaiowá Indigenous people have been expelled from their state recognised lands, and are now obliged to live in less than 1% of their original territory. Community members protest that the invasion of sugarcane and associated machinery and pesticides has ruined their lives. The environmental impacts include the polluting of water resources and destruction of the biodiversity that people depend upon. Children have been dying of malnutrition and the Guarani are forced to depend on food aid for survival. Displaced people are now camped in shacks along the sides of roads and, having lost their territories and livelihoods, provide cheap labuor for the sugar cane producers. But the sugar cane cutters themselves endure appalling working conditions. Government officials may have rescued Indigenous People working in slave-like conditions, but multinational enterprises and the government continue to promote ethanol to the rest of the world as an environmentally friendly and ‘clean’ fuel. The Guarani are intent on claiming at least part of their land back, and there is more than enough land available to do this, but their efforts can have deadly consequences: “Bows and arrows against smooth talking lawyers and armed mercenaries.” Indigenous leaders have been assassinated and the violence continues.

Directed by An Baccaert, Nico Muñoz and Cristiano Navarro. FIAN Belgium. 2011.


II) Illegal logging: African Stories


Illegally logged timber is still traded abundantly on the European market. In these testimonials, people from Liberia and Cameroon tell us about the impact illegal logging has on their daily lives. Companies come making false promises, but leave communities with degraded forests, polluted streams, and more. In the village of Dea, for example, timber company SIM, which exports to the EU and China, illegally harvested trees inside the forest and destroyed agricultural land. Not only has the exploitation failed to benefit them, forest-dependent peoples find they are no longer able to hunt, fish or look for honey. In Bedjone, people can no longer access the sacred Moabi tree, used for food and oil, and the authorities that are so helpful to the companies threaten the farmers. Similarly, in Gargar town in Liberia companies promised to build roads, houses, bridges, schools, and clinics, and to give people cars, but nothing ever happened. Activists in this video ask buyers to beware of illegal timber imports. The European Union can combat the trade in illegally logged timber, by laying down a strong FLEGT-Law (Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade).

Produced by Africa Interactive commissioned by Milieudefensie, FoE Netherlands. 2009.


III) West Papua’s indigenous people hurt by Indonesia’s resource extraction

Ancestral lands of the Mooi people of New Guinea are suffering from the aggressive clearing of forests by timber and oil palm companies, and only a tiny fraction of the profit generated goes to Papuans. Images from the Malalis Village, Solong Regency, show massive devastation, leaving local peoples without any options. They feel powerless against such destruction and fear for their survival. In addition, nickel mining has also created huge impacts on the marine resources of the country. Migration of Indonesians to West Papua has also triggered prostitution and high AIDS rates. Indigenous Papuans are reduced to a minority in their own country. Inspite of a ban on foreign journalists in West Papua, there is growing international understanding about the situation. But how likely is Indonesia to back down? Will the international community confront it about an issue that has been largely forgotten by the world?

Video by Guardian UK. James Morgan and Johnny Lagenheim. 2012.


 IV) Gambella Snapshot: US Aid to Ethiopia Supports Forced Relocations for Land Grabs


Ethiopia, a country with a history of chronic food insecurity and poverty, is negotiating long-term leases of its most productive agricultural lands for food and agrofuel production to foreign investors such as Indian company Karuturi Agroproducts PLC, and Saudi Arabian company Saudi Star, which signed a 50-year contract for more than 500,000ha of land and damned the Alwero river. The government is forcibly relocating 70,000 people from the Gambella region, to make fertile land available for foreign investment in agriculture, thereby aggravating current hunger while laying the groundwork for future famine in Ethiopia. People are losing their livelihoods and are being forced to move out to areas where they cannot readily feed themselves. The video also details the quantity of land given over to foreign companies, and other relevant facts.

Oakland Institute. 2012.


V) Soy Farming and Land Grab in the Brazilian Amazon


Large-scale soy monoculture is expanding rapidly in Latin America. Boosted by investment from multinational corporations, it has moved well beyond the southern states and is spreading into the Amazon area, where land is much cheaper and very fertile. The development of GM soya makes this viable. In this interview, Dr. Sergio Sauer (National Rapporteur for Human Rights in Land, Territory and Food, Brazil) explains the development of this ‘phenomenon’ in Brazil and explains why soy monocultures are bad for local food security, and how this model boosts deforestation, exacerbates environmental degradation and promotes land grabbing by elites. A large number of cases have been reported in which agri-businesses, large farmers and government have struck dubious land deals which take land, livelihoods and food security away from the poor. The process is also driven by foreign capital flowing into the country seeking profitable opportunities and the influence of elites in the country’s media.

Produced by TheWaterChannel. 2012.       


VI) Indonesians don’t want palm plantations


Indonesia’s forests are home to thousands of species including orangutans, but the world’s increasing demand for palm oil is leading to their destruction. Indonesian palm oil is very cheap and is used as an ingredient for a wide range of products including margarine, soaps and detergent. After the EU decided that transport fuel should contain an increasing amount of biofuel palm oil prices soared, making it an even more lucrative business. But local communities are losing the forest that shelters and feeds them, all that is left is oil palm. In addition, clearing the forests result in the liberation of significant amounts of greenhouse gases, from slash and burn practices and because the forest soils quickly dry out once the trees are gone. Indigenous peoples and local communities demand that their forests are protected!

Director Inge Altemeir, in collaboration with Friends of the Earth International and WALHI. FoE Indonesia. 2007.


VII) Jatropha Investment and Rural Land Alienation in Ghana


The economy of Ghana, which is primarily based on agriculture for food production, experienced a boom in the acquisition of land for jatropha production between 2005 and 2010. The seeds of Jatropha curcus are used as feedstock for biodiesel production, and the plant has long been known as the ‘tree of light’ in Ghana, for its energy-providing properties. Ghana’s government has strongly promoted foreign investment in jatropha, anticipating win-win situations for communities, investors and the government. Companies in Saudi Arabia, for instance, expressed interest, and land was leased for jatpropha production in various districts. An extensive amount was bought by one single company, Biofuel Africa Ltd. who acquired over 45,000ha of land in the northern region and 840ha elsewhere. People were initially enthusiastic as they thought it might help with youth unemployment, but problems soon arose, as detailed in this video. Conflicts between land users and the jatropha company escalated as most of the areas given over to jatropha cultivation were previously cultivated. Former dwellers lost their land and were asked to relocate. Affected farmers from the Nkoranza district had not even been informed, but their crops and surrounding trees were still destroyed by bulldozers. The company eventually agreed to pay some compensation for these hardships, but some people received very little and others nothing at all. The transition to jatropha production has had devastating effects on food production and people’s incomes. This has been exacerbated because the company suddenly stopped its operations and the land was left unworked, former workers weren’t paid what they were owed, and most of the promised amenities, such as water supplies, a power generator, and a road, never materialised. With no jobs, no food, and no education, villages began to collapse. The rest of the land was given to the rich by the Chief, now communities ask for help from the government.

Produced by Both Ends, Horn of Africa, Africad, University of Science and Technology… 2012.


VIII) Exploitation by Afforestation – The GSFF in Mozambique


A huge expansion in the area of exotic monoculture tree plantations in Mozambique, mainly in Niassa and Zambezia provinces, has impacted negatively on local communities, as biodiversity and water resources have been depleted. Foreign investors are grabbing lands for plantations in the north of the country, threatening the livelihoods of locals. This has serious implications in a country where 80% of the people are small-scale farmers who rely on their mashambas (plots) and local biodiversity for food and other resources. A visit to northern Mozambique showed projects initiated and funded by the Lutheran Church of Sweden and Norway, through the Global Solidarity Forest Fund (GSFF), which contain tens of thousands of gum tree plantations. GSFF is also supported by a Dutch pensions fund (ABP), and runs four projects: Chikweti and  Messangulo in Niassa province, and Tektona and Ntacua in Zambezia province. These projects have transformed fertile farmlands and indigenous forests into industrial monocultures, in contravention of Mozambique’s laws, and have compromised social and environmental stability. In the beginning people accepted the plantations because they promised jobs that would last for fifty years, but after three years very few still have jobs and many of them are paid under the minimum legal wage. Even worse, to try and gain employment at the company the people report having to pay with money, chickens and goats, to even be considered. Poverty has worsened. Local people don’t understand the government’s actions, all they know is that they don’t have their land anymore. Huge monoculture tree plantations cannot be labelled community development; small-scale farming can be improved by simple alternatives including rainwater harvesting, organic farming, and zero waste management. GeaSphere sent a petition to call on the GSFF to stop expansion of monocultures. 

Video by GeaSphere and ACOSADE. Isabel Jakob. 2011.


IX) Mozambique: la jatrofa se come el país (In Portuguese with Spanish subtitles) – Mozambique: Jatropha is swallowing the country


A video from Veterinarios Sin Fronteras’s ‘Stop, people live here’ food sovereignty campaign. In 2007 more than five million hectares – more than the area of agricultural land in the Spanish state of Andalucía – were given over to domestic and foreign companies in Mozambique. What for? In most cases for planting jatropha, a plant used for biofuel production (‘biodiesel’ found in many petrol stations). Find out more about this situation in this one-minute video. 2011


X) A Silent Forest: the growing threat of Genetically Engineered Trees (Spanish and Chinese subtitles)


This video documentary exposes the threats posed by the introduction of genetically engineered trees (GE trees) into our environment. The film breaks down complex scientific concepts while detailing the dangerous impacts GE trees will have on human health, native forests, indigenous peoples, and wildlife. It is narrated by Dr. David Suzuki, an award wining scientist and environmentalist. 

Directed and edited by Ed Schehl supported by Sierra Club, Three Americas Inc, World Rainforest Movement and Global Justice Ecology Project. 2011.