Biofuel Production vs Indigenous Peoples

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by Andrew Boswell

From Eastern Daily Press (UK), 16 June 2007.

There are many unique cultures, thousands of human languages and a myriad of ways that people relate to others and the natural environment. We call the inheritors of these traditions “Indigenous peoples” and there are more than 370 million of them in some 70 countries worldwide.

History is already littered with such displaced and destroyed peoples but as the 21st century brings new global, systemic problems, the home lands and cultures of indigenous peoples have never been more at threat.

Chief Deskaheh, leader of the Canadian Cayuga tribe, was an early voice from these people – in 1923, he travelled to Geneva to speak to the League of Nations for the right of his people to live under their own laws, on their own land and under their own faith. He was denied access.

He would be surprised that Aqqaluk Lynge, a leader of Greenland’s Inuit community, is to speak to a UK planning enquiry against Stansted airport expansion. The Inuit people are already badly affected by climate change, catastrophic to them, and Mr Lynge asks us to take less short haul flights, and not to be callous saying “the Arctic is far away and few people live there.”

The chief might be even more surprised to know that since 2002 the UN has a Permanent Forum of Indigenous Peoples (UNPFIP) that meets in New York for two weeks each year. Indigenous people are well represented in the Forum and have support to travel and participate effectively.

Last month’s forum focused on the increasing exploitation of indigenous natural resources and starkly reported how people are displaced at the “hands of indifferent Governments and profit-hungry corporations”. Rodolfo Stavenhagen from the Human Rights Council, said “One of the new trends […] is the continuous loss of indigenous lands and territories, including their loss of control over natural resources […] intensified as a result of economic globalisation, especially with increased exploitation of [energy and water] resources.”

Vulnerable groups are routinely dispossessed of their ancestral lands for mining and logging, even though there are often laws that are supposed to protect them from just such abuse, leading to marginalisation, poverty, disease, violence especially against women.

It was reported that native peoples in South-East Asia and Africa faced military build-ups on their territories and the loss of lands as a result of commercial plantation growth and the construction of “mega-projects” that have substantial environmental and social impacts.

A startling revelation came from Forum chair Victoria Tauli-Corpuz when she described an emerging biofuel refugee crisis. In her words “Indigenous people are being pushed off their lands to make way for an expansion of biofuel crops around the world, threatening to destroy their cultures by forcing them into big cities”. She said that the clearing of forests to make room for these new crops is putting at particular risk the 60 million indigenous people who depend on forests almost entirely for their survival.

A report identified the fact that some of the native people most at risk live in Indonesia and Malaysia where palm oil is grown to make biodiesel including 5 million in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Subsequently Christian Aid have reported that paramilitary seizure of swathes of land in Colombia for Palm Oil production is causing a huge internal refugee problem.

These people from the tropics are no more unconnected from our actions than the northerly Inuit especially as the EU is very keen on biofuels and plans to massively expand their use about six fold by 2010.

This EU policy denies motorists of any chance of avoiding contributing to this human disaster, except by giving up their car or getting an electric vehicle, as it will be impossible to know what is in your fuel tank. The Branson “biodiesel train” shows the difficulty – it ran on a blend of rape, soya and palm oils – sourced from at least 3 continents. Similar blending occurs with most available biodiesel for cars with the exact blending ratios driven by commodity price fluctuations. It will simply be impossible to select a fuel that one can be sure doesn’t displace people and cause deforestation.

The EU commission is culpable, as it knowingly forced through this aggressive biofuels target without considering sustainability first, and with a blind eye to social and human rights issues.

It is European policy makers who must wake up to the unaddressed concerns about biofuels production. They have let the commercial genie out of the bottle, and only a policy U-turn that scraps the ridiculously aggressive targets and imposes a moratorium for ‘rethinking time’ can avoid a major ecological and human disaster.