In his first two articles in the Cuban Communist Party’s newspaper, Granma, since becoming ill last year, President Fidel Castro lashed out at the recently signed ethanol deal between Brazil and the US. In an April 3 article he described it as "the internationalization of genocide".
The deal, struck shortly after US President George Bush’s widely protested tour of Latin America, aims to encourage the development of biofuels projects in poor countries, particularly in the Caribbean and Central America, and promote a global biofuels market. Brazil and the US will also cooperate more closely on researching and developing biofuels technology.
On March 30, the day before the deal was signed, the Washington Post carried an article by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who argued that the deal will be "an important first step toward committing our countries to developing clean and renewable energy sources that will ensure the prosperity of our peoples while protecting the environment".
Washington’s interest in ethanol began after Bush pronounced in January 2006 that the US was "addicted to oil", and that this posed a "national security problem" because it is "often imported from unstable parts of the world".
Instead of importing sugarcane-produced ethanol from Brazil, the US has set about producing ethanol from corn, a process that uses up more energy than it provides. The only reason that it is competitive is that a tariff of about US$ 0.15/liter is imposed on imported ethanol. In addition, US farmers receive a subsidy of about the same amount.
Last year the US produced 18 billion liters of ethanol from 53 million tons of corn. More land being used to grow corn for ethanol production has caused other food-crop prices to rise, in turn affecting meat prices. Castro pointed out that Washington’s policy has already increased the average price of corn at US ports to US$ 167 per ton, which has had a flow-on effect on the price of corn worldwide.
In Mexico the price of tortillas, a staple, has increased by 100%, triggering massive protests in January. In response the government struck a deal with tortilla producers to limit price rises, however this agreement expires at the end of April.
The current US demand for ethanol pales in comparison to planned future usage. Washington plans to cut petrol consumption by 20% over 10 years, requiring some 132 billion liters of ethanol. Similarly the European Union is planning to use 20% of biofuels by 2020.
Castro warned that the increasing use of biofuels by the US and other rich countries will create a global food crisis that will condemn more than 3 billion people to death from starvation and lack of water.
Castro asked, "Where and who is going to supply the more than 500 million tons of corn and other cereals" that the US and other rich countries need. He pointed out that the current global grain surplus, after fulfilling human needs, is only 80 million tons.
Inevitably this massive increase in the demand for grains is going to come at the expense of the satisfaction of human needs, with poor people priced out of the food market. On February 28, the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement released a statement noting that "the expansion of the production of biofuels aggravates hunger in the world. We cannot maintain our tanks full while stomachs go empty."
Bush and Lula have pitched their deal as being a part of the battle against global warming, but the April 10 Granma cited a warning by the World Rainforest Movement that the pressure to find more land for biofuels crops has intensified deforestation in Third World countries.
Biofuels crops are also energy-intensive, due to the use of fossil-fuel derived fertilizers and pesticides and fossil-fuel run machinery. Castro warned that biofuels crops will also increase pressure on the world’s dwindling supplies of fresh water, with battles over water potentially becoming a major source of conflict in coming decades.
An article in the April 5-11 Progreso Weekly argued that US corn-based ethanol production and Washington’s policy of expanding biofuels production around the world is directly aimed at benefiting big business in the US, such as large agricultural corporations, transgenic seed producers and automobile manufacturers.
The US-Brazil deal is seen by many as a way for Washington to reassert domination over Latin American. The US-initiated neoliberal Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement was rejected by Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela in November 2005.
However, using the promise of investment for biofuels projects and contracts to supply the US market, Washington is clearly hoping to secure bilateral trade agreements with countries in the region that could be used to further open up their economies to US corporate plunder.
Another goal for the US is to counter the growing influence of the Venezuela-Cuba axis in promoting Latin American cooperation and integration through the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA).
As Bush’s geopolitical goals have become clearer, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has also begun to criticize biofuels. During Bush’s tour of Latin America, Chavez said: "When you fill a vehicle’s tank with ethanol, you are filling it with energy for which land and water enough to feed seven people have been used."
Venezuela has a five-year plan in place to produce ethanol for local use as an additive to petrol, however on March 15 agricultural minister Elias Jaua announced that the amount of land dedicated to sugar cane will be reduced from 283,000 hectares to 100,000 hectares "because we don’t grow agricultural products to feed vehicles."
This article appeared originally at the Green Left Weekly – www.greenleft.org.au.