Biofuel guidelines – a new form of colonialism?

For some time now, investors and governments in the North and Asian and Arab countries have been buying, selling or leasing agricultural land in the South on a large scale to protect their energy and food securities. This practice has been part of their new strategies to cope with peak oil, climate change and increasing global food prices. The World Bank recently released its long awaited report, Rising Global Interest in Farmland, which contains guidelines to deal with these controversial practices. These guidelines resemble nothing so much as a new form of colonialism.

The question is whether the above transactions can be undertaken differently? The World Bank claims that, “done right, large scale farming can provide opportunities to poor countries with large agricultural sectors and ample endowments of land.” But what does the Bank mean by “doing it right”? It proposes a seven-principle code of conduct for investors and host countries: (i) respecting local land rights; (ii) ensuring food security; (iii) ensuring transparency and good governance; (iv) consulting with those involved; (v) responsible agro-investing; (vi) social responsibility; and (vii) environmental sustainability. This code, however, merely recapitulates the consensus recommendations put forward by North-based research institutions and UN agencies in 2008 and 2009. They include the International Food Policy Research Institute, International Institute for Environment and Development, Food and Agriculture Organisation, International Fund for Agricultural Development and UN special reports on the right to food.

A recent NAI research project focusing on the experiences of SEKAB, a Swedish municipal company, in planning for biofuel expansion in Tanzania clearly shows why such idealistic principles do not translate into reality on the ground. Rather, what seems to happen in the course of biofuel expansion is that the interests of investors and governments in the North, Asian and Arab countries, and frequently in host countries, come to stand in stark contrast to the needs of smallholders and rural people in the South. Other experiences and research confirm this picture and demonstrate that the crosscutting and vital matters of food and energy security and land issues cannot be guided simply by voluntary and strongly “idealistic” proposals.

The existence of such guidelines may instead create the illusion that smallholder interests and environmental concerns are being taken care of in the face of biofuel expansion. The voluntary character of these guidelines has to be linked to the responsibility of UN agencies, international financial institutions and researchers to promote understanding of and change in the real situation on the ground and in North/South power relations. By hiding behind voluntary guidelines, UN agencies and research institutions in the North may in fact simply be legitimising new forms of colonisation.

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