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Biofuels make poor people even poorer

Oxfam warning

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European targets for use of biofuels will make life worse for some of the poorest people on the planet, according to a report from charity Oxfam.

In January, the European Commission issued guidelines suggesting that member states should use biofuels for 10 per cent of their transport fuel "budget" by 2020. Oxfam argues that if we meet these targets, deigned to reduce Europe's fossil fuel burning, it will have a catastrophic knock-on effect in countries like Indonesia, Colombia, Brazil, Tanzania and Malaysia.

The organisation wants the EC to review its policy and make sure proper safeguards are put in place to protect vulnerable groups.

"In the scramble to supply the EU and the rest of the world with biofuels, poor people are getting trampled," said Oxfam's Robert Bailey. "The EU proposals as they stand will exacerbate the problem. It is unacceptable that poor people in developing countries should bear the cost of questionable attempts to cut emissions in Europe."

The charity is concerned that to supply crops on the scale needed to supply 10 per cent of Europe's transport fuel, the scale of cultivation will threaten the food supply, land ownership, and livelihoods in developing nations.

Oxfam also warns that biofuels do not live up to their reputation as a clean fuel supply. Although they have a much shorter carbon cycle (i.e. we burn them, releasing carbon, then more biofuel plants use that carbon dioxide to grow), it is not a zero sum game.

It says in its report:

The actual carbon savings of biofuels vary considerably... and depend on the type of feedstock, agricultural practices, the production pathway, and the effects of land use change.

Bailey says: "Biofuels are not a panacea - even if the EU is able to reach the ten per cent target sustainably, and Oxfam doubts that it can, it will only shave a few per cent of emissions off a continually growing total."

To make the best carbon savings, crops should be grown in tropical regions, which without proper management will lead to the exploitative scenarios the charity fears.

Abet Nego Tarigan is deputy director of Sawit Watch, an organisation which represents communities, farmers, and plantation workers affected by palm oil development in Indonesia. He explained that the lure of "biofuel gold" is prompting palm oil companies to clear communities from land they have farmed for generations.

"Workers and small holders are shamefully exploited and we are losing valuable agricultural land to grow the food we need to feed ourselves and make a living," he said. "The proposed EU policy will only make this worse - pushing more people into poverty and concentrating land in the hands of a few." ®

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