An Earth Day meeting of environmentalists, gathered to hear Scots missionary to Brazil Padre Tiago (James) Thorlby, has called for a halt to biofuels imports from third world countries.
The New Zealand government has removed a mandatory obligation for biofuels to make up 2.5 percent of total petrol sales by 2012, concerned that much biofuel would be imported without an environmental standard.
Padre Thorlby has worked with landless people, homesteaders and sugar cane workers in Brazil, the world’s biggest ethanol producer, for 25 years with the ecumenical church organisation, the Pastoral Land Commission, in Pernambuco, north-east Brazil. The CPT won a Brazilian government human rights award in 2003 for the eradication of slave labour.
The New Zealand government has developed a policy of introducing ‘sustainable biofuels’ from Brazil and these are currently sold in several Mobil petrol stations particularly in the Wellington region.
But Padre Thorlby says the Brazilian model used to produce ethanol from sugar cane, contrary to most official accounts, is ‘environmentally devastating, culturally genocidal, socially exclusive, politically retrograde and economically unviable’.
He says a great deal of land that would otherwise be in forests or local food agriculture is being planted in sugar cane. The workers who cut the cane are often immigrants who are exploited – kept in subhuman conditions with sometimes no water for washing, poor nutrition and forced to work long hours from 4 in the morning to 5 or 6 at night. Many see their meagre pay only as vouchers which must be redeemed for food.
As well, indigenous Brazilians are expelled in their hundreds of thousands from their small holdings and homesteads so their land can be used for sugar/ethanol production.
The process of the more correctly termed ‘agro-fuel’ produces a toxic bi-product called stillage which gets into the local water destroying fish, animals and insects.
Padre Thorlby is concerned that this message is masked by academics paid to disseminate the message that workers are well treated and that there are field restaurants and field toilets provided.
But once away from the highway, it is possible to see beyond the first hill what conditions are really like where, he says, some are ‘dying to work’ while others ‘die working’.
The social climate is one of ‘low intensity civil war’ with casualties rising constantly, ‘possibly rivalling the deaths in Iraq’, Padre Thorlby wrote in an October 2008 article published in Pacific Ecologist Summer 2009. He warns that what he calls this ‘underjusticed underground’ movement will eventually erupt into an above-ground protest akin to Al Qaeda.
Meanwhile the sugar barons in Brazil’s sugar cane growing region owed $US4 billion to the public in 1998, the latest figure available. Profits are not being shared with the workers in this feudal system of slavery.
To halt this exploitation, the first world must lower its consumption. Currently the planet is expected to produce three times the amount of energy of which it is capable. This varies with the United States consuming five times more than its share while hinterland dwellers in Africa or Asia use next to nothing.
Consumers should be encouraged to avoid using a brand name at the pumps.
Padre Thorlby said that a resolution such as that passed by the meeting would have some international standing.
In terms of ecological sustainability, ‘Your nation has moral clout.’
The resolution – ‘this meeting calls for a halt to the import of biofuels from Brazil and other third world countries because of their unsustainable production and their social and environmental impacts’ – will be forwarded to the government through its Energy Efficiency Conservation Agency.
Many at the meeting agreed that biofuels would be acceptable if locally produced. But one of the panelists, Commonsense Organics founder Jim Kebbell, said biofuels were a stopgap measure. Changing energy consumption patterns would be a better long-term response. And he said it was essential that everyone in the workplace had a say in production methods.
‘Organics is not only a method of production but also a model of the way we look after each other’.
Another panelist, Msgr Gerard Burns, said the exploitative model seen in Brazil was used worldwide with the ‘pernicious application of the model’ in New Zealand occurring in the exploitation of ‘whatever is there in the natural world’, for example in moves to increase mining of undersea minerals and ironsands on the west coast of the North Island. This also applied to over-intensive dairy farming (poisoning waterways), the mining of conservation land and over-fishing of stocks.
Padre Thorlby was invited to New Zealand by Pacific Institute of Resource Management, a non-profit organisation formed to raise awareness of issues of ecology throughout the world. PIRM publishes the quarterly magazine, Pacific Ecologist.