Biofuel Expansion in Central America and the Myth of Vacant Land
(World Watch Institute/Environmental News Network) …In response to global criticisms that biofuels drive deforestation and threaten food security, Central American governments and interest groups specify that biofuel expansion will occur on “tierras ociosas”�—or vacant, unproductive land. This may include land that was never fit for growing food crops, land heavily grazed by livestock, or land previously deforested. Nicaragua’s Ministry of Energy, for example, claims that 3.2 million hectares have the necessary climate and labor force to cultivate ethanol and biodiesel feedstock. Guatemala’s Renewable Fuels Association identifies an estimated 600,000 hectares of tierras ociosas ideal for growing jatropha without impacting food production. Honduras’s Ministry of Agriculture is promoting African palm plantations on more than 494,000 hectares of abandoned farmland.
…Separate studies conducted by researchers from the Center for International Forestry (CIFOR) and the World Bank both found that the climate change benefits of biofuels can only be achieved if feedstock is grown on land with low carbon content—for instance heavily grazed pasturelands instead of dense rainforest. Choice of feedstock can also make a difference, but this choice is not straightforward: sugarcane yields the most liters of biofuel per hectare of feedstock planted, which may minimize land use, but African palm and jatropha can be grown on land that is more degraded. Even where feedstocks have been promoted as an improvement on previously deforested landscapes (jatropha and African palm are, after all, trees), monoculture plantations are inherently low on biodiversity indexes, limiting their ability to adapt to climate change and reducing broader ecological benefits.
Though it is certainly possible that biofuels constitute the best land use for some—perhaps many—hectares in Central America, the narrative surrounding “tierras ociasas” is a misleading one. While it makes sense that the biofuel industry would advertise statistics on vacant land for feedstock expansion, governments should not appropriate this language, but should instead talk about land-use change in terms of a trade-off of benefits and consequences, with self-determination as the trump card. READ MORE and MORE