How Europe’s reliance on biofuels is affecting Guatemala

Because of EU targets from 2008, more and more of our energy is coming from biofuels. But what effect does our increasing reliance have on the land producing this energy? Courtenay Howe examines the land grabs that are harming Guatemala’s local communities.

The beauty of Guatemala is being spoiled by land grabs to capitalise on biofuel production. Photo by amslerPIX

Biofuels, created from organic matter such as sugar cane and palm oil, are regarded as a more sustainable alternative to energy sources such as oil. The importance of this alternative energy was recognised by the European Union in 2008 when it set a target to ensure that 20% of the energy consumed by its member states came from renewable sources, such as biofuels, by 2020. Half of this target would materialise within the transport industry.

While biofuels can be developed within Europe, production in other parts of the world – such as Central America – also helps contribute to the current 4.5% biofuel use within the EU’s transport sector.

It is estimated that since 2000, 10 land deals have taken place in Guatemala involving 81,006 hectares of land. Given the suitability of the country’s land to produce the crops required to create biofuel energy, it is unsurprising to see that land is becoming highly sought after. Land disputes might not be uncommon, but is the world’s desire for biofuels behind these disputes in Guatemala?

Local residents are experiencing what have become known as “land grabs” and Oxfam recently posted a video highlighting this problem in the Polochic Valley. During one land grab, three people were killed and 769 people lost their homes. Individuals speak of the loss of their land and in turn their livelihood. Families are unable to grow their own crops and while companies who purchase the land may provide jobs, reports say that wages are low, leaving residents with no means to provide food for their families. While high exports could improve the country’s economy, it’s difficult to see how  local landowners who still have their land benefit when reports show that many fear that the value of the land will diminish due the impact of plantations. In areas such as the Polochic valley, reports show that residents who are “brutally evicted” are left with no food or shelter.

The EU climate commissioner and energy commissioner have recently suggested that instead of 10%, only 5% of energy used within the transport sector should come from biofuels developed by growing new crops and that alternative sources such as waste should be explored if biofuel energy is to continue to develop. But will a change in European policy affect the local community in countries such as Guatemala?

While we can hope that a change in European policy may mean that companies are less likely to buy land to grow crops for biofuels, for those who have already lost their land, it is perhaps too late. And the European Union is not the only one with biofuel targets: the USA has also looked to biofuels as a more sustainable energy source. Given the recent collaboration between USA and Brazil on biofuels which is said to have included studies on the sustainable future of ethanol production in countries such Guatemala, a change in European policy may have little impact on local communities in the country.

A recent food security risk index from Maplecroft suggested that Guatemala may be at a high risk of famine and unrest due to food shortages in 2013. Even in Europe concerns are being raised about biofuels. If land grabs are driven by an increasing reliance on biofuels, should we really look to this alternative energy for a sustainable future at the risk of devastating the lives and homes of people in countries such as Guatemala?


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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