Mozambique/Brazil: “Ethanol diplomacy” meets criticism

Last week Friends of the Earth Europe and Mozambican NGO Justiça Ambiental [Environmental Justice, pt] furiously denounced an accord between Brazil, the European Union and Mozambique to promote biofuels production in Mozambique.

The agreement would increase technical cooperation to promote biofuel production in Mozambique. Currently Mozambican sugarcane ethanol imports to the EU would be subject to very low tariffs in comparison with Brazilian ethanol, which the EU will continue to tax.

Brazilian companies would profit from increased emphasis on the sector and assistance, as some are looking to expand their operations in Mozambique. According to Reporter Brasil [pt] at the end of last year, at least two major Brazilian companies had land use agreements to expand sugarcane production in Mozambique, and were looking for financing to actually produce ethanol in the country.

Photo by Flickr user Tonrulkens with CC license

Officials are saying that African production would have to meet European environmental standards and undergo feasibility studies.

Yet even some of the first ethanol projects in Mozambique have been fraught with social and environmental concerns (see recent Global Voices coverage of one case). Justiça Ambiental said in a press release last week

The expansion of biofuels in our country is transforming natural forest and vegetation into fuel crops, is taking away fertile farmland from communities growing food, and creating poor working conditions and conflicts with local people over land ownership. We want real investment in agriculture that allows us to produce food and not fuel for foreign cars.

In response the government news service AIM called Friends of the Earth's statement “woefully ignorant”, also attacked JA, saying there is no evidence to suggest that biofuels production has hurt food production.

Yet in addition to Friends of the Earth's own report (“The Jatropha Trap“), another study from International Institute of Economics and Development in the UK (“Biofuels, land access and rural livelihoods in Mozambique“) has urged caution in recent weeks in relation to biofuels expansion in Mozambique.

By Flickr user Fotos da Bahia with a CC license

The trilateral agreement is just one indicator of the strength of what Brazilian commentators have called President Lula's “ethanol diplomacy”. Leandro Freitas Couto writes [pt]

Na recente visita do presidente Lula a seis países africanos (Cabo Verde, Guiné Equatorial, Quênia, Tanzânia e África do Sul) os biocombustíveis, o etanol mais especificamente, tiveram destaque na agenda. […] O Brasil também já dispõe de um acordo com os Estados Unidos sobre o tema, assinado ainda durante o governo de Bush Jr. Prevê ações de cooperação triangulares, nos moldes do acordo agora assinado com a União Européia e Moçambique […]

A diplomacia do etanol, portanto, vem se consolidando nos últimos movimentos da gestão da política externa do presidente Lula. A substituição paulatina, mas inexorável, dos combustíveis fósseis e a atenção crescente às questões climáticas tendem a fortalecer ainda mais essa agenda no futuro, o que ajudará a fortalecer a presença do Brasil no cenário mundial. […] Com esse cenário, a despeito dos resultados eleitorais de outubro desse ano, a continuidade dessa linha de ação da política externa brasileira está garantida para os próximos anos.

In his recent visit to six African countries (Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa) President Lula, biofuels, specifically ethanol, were high on the agenda. […] Brazil already has an accord with the United States in the area, signed during the Bush government. It foresees triangular technical cooperation, along the lines of the accord just signed between the European Union and Mozambique […]

Thus ethanol diplomacy has been consolidated in the last moments of foreign policy practice of President Lula. The gradual, but unstoppable, substitution of fossil fuels and the growing attention to climate issues will only strengthen this agenda in the future, which will help strengthen the presence of Brazil on the world stage […] With this scenario, whatever the electoral results this October, the continuity of this line of foreign policy is guaranteed for coming years.

Brazilian activists like the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) Alagoas have denounced this form of “diplomacy” during recent years. In a 2009 visit to Maputo for a conference on agrofuels (the word used to avoid the positive connotations of “bio”), CPT Alagoas said [pt]

Historicamente, a atividade sucroalcooleira no Brasil tem sido geradora de profundos desrespeitos aos direitos humanos e vem causando graves danos ao meio ambiente. Nos últimos anos, a expansão indiscriminada dos canaviais para produção de etanol – com o objetivo de atender as expectativas do mercado exterior – vem ampliando a super-exploração dos assalariados da cana e o aumento do número de trabalho análogo à escravidão. […]

Colocar o Brasil como um país chave na produção de energia renovável é fazer uma leitura superficial ou de resultado, é passar uma borracha no passado recente e criar uma falsa impressão que todos os impactos (econômicos, sociais e ambientais) foram superados e que o etanol produzido no Brasil é um combustível limpo. […]

Não podemos permitir que esse modelo de exploração seja exportado para a África nem para nenhum outro país do mundo.

Historically, sugarcane ethanol activity in Brazil has generated profound disrespect for human rights and has caused grave environmental damage. In recent years, the indiscriminate expansion of sugarcane production for ethanol – with the objective of fulfilling expectations of the international market – has broadening the super-exploitation of sugarcane wage laborers and has increased the amount of work analogous to slavery. […]

Positioning Brazil as a key country in the production of renewable energy is to make a superficial or results-oriented reading, it is to erase the recent past and to create a false impression that all of the impacts (economic, social and environmental) were overcome and that the ethanol produced in Brazil is a clean fuel. [..]

We cannot permit this model of exploitation to be exported to Africa, nor to any other country in the world.

The Mozambican blogsphere has yet to comment at any length on the trilateral accord. Yet the issue of ethanol has received some comment in the past, including from NGOs and social movements. The National Farmers Union (União Nacional de Camponeses, UNAC) recently posted an interview, Ismael Ossemane, says [pt]

Agora com o etanol e os agrocombustíveis começa uma maior busca por terra em Moçambique e a tendência é esta força por em prova a lei de terras. Então nos encontramos nesta situação: ainda há terras para os camponeses por causa do estágio de desenvolvimento do país, mas através da forma como começam a entrar as empresas, percebemos que, se hoje lutamos para defender a terra que temos, em breve começaremos a lutar para ter terra.

Now with ethanol and agrofuels, a greater demand for land in Mozambique commences and the trend is that this is testing the Land Law. So we find ourselves in this situation: there is still land for small farmers due to the stage of development in the country, but with the way companies are starting to come in, we can see that if today we are fighting to defend the land we have, soon we will begin to fight to have land at all.

It bears stating that the ethanol in question appears to be for the export market and likely will not solve Mozambique's own dependence on imported oil. In fact, the announcement of this accord came as gasoline retailers were threatening to raise prices and potentially fuel unrest in Maputo like that seen in February 2008 (see Global Voices coverage.)


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.

Receive great stories from around the world directly in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the best of Global Voices!

Submitted addresses will be confirmed by email, and used only to keep you up to date about Global Voices and our mission. See our Privacy Policy for details.

Newsletter powered by Mailchimp (Privacy Policy and Terms).

* = required field
Email Frequency

No thanks, show me the site