EU biofuel demand is driving land grabs in the Global South

| 11th September 2014
Suzano's eucalyptus plantations in Urbano Santos, Brazil, specifically planted to satisfy the EU's projected future biofuel demand.
Suzano's eucalyptus plantations in Urbano Santos, Brazil, specifically planted to satisfy the EU's projected future biofuel demand.

Suzano's eucalyptus plantations in Urbano Santos, Brazil, specifically planted to satisfy the EU's projected future biofuel demand. Photo: Ivonette Gonçalves de Souza.

With the EU projected to source most of its 'renewable' energy by burning biomass, its policies are leading to widespread land-grabbing and forest destruction, writes Oliver Munnion. And because many of the biomass projects are purely speculative, 'sustainability standards' will do little or nothing to improve practice on the ground.
There's only one sensible and genuinely sustainable course of action: the EU must reduce its demand for energy and wood, and to stop subsidies for large-scale biomass electricity.

How is the EU going to meet its 20% renewable energy target for 2020? Wind turbines? Solar PV? Hydropower?

Believe it or not, most of that target is expected to be met from burning wood, and other biomass, to generate electricity.

In the UK alone, power station developers have announced plans which involve burning over 68 million tonnes of wood every year - that's 6.8 times our entire annual wood production.

This biomass boom has triggered a rush of investments in pellet plants and shipping facilities, particularly in the southern US and Canada, where the UK sources most of its imported biomass.

US conservation organisations are highlighting the fact that support for large-scale bioenergy in the UK and other EU countries is posing a serious new threat to the region's highly biodiverse forests.

For example, one of Drax power station's US pellet suppliers, Enviva, has been shown to source wood from clearcut, highly-biodiverse wetland forests.

Next: Brazil, West & Central Africa

Industry analysts, NGOs and policy makers as well as a European Parliament report have all predicted that Brazil, and both West and Central Africa will become major new wood exporters to meet European biomass demand.

Despite this however, an investigation by Biofuelwatch found no evidence of any significant investments into the infrastructure needed to produce and ship large quantities of wood pellets from either region to Europe.

Surprisingly, not even Brazil appears able to compete against North American pellet producers, despite its 7 million hectares of industrial tree plantations.

But that's not to say that the impacts of the EU's biomass boom aren't being felt in the global South - because they are!

Land-grabs for biomass tree plantations

The Biofuelwatch report highlights three examples of land-grabs for industrial tree plantations where subsidies, targets, and hype around biomass energy in the EU have been used to justify large land-acquisitions, in some cases causing serious conflicts with communities.

In all three cases, companies have justified their investments by citing the growing demand for woodchips and wood pellets for power stations in Europe and, in particular, the UK.

There's only one sensible and genuinely sustainable course of action: the EU must reduce its demand for energy and wood, and to stop subsidies for large-scale biomass electricity.

Because of this, and in the absence of serious infrastructure investments into the supply chain, the link between Europe's biomass demand and land-grabs in the global South is currently an indirect one.

So far, investments in tree plantations made on the back of support for bioenergy in Europe aren't actually resulting in wood exports. Instead it's the expectation of future demand for wood that's driving the land grabs.

Of course corporate executives must be fully aware of the situation - but may using the projected EU biofuel demand to sell projects on to investors, while hoping that even if their promises comes to nothing, another market may show up.

Eucalyptus plantations in Brazil

In the Brazilian state of Maranhão, for example, communities have seen their forests, fruit trees, and fields bulldozed to make way for eucalyptus plantations, some of them planted so densely that they can only be used for energy and not paper.

Suzano, a plantation company, accelerated its eucalyptus planting - and through it land-grabbing and deforestation - in the region, after signing a memorandum of understanding to supply UK bioenergy company MGT Power in 2010.

MGT Power has planning consent for what would be the world's largest dedicated biomass power station, at Teesport.

However, since the signing of the MoU, Suzano's pellet plant plans have completely fallen through and MGT Power have since said that they won't be sourcing from Brazil if their power stations get built. In all likelihood, they'll source from North America instead.

But meanwhile enormous damage has been done.

Teak exports from Ghana?

In Ghana's Ashanti Region, UK-based Mere Plantations claims to be planting 5,000 hectares with teak and to have secured rights for another 25,000 hectares.

Last year, the company announced plans for importing woodchips from these plantations to Holyhead Port in Wales, to be burned in UK power stations.

The Ashanti Region was previously a target for large-scale land-grabbing to grow jatropha for biofuels, with many jatropha plantations having failed and been abandoned since.

Importing teak into the UK to be burned in power stations seems highly suspect. Not surprisingly, no plans for actual exports have emerged since the announcement. Teak is a highly-valued tropical hardwood, so selling it for bioenergy wouldn't make economic sense at all.

Monoculture plantations in Mozambique

In Mozambique, Norwegian timber company Green Resources owns over 40,000 hectares of monoculture tree plantations, following their takeover of another Nordic company. They are planning a further 126,000 hectares of plantations in one area alone.

The company that set up Green Resources' recently-acquired plantations had previously been condemned by national and international NGOs, and by a Mozambican government agency, for establishing illegal plantations, avoiding community consultations, clearcutting forests and evicting communities.

According to their website, Green Resources' strategy is "based on growing wood for both traditional uses (sawn timber, panel board, pulp, etc.) and for the growing bio-energy sector."

However, there is no evidence that Green Resources has exported, or has an intention to export, woodchips or pellets. Indeed, they have many other supply chain options for their wood.

Speculative investments

There are a number of ways in which EU biomass demand could be triggering land-grabbing in the global South. Companies could be

  • citing European biomass markets under false pretences, whilst instead procuring land for speculative purposes. This would seem to be the case in Ghana.
  • talking up EU biomass demand to attract investment in tree plantations which will end up supplying quite different timber markets. The pulp & paper industries shift to the global South could be one such alternative.
  • relying on the prospect of rising wood demand and global wood-prices, pushed up by EU policies.

There is a precedent for this final point: According to Action Aid, over the past decade six million hectares of land were grabbed by companies to grow biofuels for Europe.

But despite the fact that European biofuel hype undoubtedly fuelled these landgrabs, very little this land has actually produced any biofuels.

A future biomess?

EU biomass demand shows no sign of abating, so we can probably expect more of the examples cited above.

To make matters worse, demand for tree plantations to produce paper will inevitably rise in the global South as well, as the southern US - historically the world's biggest paper-producing region - turns more and more of its wood into pellets to burn in power stations.

Thus Suzano, the company responsible for land-grabbing and deforestation in Maranhão, has failed to attract investment for a pellet plant - but has just opened its first pulp mill in the region.

The EU is hoping to drive the worst ecological and human rights abuses out of the biofuel industry by imposing 'sustainability standards'. So far they seem to impose a mainly bureaucratic compliance exercise - while doing little to ensure good practice.

But our findings raise another question: if some of the worst impacts of Europe's bioenergy policies are indirect ones, then there is no way of mitigating them with 'sustainability standards'.

This leaves only one sensible and genuinely sustainable course of action: the EU must reduce its demand for energy and wood, and to stop subsidies for large-scale biomass electricity.



The report: 'A new look at land-grabs in the global south linked to EU biomass policies' by Almuth Ernsting, Biofuelwatch.

Oliver Munnion is a co-Director of Biofuelwatch. Based in Edinburgh, he campaigns on energy issues around industrial bioenergy and opencast coal.



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