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Livelihood, landscape and biodiversity studies and forecasts

Estudios sobre impactos a modos de vida, paisajes y biodiversidad, intro en Castellano.



The land use and livelihoods aspects of biofuels/agrofuel production - especially in developing counties - form the core theme of our information service. Knowledge has increased considerably over the past few years.  There’s some good info on oil palm impacts in Indonesia and on the conditions of sugarcane/ethanol production in Brazil, most of all. Policy debate over the effects of the biofuel boom has been heated. However, more down-to-the-ground studies are needed, especially in Africa but also other parts of the world, to better inform decision-making in the producing and potential producing countries.

Below, we start with some general considerations and references. Under the regional sections, we present highlights from the documents we gathered. All references can be viewed and downloaded through this website.


We like to underline that we mainly discuss large scale, export-oriented biofuel production here, and do not discuss for example improved wood stoves, small scale jatropha or biodiesel production....It is important however to highlight the possible tension here between local and national energy security.... and large scale export-oriented agrofuel production.


Main land use and livelihoods considerations

Considerations to take into account before speaking out on advantages and disadvantages of a certain feedstock for biofuel are (1) energy efficiency (2) land use competition (3) impacts on biodiversity (4) impacts on water  (5) other social effects -such as through rising food prices, labour and income/food security changes. In the documents section, you will find reports about these topics according to region, and an introduction per region highlighting sources we found worthwhile to refer to in any case. The latest debates are mainly about Indirect Land Use Changes (iLUC) as these cause unexpected damages to landscapes outside the agrofuel production areas. Are they manageable by introducing an "iLUC" factor, to account for extra CO2 emissions caused by indirect land use changes of a certain crop grown under certain circumstances...or is this an illusion?  Check out the special section on  the iLUC debate (Indirect Land Use Changes caused by agro/biofuels) by clicking on this: link 


Energy efficiency

Scientific energy efficiency studies (eg Searchinger 2008)  have indicated that except for sugarcane for ethanol, most biofuels - if at all- would need a very long period of use before they compensate for the the CO2 reduction in fossil fuel use, precisely because of the CO2 they cause through their production, transport and processing.  Danielsen et al (2008) estimated it would take between 75 and 93 years for the carbon emissions saved through use of (palm oil for) biofuel to compensate for the carbon lost through forest conversion, depending on how the forest was cleared.  An important aspect to take into account in decision-making on energy policies. Searchinger has sparked off widespread debate on ILUC (see above).

The most salient example is the clearing of peatlands for palm oil production, which has an extremely negative CO2 balance. Exploiting peatlands in Indonesia for palm oil not only causes the dissappearing of the ecosystem as such, but also leads to an enormous production of CO2 that was stored  in these soils before  (Hooijer, Silvius et al (2006), Wetlands International 2008.) Danielsen et al (mentioned above) found out that if the original habitat was peatland, carbon balance would even take more than 600 years.....Because of its deforestation, especially in these peatlands,  Indonesia is the number 3 CO2 producer in the world.


Competition for land

This important consideration has both social and environmental aspects. Despite the claim that biofuels would be produced on marginal lands, most so far are produced on the same agricultural fields as food or feed. This has lead already to an extra competition for land and -through this- to rising food prices. The "leakage" effect is an important "macro-effect" of for example sugarcane/ethanol production: it pushes other land uses (such as soy and cattle production in Brazil) to other, often vulnerable areas such as the Amazon and the "cerrado"/dry lands (eg FIAN 2008, Smeet et al 2006).

Competition for land tends to harm the poor most of all. Furthermore, what is often identified as "marginal", "unused"or "waste" lands are often used lands in practice-  lands of essential importance to the livelihoods of for example pastoralists, or to nature conservation. How much unused lands does the world really have?


Impacts on biodiversity

Environmental impacts through ecosystem destruction may be caused directly by forest clearing or wetland drainage for biofuel production (Wetlands International 2008). They may also be caused  indirectly, through explusion and outmigration of farmers from agricultural areas now to be used for biofuel production (Searchinger 2008, Renewable Fuels Agency 2008, IUCN 2009, DPRN 2010) . How to deal with High Conservation Value Areas - important for nature conservation AND for people- in such scenarios, how can they be protected from abuse, through direct effects (conversion) or indirect effects (leakage/ILUC)?  

An aspect to be considered as well is the use of  biotechnologies such as genetic engineering for example in corn and soy, which may negatively influence the availability of a diversity of varieties  through 'contamination'. The biofuel boom may spur the spreading of GM varieties over the world, and dependent on the crop and place, this may be harmful for agrobiodiversity.This, in turn, maybe harmful for the potential of countries to deal with shocks and stresses due to climate variability and change, a vicious circle. See section Latin America and Asia for some good studies! In the section on bioenergy potential and technological development, we included some materials on biosafety/GMOs because of the reason mentioned above. Also watch http://www.gmo-compass.org


Impacts on water

We mention this separately, because water use is very crucial aspect in dry areas. Sugarcane, now planned for millions of hectares in African countries (BZOS 2007) is an enormous water consumer for example (Wetlands International 2008/Africa, FBOMS 2006/Latin America).  Effects of chemicals on water quality also need to be taken into account.


Other social impacts

Land use competition and environmental impacts have social consequences of course, but there are others too. Competition for land for biofuels surely adds to the dynamics of rising food prices as even the daily newspapers now admit, even though it has other causes as well, such as increased world consumption of meat and speculation.  The literature suggests (eg HIVOS 2008), that these rising prices will most probably not benefit the poor and small scale land users, and -selfevidently- will harm the landless and urban poor. One of the reasons for the authoritative "Gallagher Report" (2008) to warn against hastily introduced biofuel stimulating policies.

Employment, working conditions are another important aspect (for example in sugarcane), as well as income, food and energy security of workers, farmers and surrounding populations of biofuel production areas as compared to other cropping systems.


More information about the real life opportunities and risks of biofuels is needed,  also to see if and how there can be positive social effects, such as potentially through small scale jatropha production? Read controversies over Jatropha in for example Plant Research International 2007,  http://www.bioenergywiki.net/index.php/Jatropha , GRAIN 2007 or GreenEnergyNews (2007)


Recent political change

What has been changing lately? In a very short time (2007/8) consciousness about impacts and potential impacts of (first generation) biofuel production on food prices, nature conservation and peoples’ livelihoods in producing countries has grown. Lobbyists have managed to convince policy makers in the EU to let go (on the short term only!) of their planned fixed norm on biofuels blending in the transport sector (see Position statements, policy notes and advocacy letters, and Standard Setting and its progress/ EU). The UK, Germany and the Netherlands have lowered their blending targets, the EU Renewable Energy Directive makes mention of indirect effects on landscapes and the ILUC factor debate has reached a peak( 2010). Standard setting authorities are struggling with the effects of biofuels, and experts urge to use wastes, residues, second or third generation biofuels, and if they are cultivated, those crops which have low ILUC risk should have preference. If it can be done, they should be cultivated on marginal or idle lands.

Meanwhile, however, the push for biofuels elsewhere continues and countries are being faced by economic dilemmas such as protecting the forests (and counting on some compensation for CO2 storage) or clearing them for biofuel production. Directly, ir indirectly....We hope the literature presented in this wiki supports informed decision-making on biofuel production as a land use option, and increasingly so........on energy alternatives!





Links to other web-based info sources: 


Browse further at:

FAO bio energy website section food security


Palm oil impacts:





The Dutch Soy Coalition


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