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Monday, March 16, 2009

African ethanol producers accepting employment applications

Photo:ElMarto via Flickr

Wanted: Young cane cutters for part time seasonal work. Must be willing to work ten hours a day swinging a machete in tropical sun while wearing gloves, long sleeved shirt, and hat--no retirement benefits (because you won't live that long). Apply within.

The comment below ElMarto's photo on Flickr titiled "Truck Shadow Escape" reads:

The sun at noon burns the sugarcane field. There are no trees, no shadow available except for the rectangle under an old truck. The sharp edges of the sugarcane leaves oblige collectors to wear long sleeves, gloves, boots, hats and also t-shirts around the head to protect their ears from cutting. A ten minute rest is all there is to escape from the sticky heat.
Adam Welz lives in South Africa. Last year he drove to Massingir Mozambique to see first hand the impacts of a scheme to grow sugarcane for ethanol. The article describing what he found appeared in the latest issue of Mother Jones. I typed "Massinger" into Google Earth to get a feel for the area. I found forest and savanna crisscrossed with dirt roads and livestock trails.

The good news:

The sugarcane plantation will employ 2,000 people.

The bad news:

Mozambique's population (where the total fertility rate is five children per woman) grows by that much every two days. With eventual mechanization the number of employed will drop to 400. As a means of reducing poverty, cane ethanol is a drop in a very large bucket. Industrial agriculture provides very few jobs per square mile. The fix for African poverty remains elusive, but industrial agriculture is unlikely to be the answer.

Welz discovered that the same land had been promised by the inept and corrupt government to several groups of people in addition to Bioenergy Africa, the company planning to grow cane and make ethanol. We all know who will win that struggle.

I discover that many of ProCana's 75,000 acres had indeed been slated rather precisely (and publicly) as part of planning for the Transfrontier Park. Some 29,000 people still live within Limpopo National Park's borders, and as many as 9,000 in the heart of the park are supposed to be relocated. After years of delicate negotiations, park authorities have arranged for the inner 9,000 to move to the valley of the Rio dos Elefantes, just downstream of Massingir Dam. They have—as Mozambican law requires—obtained permission from "receiving" communities to build houses for the newcomers and, very important, identified a sufficiently large grazing area for the new residents' livestock.

A ProCana map I've managed to obtain shows that the company's 75,000 acres cover this intended grazing zone. The same chunk of land has been promised to both the inner 9,000 and ProCana.
Global warming is about the destruction of the Earth's biosphere. Destroying more of the biosphere with industrial agriculture just accelerates that destruction. This project will consume nearly 75,000 acres of native woodland and savanna.

We drive in the 4x4 into ProCana's claim. The bush rustles and sings; birds are everywhere, and the savanna is filled with gray-barked and butterfly-leafed mopane trees, some of the biggest and oldest I have ever seen. A giant baobab, centuries old, provides a backdrop for a screaming flock of parrots, while a black-breasted snake eagle hovers overhead. Holtzhausen told me his environmental people found no trees of value here—charcoal burners, he said, cut them long ago. I'm not sure where those experts looked, because here, in the perfectly cadenced afternoon light, is paradise.
The article concludes with Adam presenting a possible scenario to ProCana's Corné Holtzhausen:
His 75,000-acre farm/factory will have serious ecological impacts—lost wildlife habitat, greenhouse gases released as natural vegetation is destroyed, massive water consumption, fertilizer and pesticide pollution. On the greater scale of Africa, these might be considered small, but ProCana is not alone. What about the hundreds of other big investors who will rush in if he succeeds? Who will stop his beloved Mozambique, and much of the rest of the continent, from being turned into vast pesticide-and-fertilizer-soaked monocultures? He smiles, a great gotcha smile, and pauses. "People like you," he says. "People like you who wear cotton shirts that take 25,000 liters of water to make—you like to wear them, because they're comfortable. People like you who drive private cars and like to fly around the world in aeroplanes. The consumer. That's who determines what happens."
Consumers my butt, I did not ask to have ethanol blended into my gas. How long are we going to let our governments get away with this?


  1. This post will eventually show up over on the Gristmill blog. The comments are turned off while the site undergoes an upgrade (that appears to not be going smoothly).

  2. Anonymous8:37 AM

    That's ok Russ,let them take their time at Grist, luckily we can comment here.

    With the flurry of announcements of plugin hybrids from automakers will any of these biofuel farming schemes be around in a few years?

    As gasoline and diesel fuel consumption is curtailed by renewable electricty as a transportation fuel, and demand continues to drop, how can biofuel compete with ever more desperate purveyors of oil?

    The oil kleptocracies, like Saudi Arabia, have fundamentalist populism breathing down their necks already. As oil revenues drop, they will be forced to sell their remaining oil for any price offered. "Lifting cost" is 2 dollars per barrel in their desert oil fields.

    Bring on the demise of fuel farming, call your local auto dealer and ask for a plugin hybrid right now.

  3. Anonymous9:16 AM

    "Those who learn from history, are doomed to watch otheres repeat it."

    Go plugin hybrid. Make fuel farming, and eventually oil drilling, go the way of whaling for whale oil.

    Whaling (for oil) dissappeared soon after kerosene was available to light lamps.

    As renewable energy, at a fraction of the equivalent cost per gallon of gas (60 cents of elctricty equals a gallon of gas in miles), becomes the consumer choice, oil will go the way of whale oil.

    Investors in fuel farming won't even be a blip on the radar, their asse(t)s will be confiscated by the free market, hehey.

    If over half of electricty and heat energy comes from rooftop solar, that pays off for the homeowners in a few years, where will the price go? Up?

    Old energy economy investors (fuel farmers included) are as doomed as doomed can be. Not pretty to watch.


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