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Fuelling exclusion? The biofuels boom and poor people's access to land

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L. Cotula
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The policy debate about the merits and demerits of biofuels is growing and changing rapidly, with concerns being voiced over their effectiveness for mitigating climate change, role in recent food price hikes and social environmental impacts. This study contributes to these debates through examining the current and likely future impacts of the increasing spread of biofuels on access to land in producer countries, particularly for poorer rural people. It draws on a literature review of evidence drawn from diverse contexts across Africa, Asia and Latin America. It also uses intelligence and information provided by key informants by email or telephone. The study concludes that, while biofuels can be instrumental in revitalising land use and livelihoods in rural areas, these possibilities depend on security of land tenure. Where competing resource claims exist among local resource users, governments and incoming biofuel producers, and where appropriate conditions are not in place, it finds that the rapid spread of commercial biofuel production may result - and is resulting - in poorer groups losing access to the land on which they depend. The paper also documents a number of promising approaches, for example those where smallholders have been able to use and even consolidate their land access through seizing the opportunities offered by biofuel feedstock cultivation, whether for income generation or for local energy self-sufficiency. It argues that sharing these “successful” experiences can help build and disseminate better practice. Based on the findings, a number of pointers are given for policy and practice by governments and the private sector at local, national and international levels. These include:

governments must develop robust safeguards in procedures to allocate land to large-scale biofuel feedstock production where these are lacking, including local consultation and attainment of prior informed consent, mechanisms for appeal and arbitration, and periodic review
large-scale privately owned plantations are not the only economically viable model for biofuels feedstock production. Producers’ associations, governments and investors may want to explore alternative business models such as joint equity in production and processing
clearer definitions of concepts of idle, under-utilised, barren, unproductive, degraded, abandoned and marginal lands (depending on the country context) are required to avoid allocation of lands on which local user groups depend for livelihoods
certification criteria should incorporate free prior and informed consent, based on secure land tenure of local residents, as a fundamental requirement, disallowing production on contested land
local, national and international NGOs and civil society organisations have a continued role to play in holding governments and industry to account regarding their promises on protection of land access and food security to specific communities and more generally.