The rush to put biofuels in our gas tanks has given people analyzing natural resources and conflict some work to do. How are European and American policy mandates to dramatically increase the use of biofuels affecting the places that grow biofuel inputs? It seems fair to say that little consideration has been given to the potential conflict and equity impacts of this surge in demand for palm oil, sugarcane, and corn.
After President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address, which called for massive increases in biofuels, we heard stories of skyrocketing corn tortilla prices and resulting social disruptions.
Now we have stories coming from places like West Kalimantan, a remote region of Indonesia where the rush to plant palm-oil plantations is generating conflict with Indonesians who grow rubber trees and other crops on their small plots of land. The NGO Friends of the Earth Netherlands has a new report calling out the unethical practices of some palm-oil companies that clear existing crops first and make payouts (maybe) to the farmers who own the land later.
It strikes me that this particular link between natural resource management and conflict offers an avenue for addressing one of the traditional shortcomings of environment and conflict research.
Rightly or wrongly (and it has been a little of both), much environment and conflict research has been criticized for neglecting the impact of transnational economic forces on so-called "local" conflicts. For instance, West Africa’s mid-1990s "anarchy" is sometimes portrayed simplistically, without sufficient attention to the role Western timber companies or diamond buyers played in creating demand for the forests and precious stones that helped fuel the conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and other countries.
I do not subscribe to the school that says all environment and conflict work falls into this category. And there are big differences between how these issues were presented in the mid-1990s and how they are portrayed today. Our research has gotten better — both that of original contributors and that of new players. Nevertheless, much environment and conflict work can be characterized as focusing on conflict "over there," without drawing the connections to how North American or European (or increasingly Chinese and Japanese) consumer behavior can play a role in those conflicts.
The links between global consumer behavior and "local" conflict are made unavoidably clear, however, when we see Indonesian palm oil plantations sprouting up in response to the EU mandate for biofuels to constitute 10% of its transport fuels by 2020. All of us in the environmental security world would do well to pay greater attention to these connections. The fact that energy and transportation are part of the biofuels story makes incorporating this issue into European and North American policy and research agendas that much easier. Let’s hope the new focus on biofuels shines a spotlight (and not an eclipse) on the social conflict that our energy consumption engenders, often in places that are remote from where the biofuels are used.