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I met Hernán (pictured) two years ago while shooting T&E’s documentary Frontera Invisible, which exposes the links between palm oil expansion for biodiesel production, environmental destruction, displacements of people and paramilitary violence in Colombia. Hernán was a peasant farmer who had returned to his land in 2012 after being displaced by paramilitaries in 1996. For the past five years he had fought to reclaim his land, denouncing palm oil and cattle companies in Colombia’s Choco region for illegal landgrabbing and deforestation. He told us on camera that big landowners were planning to plant 1,000 more hectares of palm on the land he was claiming with 12 other families. He said he would resist landowners’ plans and that they would have to force him out of his land again if they wanted to plant palm. Sadly, that was his last video testimony.
Hernán was not the only land claimant and environmental defender to be murdered. The previous year, 2016, was a record one for such killings: 200 people were murdered for defending their community’s land, natural resources or wildlife from extractive industries. And estimates suggest 2017 may have broken that record for fatalities again.
The ever-increasing pressure for new territories to extract the resources under and above ground is behind the violence and killings of these environmental defenders. Among the destructive industries driving the rush for land are mining, timber and palm oil. Killings associated with palm oil expansion have been reported recently in Peru, Indonesia, Malaysia and Guatemala.
Europeans are at the other end of this bloody supply chain. Europe is the second largest importer of palm oil in the world – we don’t produce a single drop of this oil. Almost half of these imports end up being burned in our cars and trucks in the form of biodiesel. The EU biofuels sector today accounts for 44% of all the vegetable oil consumption in the union, not only palm oil but also rapeseed oil – vegetable oils that are food commodities first and foremost. This is a direct result of the failing EU biofuels policy that the plenary of the European Parliament will vote on next Wednesday, 17 January.
Biofuels were meant to be ‘green’ and reduce emissions from transport. But the increased demand for land to grow crops for EU biofuels leads to the clearing of rainforest and draining of peatland, which releases CO2 into the atmosphere. This makes the cure worse than the disease. Based on the Globiom study for the European Commission, we calculated that crop biodiesel, including rapeseed, is on average worse for the climate than fossil diesel. Palm-oil diesel is three times worse for the climate than regular diesel.
The current EU biofuels policy is a catastrophe on environmental, climate and social grounds. Still, acolytes of the biofuels policy argue that it supports our farmers’ income. But biofuels are a highly inefficient and costly way to support farmers. Most shockingly, Europe has been forced to import more and more edible vegetable oils due to the biofuels policy. Around half of EU production of crop biodiesel is based on imports, not crops grown by EU farmers.
This week, community representatives from Indonesia and Liberia are walking the corridors of the European Parliament urging MEPs to fix this policy. They are living testimonies to the fact that our thirst for biofuels is fuelling deforestation, violence, landgrabbing and environmental destruction in their territories. Hernán would have wished to be with them but was murdered trying to stop a palm oil company destroying his home.
We would be better off channelling public money into promoting the fuels of the future: renewable energy from solar and wind and waste-based biofuels. The environment committee outcome is a good place to start such fixing. As Hernán’s legacy bluntly tells us, business as usual doesn’t only mean more emissions – it also costs lives.
Note to readers: if you are concerned about this issue and want to tell your MEPs to stop burning our forests and food for energy, please act here.