Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 310 | Mayo 2007


Latin America

Bush-Lula: The Ethanol Alliance

Bio-diesel and other bio-fuels such as sugar cane and corn ethanol, are a topic of debate in political circles, the media and universities. This Brazilian author, dedicated to ethics and ecology, reflects on the Bush-Lula alliance to control the world’s biofuel production.

Leonardo Boff

If you think that President George W. Bush’s visit to several Latin American countries, Brazil in particular, was inspired by alarming warnings from the recent report on unstoppable global warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), you’re way off base. Bush is an illiterate in this field and his Brazilian colleague, Lula, doesn’t care about it at all.

Bush’s two motives

President Bush has two motives, one of which is geopolitics. Bush didn’t give Latin America much geopolitical importance during his first term, but in the past few years the people of this region have increasingly elected center-left or leftist governments emphasizing social concerns. Together with development, social issues became the focus. This woke up old dreams of Latin America’s influence on the world scene. Bolívar’s longing for One Great Country and José Martí’s for Our America, with strong anti-imperialist and anti-US sentiments, have again fired people’s political imagination. Hugo Chávez’s charismatic strength is largely due to this continental daydream.

The US government isn’t opposed to regional integration in principle, but wants it to happen without breaking the bilateral ties in place for decades. Bush can’t accept a Chávez-type integration, but could eventually accept the kind Lula is promoting, which doesn’t encourage anti-US feelings and isn’t contrary to Washington’s interests.

Petroleum’s days are numbered

The other motive for Bush’s trip was energy, growing out of Latin America’s extraordinary abundance of biomass, particularly in the Amazon. Alternatives have to be found to petroleum, which will be used up sometime between 2030 and 2040. Oil is the world system’s life-blood. What energy matrix will replace it? Brazil is the world leader in this area. A great part of its energy production is clean, coming from hydroelectric sources, while 29% comes from biomass, which only represents 11% of the world’s fuel sources. Brazil extracts biomass from a dozen varieties of legumes in the Amazon, pre-Amazon and northeastern regions.

The great Brazilian experiment, however, is ethanol extracted from sugar cane. In 1975, after the first big oil crisis, the country started the Pro-alcohol Program with its own technology, seeking alternative fuels to gasoline. There were periods when ethanol alcohol fueled 80% of cars nationally. When the price of oil fell, the project was put on the back burner, but the increases in the last few years have strengthened it again. Now Brazil produces 16 billion liters, almost all of it consumed nationally.

The “flex fuel car,” which works with gasoline or ethanol, is a registered Brazilian make. Within ten years there will be a need for another 12 billion liters of ethanol annually to feed the growing fleet of flex fuel cars, whose technology has been exported to countries like Japan.

Brazil’s advantages over the US

Brazil has about 90 million hectares suitable for crop cultivation and over 200 million hectares for cattle pasture. Agriculture currently only takes up 62 million hectares, of which 6 million are dedicated to sugar cane, half for producing ethanol and the other for sugar. There is a potential to add several million hectares for producing ethanol without taking from the forests or from food cultivation areas. The production of 28.4 billion liters is forecasted for 2017, plus another 10.3 billion liters exclusively for export.

The United States has had bio-refineries since 2001 and its goal is to replace 30% of its oil consumption by 2030. The US gets its ethanol from corn or wheat, but the productivity per hectare is half that of sugar cane. The subsidized cost per liter is $0.30, compared to $0.22 in Brazil. This explains the $0.14 protectionist tax per liter applied to imports of Brazilian ethanol.

The Bush-Lula plan: To be the two giants

Both Bush and Lula have grasped the potential of this important clean energy for the near future and they propose to make their respective countries the two big players in the bio-energy market.

To this end, Bush has approached Lula to offer him a bilateral association. No agreement was signed, but there is a memorandum that introduces the ideas of reciprocal technology sharing, a decision on a common technical formula for ethanol and the creation of bio-fuel factories in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean.

The United Nations launched the International Bio-fuels Forum on March 2nd to take the first steps towards organizing the international bio-fuels market and common technical formulas. The goal is for bio-fuels to become a worldwide raw material. The Forum brought together Brazil and the United States, which together produce 70% of the ethanol, plus China, India, South Africa and the European Union.

Without Noah’s ark

Meanwhile, a big question hangs over us that probably isn’t worrying the two Presidents. Isn’t it at least as urgent that we change the present model of civilization? The solution found by Bush and Lula files the wolf’s teeth but leaves its fierceness intact.

In an article published on March 4, Brazil’s former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso stated: “The biggest threat to humanity is the greenhouse effect. The deeper problem is whether the West’s practices, when they become generalized, will permit the peaceful coexistence of man and nature, and among men.” Here’s the demand for a true revolution in hearts and minds, without which we won’t be able to avoid the devastating consequences of climate change that are already on the way.

As French President Jacques Chirac announced, the heads of state should discuss these serious matters and make profound changes. This time there won’t be a Noah’s Ark to save some of us and leave the rest to perish. We either save all of us, or none of us.

Leonardo Boff is a Brazilian theologian. This article appears with IPS collaboration.

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