Large Scale Biofuel Projects in Mozambique: A Solution to Poverty?

The first two Chapters of this paper are reproduced here. For the Full Paper including Appendices, Footnotes and Bibliography please download the PDF below.

HD PDF New Large Scale Biofuel Projects in Mozambique: A Solution to Poverty? (3058)

Author: Claire Burgess

Chapter 1 Introduction

Recently there has been a large increase in global land acquisitions for fuel and food production. This has been spurred on by the combined global food, fuel and financial crisis. Capitalists have been seeking out ‘cheap’ and what the investors and international development agencies term ‘idle land’ to occupy or lease. Large tracts of land are being allocated predominantly from developing nations such as Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe – and in the majority of cases the land is not ‘idle’ at all. Several academics and NGOs have been critical of this global land phenomenon as they argue that this is a new form of imperialism, that has significant negative consequences for local populations (often the poor and marginalised) including displacement, marginalisation, conflict, increased resource competition and coercion. The large scale biofuel industry plays a significant role in this and has expanded rapidly in recent years, particularly in Mozambique. Biofuel promoters argue that through employment opportunities and rural development, large scale biofuel plantations will contribute to poverty alleviation.

Aims and Scope

This thesis aims to examine whether developing nations such as Mozambique achieve poverty reduction through large scale biofuel projects. Large scale acquisitions for biofuel projects in developing nations, has become an important contemporary issue. Academic research from an agrarian political economy perspective has been utilised however Harvey’s Accumulation by Dispossession (ABD) concept as a framework for analysis has yet to be applied in the context of biofuels in Mozambique. The processes of ABD are highly relevant for analysing dispossession and the impacts on poverty. ABD is fundamental to the expansion and introduction of the biofuel industry. Through the process of ABD biofuel projects in Mozambique are shaping land change in rural communities and thereby impacting upon rural poverty, this research will seek to provide fresh insight into an industry that is new and expanding at an alarmingly rapid rate. This thesis will provide a highly detailed case study of Mozambique, which may be utilised comparatively with other developing nations. Knowledge of the nature of ABD will be expanded within the context of Mozambique to contribute to a gap in knowledge of its application in its various forms to country specific analysis. There is also need for continual up to date understanding and context specific knowledge in each developing nation in regards to biofuels and large scale land acquisitions in order to inform policy decisions of the future.

Research Methods and Limitations

This thesis will examine biofuels and poverty in rural Mozambique through the theoretical lens of ABD. The concept of ABD views dispossession as a contemporary process relied upon by capitalists to maintain the capitalist system. Four key characteristics of ABD will be drawn upon to provide the framework for analysis these include: displacement of peasants; commodification and privatisation of land; commodification of labour power; and suppression of alternative modes of production and consumption. The impacts of these processes on land and livelihoods, food security, compensation and wage labour will be explored. A limitation of this approach is that the cultural, social and political dimensions of poverty are not given adequate consideration due to the limited scope available. The research methods used to collect the data presented include case study method, and contextual analysis. This will increase contextual understanding and knowledge; and increase the complexity of understanding within the geographical region. Case studies and contextual analysis provide a detailed, in-depth and nuanced understanding of a particular situation at a particular historical moment. Through the presentation of case studies this thesis expects to uncover new meanings and utilise previous ideas in new and insightful ways. Data was found through a variety of sources including primary sources such as: government research and documents, company websites; Mozambique newspapers; poverty and agrarian statistics from International aid agencies; secondary sources include academic research, International aid agency reports and research, and NGO reports and research. This research endeavours to rectify the limitations of case studies by providing a detailed table (appendix 1) that includes key information and data pertaining to a total of 20 biofuel projects in Mozambique.


The current literature and debates on land acquisitions for biofuels and poverty in the global context is outlined in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 will follow to outline the theoretical framework of agrarian political economy including a discussion of current literature that utilises the theoretical framework ABD. Chapter 4 with a focus on land will explore the ways that land distribution and ownership has changed since the emergence of large scale biofuel projects in Mozambique and how land change has impacted upon rural poverty. This chapter will also examine whether land displacement or dispossession has occurred as a result of biofuel production in Mozambique and whether the rural poor owned the land prior to the acquisition and whether they were adequately compensated. This chapter maps the history of land and agrarian change in Mozambique and presents detailed information gathered from primary and secondary sources in regards to the current biofuel projects in Mozambique. Several case studies are also drawn upon to highlight the characteristics of dispossession and displacement.

In Chapter 5 on poverty the extent to which access to livelihoods are impacted by biofuel projects is examined. Two key factors for analysis emerge as important: access to employment and food security. This chapter examines whether the rural poor in Mozambique have experienced a decrease in food security as a result of large scale biofuel projects. The chapter commences by highlighting the importance of the context of Mozambique in terms of subsistence production to demonstrate the history of agrarian change and subsequent policies that have impacted upon food and agricultural production also shaping the current status of poverty. The impacts of biofuel projects on livelihoods are examined by viewing the changes in rural households access to livelihoods including livestock trails, forest resources, water and wage labour. Food security is argued as a key factor affecting poverty that biofuel projects directly impact upon. A case study is examined to highlight impacts on food production for households engaging in out grower schemes that promote the planting of food crops such as Cassava for sale to biofuel companies. The findings that have emerged from these Mozambique data chapters are then discussed at length in Chapter 6 Discussion, and conclusions drawn in Chapter 7. First this thesis will now turn to the current literature on biofuels and poverty reduction.

Chapter 2: Literature Review: Biofuels and Poverty Reduction

Recently there has been an influx in demand for land for large scale investments in the production of biofuels from developed countries seeking sustainable energy resources. Investors are acquiring land mostly from developing nations. Many promoters argue that biofuel land investments in developing nations are a solution to rural poverty. This literature review will outline the current issues and debates relating to biofuels and poverty reduction. The debates will be organised around the three key themes that have emerged whilst researching the literature including land change and displacement; employment; and food security. Firstly this review will provide background information around the emergence of the recent global rush for land for biofuels.


Biodiesel or bioethanol is extracted from biomass to produce biofuel utilised most commonly for transport. Bioethanol is produced from crops such as cassava, sweet sorghum, and sugar cane. Biodiesel is produced from oil found in certain seeded plants, such as jatropha, palm, cassava, and soya. There has been a recent rapid growth in biofuel projects, the industry increased three fold between the year 2000 and 2007, particularly in the developing world. Many developing countries have been identified as having vast tracts of available ‘marginal’ or ‘idle’ land estimated between 445 million and 1.7 billion. The concept of ‘idle land’ is highly contested. Two global concerns have led to the expansion of biofuels – diminishing peak oil levels and climate change which have driven the demand for renewable energy sources. The European Union and the United States have recently introduced policy targets for the mandatory blending of biofuels. Promoters also argue that biofuels are a part of the solution to rural poverty in developing nations. This thesis will critically examine this argument.

Land Change and Displacement

FIAN researchers suggest that large scale land acquisition for biofuels restricts local control and access to key livelihood resources such as land and water. They argue that by reducing the ability for subsistence farmers to utilise resources this impacts directly on their right to an adequate standard of living even when compensation and relocation is guaranteed. Oxfam (2008) warn that displacement can cause conflict often involving the most marginalised populations. However promoters argue that the opportunities outweigh the risks. They argue that when governments implement biofuel strategies with guidelines and regulations in place,’ pro poor’ or ‘win-win solutions’ can result. For example the director of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) Joachim von Braun argues that ‘policy makers must take care to ensure that biofuel production is managed and regulated’ to avoid socio-economic pitfalls. Another approach that biofuel promoters suggest to avoid the ‘risks’ involved in large scale biofuel projects is to allocate ‘marginal’ or ‘idle’ land to investors.

Murphy argue that biofuel production will play an important role in renewable energy in the next 40 years, particularly due to the range of land types available including marginal or idle land and forest land. However, when these terms are used to classify land based on the premise that lands are unproductive or underutilised it is argued by several critics that the land can often hold significance for local populations for example as common property resources (CPRs), part of livestock trail, forest resources, or land held in reserve. In addition to this De Schutter argues that by assuming that ‘idle’ land is widely available and suitable the ‘opportunity costs’ from allocating large tracts of land to agri-business are underestimated. The benefits from promoting local access to land and water, and local farming technologies are thereby set aside. McMichael (2009b, 235) argues that by promoters focusing solely on commercial agricultural projects will reduce subsistence farmer’s capacity to produce independently of the market. Borras & Franco argue similarly that agro-industrial approaches undermine subsistent farmers livelihoods and economies – through the very act of dispossessing farmers of land which devalues their practices. Crop production on ‘idle’ or ‘marginal’ lands is also seen as a strategy to avoid undermining food production as ‘marginal’ lands are not used for cultivation.

Food Security

Promoters argue that by assessing land it is possible to find ‘suitable’ or ‘marginal land’ which will not compete with food production. However, Cotula & Vermeulen in their study of biofuel projects in Sub-Saharan Africa found that in some case studies demonstrated that higher valued lands (with access to irrigation, markets and higher rainfalls) were the lands often allocated to investors. They argued that some projects have displaced farmers from land already in use by local people, yet these areas were unrecognised highlight that many Sub Sahara African countries allocate land ownership and usage according to custom and tradition – several countries fail to recognise this. Although, even where customary land rights are recognised, rural communities are increasingly dealing with displacement of land utilised for food production and livelihoods. These common property or communal lands have been found to be utilised as a vital livelihood resource which is important for rural populations to maintain food security. Biofuel promoters often argue that any food security risks will be outweighed by the potential for economic growth. On the other hand several critics argue that nearly all biofuel projects are for export, and will reduce rural areas to commercial-based technologies where poverty and hunger will be further exacerbated. However promoters argue that employment opportunities will generate incomes and strengthen local communities.


The most commonly promoted potential benefit of biofuel projects to the rural poor is that employment and small holder income increases will be high. Yet several critics of biofuels argue that employees face poor working conditions, substandard wages, minimal job creation, and have failed to translate into better living conditions. For example Fernandes et their study of peasants and biofuel agribusiness investors in the region of Pontal do Paranapanema in Sao Paulo, Brazil, it was found that yearly payments of family members of seasonal workers were spent quickly and that the work itself was extremely difficult and paid at an extremely low rate. Other research has shown that employment generation has occurred with positive impacts on livelihoods. For example Schoneveld et al in their study on the local impacts of biofuel plantations in Ghana found that employment was reported to have a positive impact on the livelihoods. However of the 67% of the employed, farming remained most important to food security and income, employment income generation was secondary. They argue that ‘these gains do not appear to accrue substantially to households that have been affected by land loss’. This suggests that employment gains only provide partial compensation for loss.

Critics argue that, increasing employment opportunities and labour productivity is not a viable approach to reducing poverty in developing countries. Li (2011) argues similarly and draws on research from Indonesia due to its extensive history of large scale land deals and contract schemes, to argue that certain skills will not transfer into the global capitalist system. She demonstrates that for many, displacement occurs as a result of land acquisition, with no alternative livelihood or pathway to employment. She argues that ‘unless vast numbers of jobs are created, or a global basic income grant is devised to redistribute the wealth generated in highly productive but labor-displacing ventures, any program that robs rural people of their foothold on the land must be firmly rejected’.

The global land grab phenomenon, of which biofuels production is very much a part, involves many actors with various interests and viewpoints. For example, Biofuel promoters argue that through employment generation and investment in rural development biofuel projects will result in a reduction of poverty for developing nations. On the other hand the critics point toward evidence of land displacement, food insecurity and poor working conditions that could worsen situations of poverty. There is a debate emerging in regards to whether large scale biofuel projects can reduce poverty. However, more country specific and academically rigorous research is required to examine more closely the impacts of biofuel projects on the rural poor in developing nations. Particularly in high impact areas has sub-Saharan Africa. This thesis aims to contribute to this important and growing literature.

HD PDF New Large Scale Biofuel Projects in Mozambique: A Solution to Poverty? (3058)

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