Land grabbing for agrofuels: no land is marginal

Land grabbing for agrofuels: no land is marginal

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By Guadalupe Rodríguez

The agrofuels industry has its eyes primarily on the best lands, but this term "marginal lands" is used in an intentionally confusing way. The fact that a natural resource, such as soil, is not being used to produce an economic benefit for the globalized market, does not mean that it does not have great ecological value and for local populations.

Brazil, Colombia or Argentina are considered as regions with great potential to expand the production of agrofuels to supply the European Union, to a much greater extent than what is already happening in these countries. One of the arguments used by the defenders of agrofuels is the existence of extensive areas of available land, which are commonly referred to as "marginal lands" or waste lands, abandoned, unproductive. However, in this article we will argue that the concept of "marginal lands" - lands with low productive value is a very confusing concept and its use in the context of agrofuels can be dangerous. This “marginal” qualification is introduced by a productive and economic interest in considering soils (1). From our point of view, the fact that a natural resource, such as soil, is not being used to produce an economic benefit for the globalized market, does not mean that it does not have great ecological value and for local populations.

From an ecological point of view there is no marginality. In areas of low productivity, biomass production may be low, or a large amount of fertilizers and water may be required, which will have other consequences such as water pollution and toxicity. The so-called marginal lands have, from a social point of view, a key function for the subsistence of rural communities. This is highlighted by a recent FAO report (2). The rural population, and especially women, usually extract from these areas everything they need for their subsistence, such as food, game, water and firewood. The expansion plans of industrial monocultures only exacerbate the problem of land concentration, and ends up hindering and even preventing access to the population that depends on them, and thus undermining their way of life.

Many natural areas in Latin America, such as the Amazon rainforest, the Cerrado, the Atlantic Forest and the Pantanal in Brazil, have already been seriously affected by the boom in the production of agrofuels, and the conversion of land use into industrial monocultures. Millions of indigenous people, Afro-descendants and peasants live in these ecosystems and depend on them. Many have already been driven from their homes, often with violence. Today, transgenic oil palm, corn, sugar cane or soy are grown in their ancestral territories. The indirect impacts of the displacement of people are very serious and must be taken into account. They are suddenly forced to start a new life, almost always in much worse conditions, in the poor suburbs of big cities or slums (3).

The concerns of Latin American peasants and social and environmental organizations must be taken into consideration and respected not only by those who make globalizing policies, but also by consumers and even environmentalists. The European Union policies that widely promote the introduction of biofuels that must be made from raw materials from the commodities of these supposedly “marginal” lands, are forgetting or failing to value the rural populations of the countries of the South, their ways of life and the ecosystems where they live and on which they depend, their cultures, their traditions, and thus also their rights. These populations are not oriented to the global market, but to the production of food for themselves. This is what is described as "marginal" or "undone." In countries like Malaysia or Indonesia, there is talk of the existence of large areas of marginal lands, where African palm plantations must be implemented, but nevertheless, these countries have some of the highest deforestation rates in the world. All the agrofuel certification systems that the European Union aspires to implement for the supposed use of "sustainable" agrofuels fail to solve the problem of marginal lands, simply suggesting that agrofuel crops should be implemented on these lands, without hitting clearly define what they are and where they are.

Returning to the reflection on marginal lands, our appreciation in the follow-up we do of how the expansion of monocultures is unfolding, is that the agrofuel industry has its eyes mainly on the best lands, but in an intentionally confusing way it is used this term "marginal lands". What can really be observed is that the production of agrofuels is taking place on natural ecosystems, local agricultural systems and on rural communities themselves.

We speak of Argentina, where children die of hunger every day throughout the country, of Colombia, where the Afro-Colombian population is being violently displaced and murdered on behalf of companies to take over their lands for palm plantations; of Brazil, where agrarian reform is the main reason for struggle for the rural population. In these countries, no land is marginal land.

Argentina Case: From Soy to Jatropha

In Argentina, some government officials and companies are trying to promote jatropha as a crop that restores soils and provides a reusable and inedible oil. The plant from which this oil is produced, supposedly grows in "marginal lands", with high productivity and without competing with the human or animal food chain.

The GRR Rural Reflection Group, which deals intensively with the problems caused by agribusiness in the Argentine countryside, denounces that these plans will produce even more displacement of peasants, more concentration of land and wealth in a few hands, in addition to adding thousands of hectares deforested to the already disappeared forests. “It will not be limited to increasing poverty, hunger, tuberculosis, chagas, leishmaniasis or yellow fever, but also, the species is extremely invasive and its impact on areas of biodiversity such as the Chaco will be even worse than the impact of transgenic soy ”denounces a representative of the GRR. This means that, as has already happened with other crops destined for the production of biofuels in Latin America, such as soybeans, palm, sugar cane or corn, the introduction of jatropha in the economic system, “will not mean greater development for peasant families and communities, but it will increase the gross domestic product that only makes the government proud, once again confusing growth with development ”. The cultivation of jatropha curcas is certainly still prohibited in Argentina, because the corresponding pest studies have not yet been carried out in the country. (4)

The indiscriminate expansion of soy monocultures and the opening to the agribusiness logic of the world market have destroyed the coexistence in the Argentine countryside between large landowners, small peasants and indigenous people. The big landowners who associated with the multinationals won the battle, and thousands of peasants were displaced in the last years from the Argentine countryside. While the international price of soybeans increased, soybeans spread beyond the fertile lands, towards the so-called “marginal lands”, in the north of the country. There lived peasants who grew food, and indigenous communities who fought for their territorial rights, on which they depended for their survival (5). This region also has one of the highest biodiversity rates in the country. A huge, violent land conflict started with soybeans, and will continue with official plans to implement jatropha.

Very recent cases of communities affected by the situations described in northern Argentina are the Wichi indigenous community, which resists against deforestation of the forests to give way to further expansion of more soybeans in the dry forest region of the Chaco in La Salta province. Or the case of the Guaraní indigenous community that was violently expelled from their land by soy producers, with the complicity of the government of the province of Jujuy. These struggles are only specific examples, but not unique at all.

Land theft in Colombia

Nothing illustrates more clearly the conflicts over land and the non-existence of “marginal” lands than the Colombian case. In Colombia, there are very serious conflicts over land, involving death, theft, occupation of land, militarization and paramilitarization, and a very long series of violations of fundamental rights. The Colombian magazine Semana, recently published a special section on the subject of land theft (7), where it is stated that those who claim their land are killed, tortured and threatened. Only 1 percent of the usurped land has been returned. Some inhabitants of Chocó tried to return to their lands, finding upon arrival with the surprise that their town had been demolished and African palm was growing in its place. Fifteen thousand people were displaced in this context, only in the lower Atrato for the implementation of the agricultural megaproject, whose boom is also based on that of agrofuels. Few are those who continue to resist since 1997 when this displacement began. The lives of others have already been changed forever, and the illegal occupation of 29,000 hectares of land by businessmen has been recognized by the Colombian state.

In Colombia, for almost two decades peasant plots have been usurped or their owners pressured to sell them at low prices, in a confusing legal framework to make everything appear “legal” (8). Despite this highly complex context, the Colombian government says that it foresees a potential expansion of up to 3,500,000 ha for palm crops. The question to the Colombian state would be where these millions of hectares are located, since the suitability of the soil and climate and other production factors is mentioned, but not the fact that they are territories of indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombian communities and peasant farmers. The magazine Semana mentions one million hectares of abandoned lands in remote and conflictive areas, which belong to victims of the armed conflict; their occupation for agribusiness is unthinkable, since they should be returned to their rightful owners. In this way, more expansion of the palm in Colombia, could only mean, as in other parts of Latin America, more conflicts such as the already existing social, cultural and economic, as well as environmental ones. This is the danger posed by the expansion of agrofuels on any surface of land, even if it is called "marginal".

Guadalupe Rodríguez, Save the Jungle

Complete information on biofuels in Southern countries can be found at:


(1) Ibáñez Juan J., Dr. (CSIC-University of Valencia), “Marginal Lands: a Dangerous and Confusing Concept”, .aspx (1-6-2008) and “Marginal Lands and Second Generation Biofuels: Another Big Lie”

(2) FAO Report, Andrea Rossi & Yianna Lambrou, “Gender and Equity Issues in Liquid Biofuels Production - Minimizing the Risks to Maximize the Opportunities” (4- 2008) ( news / 2008/1000830 / index.html)

(3) Global Forest Coalition, “The True Cost of Agrofuels: Impacts on Food, Forests, Peoples and the Climate”, (2007) ( pdf)


(5) Norma Giarranca, “Agrofuels in Latinamerica”, July 2007, (

(6) Evictions and violence against indigenous communities in northern Argentina Urgent News from the CAPOMA collective - Jujuy, Argentina, August 2008 (

Resources about soy monoculture at:

(7) “Los usurpados del Chocó”, Semana Magazine,

(8) “They are killing them”, Semana Magazine,

Video: 5 Ways to Rethink Land Grabs (July 2022).


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