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Biofuel plantations fuel strife in Uganda

Fred Pearce, New Scientist
A row over the conversion of rainforests into biofuel plantations is creating a grave political crisis for a country until now seen as a beacon for democracy in Africa. The issue has brought to a head the simmering conflicts between short-term economic gains and the conservation of vital natural resources in the continent.

The president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, is this week pressing ahead with plans to give a large chunk of one of the country’s last protected forests to a sugar cane company so it can expand its operations. The Sugar Corporation of Uganda, which is owned by Ugandan Asians, wants to expand production to cash in on the booming global market in sugar for biofuels.

The crisis reached boiling point last week when a demonstration against the plan in the capital Kampala turned into an ugly race riot. Asian shops were ransacked, an Asian was stoned to death and police killed two demonstrators.

The demonstrations have resumed this week, with hundreds of defenders of the forest beaten up by squads of vigilantes known as kiboko, which local media claim are backed by the government.
(19 April 2007)

UC, faculty reach deal on biofuels institute

Rick DelVecchio, SF Chronicle
Critics disagreed on monitoring contract funded by industry
UC Berkeley faculty members patched over their differences on the $500 million BP biofuels deal Thursday, agreeing to a measure of added faculty scrutiny on this and future industry research partnerships but strongly opposing faculty interference on the basis of political or moral questions about corporate funders.

A standing-room-only special meeting of the campus’ Academic Senate reached the compromise after two hours of debate. Reflecting sharp differences among the 300 professors who attended, the debate included two split votes — 157-94 on the first point and 186-86 on the second.

The meeting followed more than two months of controversy over the terms of the biggest corporate research deal in academic history. The UC administration has faced a chorus of critics over a range of issues, including the social and environmental impacts of biofuels, the role of proprietary research on a public campus, and what role faculty should play in overseeing industry-sponsored research.
(20 April 2007)

Ethanol policy divides Latin America

Sara Miller Llana and Daniel Cance, Christian Science Monitor
US efforts to promote ethanol have raised food prices in the region
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez calls the boom in ethanol the equivalent of starving the poor “to feed automobiles.”

Ethanol, which is derived from crops such as corn or sugar, is seen by some as a green alternative, a rising star on the path toward reducing independence on foreign petroleum. But it’s not just Mr. Chávez who is questioning whether the benefits outweigh the unintended consequences.

Now poultry industry executives, who have seen the price of feedstock has gone up; Mexican consumers, facing a 60 percent jump in the cost of tortillas; and even environmentalists, who look at the amount of fertilizer that will be needed to grow extra crops, are wondering aloud whether ethanol will help or hurt Latin American economies.

The South American energy summit that concluded in Venezeula this week provided the latest platform for critics. Even though the debate has been cast as another issue in the long line of ideological battles aligning Chávez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro against the US, some analysts say that their point is larger than political: If the price for staple food items rises across the globe because of demand, Latin America will be one of the hardest hit regions.

“I think people worry that rich Americans are trying to fuel cars at the expense of hungry people in poorer countries,” says Janet Larsen, director of research at the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. “This increased push for ethanol production could be an incredible foreign policy blunder.”
(20 April 2007)

Biofuels and the war on oil

Jeff Cox,
Fought in laboratories and farmers’ fields, the fight to break us of our chronic oil habit won’t be without its perils.
Coming soon to a test tube near you: America’s new war.

This war won’t be fought with tanks and machine guns and improvised explosive devices, though. Instead, the generals in the War on Oil will employ techniques such as enzymatic hydrolysis and dry milling.

Rather than the conventional bullets and bombs, combatants’ weapons of choice will be switchgrass, wheat straw, corn and other material from the biomass.

The battle lines have been drawn and the objective is clear: Get the world’s biggest oil consumers weaned from their generations-old addiction to oil and establish the United States as a self-sufficient producer of energy from alternative sources.

Political support seems strong, with elected leaders from both parties eager to cast themselves as heroes in the quest for energy independence.

Like many wartime leaders before him, President Bush has challenged the nation to sacrifice – in this case to make significant cutbacks on its oil consumption and hit targets for development of ethanol and other biofuels.

The Department of Energy has committed $385 million to build six new plants across the country whose sole purpose will be to develop alternative energy. The 2007 Farm Bill, meanwhile, is expected to allocate billions of dollars toward the same end.

We have seen the enemy and its defeat is near. But wait. Don’t post that “Mission Accomplished” banner just yet.

For while the political will appears to exist, and the necessary weapons seem at our disposal, any number of obstacles could derail an American victory in this war on oil.
(19 April 2007)
Strange article boosting ethanol as THE answer to energy dependence. This fixation reminds me of France’s reliance on the Maginot Line before World War II. David Roberts at Gristmill is likewise unimpressed: The new energy debate: ethanol, or more ethanol?. -BA