“Mexico would be a world leader in biofuels – if not for its peasants,” says a U.S. energy executive.

Granted, these were not the exact words of James Row, CEO of Houston-based Producers Energy, but they sum up the sentiment of his thoughts quite nicely. In fairness, this is what he said verbatim when referring to Mexico’s potential status as a world leader in the production of agave-based ethanol:

“Mexico is absolutely a perfect country for biodiesel, especially if it can be domestically grown, but the country’s ejido system — collectively-held land in rural areas — creates hurdles for private investment. The result is difficulty in finding continuous large areas of rural land that can be negotiated for use for cultivation, or high prices that make it cost prohibitive. Without land reform, issues with land availability will continue, and Mexico will fall a decade or more behind other countries in the biofuels sector.The demand is there, the land is there, but there is no way to get it. Now is the time for Mexico to get its act together for biofuels.”
Before considering these words in depth, a little context. Recently, an AeroMexico plane departing from Mexico City touched down in Madrid and in the process became the world’s first transatlantic commercial flight powered entirely by biodiesel. Many environmentalists in Mexico and abroad applauded the achievement. Some expressed trepidation, and with good cause. The debate over biofuels has raged for the better part of the past decade in the United States and has now arrived to Mexico. The crux of the issue is the same in either setting: What effects will a rising demand to produce the fuels have on agricultural systems and the people that live in them? Advocates of biodiesel make the obvious statement: the prices of food staples such as corn and sugar, until now the primary bases of ethanol, will rise. In Mexico there is another crop with incredible biofuel potential – agave, the basis of tequila. An increased demand for crops and the corresponding price increases for those crops is easily advertised as a win-win for everyone involved; as much as for the distributor of biodiesel as for the farmer who grew the ingredient crop.
What this logic fails to consider, however, are the potential negative consequences that a rapid conversion to biofuel production will have if implemented across vast swaths of the Mexican countryside. Latinamericanists have studied the effects that monoculture agricultural systems have had on Latin American ecosystems and peoples. Scores of books cover the human and environmental consequences of large-scale sugar production in the Caribbean, silver mining in Peru, rubber cultivation in Brazil, etc. More importantly, Latin Americans have felt these effects personally. More often than not, the rapid introduction and cultivation of a single or handful of cash crops in an alien ecosystem has had negative long-term effect on that area’s human and environmental health. In Latin America more that elsewhere, it seems, biodiversity has been directly linked to the physical health of that area’s inhabitants. Who can now view the vast soy deserts of the northern Amazon and not wonder about the permanent loss of species in that most bio-diverse region? A reduction of forest resources still has significant impact on the survival prospects of people (let alone animals) who continue to reside on these “idle” lands, as they have been traditionally viewed by state and agribusiness players alike. There is qualitative evidence to suggest that a similar conversion of the Mexican countryside – which exists now primarily of uncultivated lands used for grazing, foraging, and other subsistence-type activities – will also negatively impact those who reside there.
Moreover, there is the question of who stands to benefit financially from such a conversion? Quantitative evidence suggests that the creation of large scale farms in those areas will offer little benefit to locals. What economic benefit has NAFTA brought? One could ask. Wasn’t NAFTA also a comprehensive production strategy meant to spur the production of cash crops in Mexico and in turn provide peasant farmers permanent, high paying agricultural jobs? The “hurdles for private investment” that Row now cites are taken directly from the talking points of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari who argued for land reform in 1992 and cited the impediments that he felt the ejido posed to the future of Mexican development. To both men, apparently, a slate of land reform that eliminates the collective land holding is a prerequisite of free trade, for free trade implies a freer (i.e. more individually-based) system of land tenure that enable corporations to acquire plots one a one-to-one rather than collective basis. Thus it appears to Row today as much as it did to Salinas two decades ago that the ultimate end of the ejido is a pre-requisite of prosperity. The astronomic increase in outward migration from the Mexican campo and the marked drop in standard of living in rural Mexico in the post-1994 period, however, seriously question the merits of their position.
It is easy to get behind the cause of alternative energy and biofuels in the form of corn, sugar, or even agave-based ethanol. Biodiesel, clearly, is a promising financial resource for many nations to harness. Before forests are slashed or hillsides are tilled, however, the overall benefits of its production should be weighed keeping environmental and social factors closely in mind. 

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