Burma: Generals go berserk on biofuels

Key Issues: 

World Rainforest Movement Bulletin Issue 130 - May 2008 

By Amraapali N.

Biofuels – bio-diesel oil extracted from plants to replace high cost fossil fuels – have become controversial as the biofuel plantations are taking away lands mainly used, in particular for food production, by local communities.

In Burma, the ruling military junta has embarked on a massive expansion of biofuel plantations through forced confiscation of lands as well as arrests, fines, and beatings of farmers.

The junta’s five-year plan targets 8 million acres with the Jatropha curcas (physic nut, jetsuu in Burmese) tree for biofuel production. Each state and division of the country has to plant the crop across 500,000 acres. Now two years into the program, information is seeping out about the brutalities the local populations undergo being forced to plant jatropha.

“Biofuel by Decree: Unmasking Burma's bio-energy fiasco,” a report produced by the Ethnic Community Development Forum, an alliance of seven community development organizations from Burma, details how the Burmese junta is terrorizing the local populations to plant jatropha for biofuels even as, according to the report, “evidence of crop failure and mismanagement expose the program as a fiasco.”

The report says that farmers, civil servants, teachers, schoolchildren, nurses, and prisoners have been forced to purchase seeds and fulfill outrageous planting quotas, consuming precious time, land and resources essential for subsistence.

A manual produced by the Ministry of Agriculture says that 1,200 trees should be grown per acre. If the targets are reached, this would require every man, woman and child in Burma to each plant 177 trees within three years. The junta also plans to export biodiesel in future and the jatropha project has attracted investors from Thailand, Singapore and UK.

The junta claims that biofuels are necessary as a fuel substitute to make Burma decrease its dependence on the 200 million gallons of oil it imports annually. The junta-owned Myanmar oil and Gas Enterprise hopes that the country can replace all of its 40,000 barrels of conventional oil imports with domestic jatropha within a few years. The junta’s claims for energy self-sufficiency, however, seem dubious given that it has been selling off the country’s numerous natural gas deposits to Thailand, India and China.

On March 2006, the head of Burma’s military and the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), Senior General Than Shwe, urged the “extensive growing of physic nut across the nation,” a speech that effectively made the biofuels project a “national duty” and set off frenzied activities to plant jatropha in “all empty spaces.”

Soon high profile plantation ceremonies involving military top brass and battalions of soldiers kicked off plantation projects across villages and townships. The military told civil servants to plant jatropha at state offices, schools, and hospitals; house gardens, churchyards, monastery compounds, and even cemeteries were targeted.

The military makes people buy seeds, branches or seedlings as well as use their own labor, farm tools and land. Land confiscation is the norm: for example, in northern Shan State, the military took 1,000 acres of land belonging to farmers in Man Mao village and gave the land to the local militia to grow jatropha.

The majority of villagers are forced to buy seedlings, branches, or seeds in packets and tin baskets (as well as an “instruction manual”) often at exorbitant prices.

One interviewee reports, “We bought the plants when the authorities came to our village. Every house had to buy at 400 kyat per plant. Some villagers had no money and had to borrow from others to pay for the plants.” (The official exchange rate varies between 5.75 and 6.70 kyats per US dollar.)

In one bizarre instance, villagers were forced to find wild seeds, sow them in a nursery, and then buy back the seedlings they had nurtured.

By August 2006, jatropha cultivation reached the 1 million acre mark; updated plans then called for 2.3 million acres in 2006-07, 2.68 million acres in 07-08, and 3.38 million acres in 08-09, making a total of 8.36 million acres.

The report explains the chilling situation in Burma where these quotas are being enforced with beatings and death threats. Field research in 32 townships in each of Burma’s states including 131 interviews with farmers, civil servants and investors details how soldiers are arresting and beating people and threatening death to those not meeting quotas, damaging the plants, or criticizing the program. At least eight hundred people have fled across the border to Thailand from Southern Shan state to escape the cruelty of the biofuels program.

Despite all these measures, massive crop failures – as high as 72% – plague the project after two years of implementation due to haphazard growing techniques and bad seed stock.

Even when the trees themselves grow, often they bear few seeds because climate and soil conditions are not adequately taken into consideration. Moreover, Burma has little capacity to extract oil from seed, and much of the biodiesel produced has been of such poor quality that engines won't run on them.

The jatropha trees take 4 to 5 years to mature fully. During this period, farmers get no income from it; families also have little to eat since the arable lands are taken over by the biofuel plantations. One farmer asks, “They said it would be a three-year project; but what are we going to eat in the meantime?”

Food scarcity is a serious problem in many parts of Burma. According to the United Nations World Food Program, in 2007, some 5 million people or almost 10 percent of Burma’s population were chronically short of food.

One farmer said, “We suffer from lack of farmlands for cultivation. We cannot work for ourselves properly. We have to grow jet suu. If we don’t want to grow they collect 2,500 kyat per acre from each of us. Our time is limited and now we have to go far away to work and have no time to weed our paddy.”

Concerns also persist about the poisonous properties of the jatropha plant due to presence of toxalbumin called curcin, ricin and cyanic acid, related to ricinoleic acid. Though all parts of the plant are poisonous, seeds have the highest concentration of ricin and thus highly poisonous. Ricin has been shown to exhibit many cardiotoxic (heart muscle damage) and hemolytic (breaking open of red blood cells and the release of hemoglobin into the surrounding fluid) effects. Adverse effects following consumption of seeds include vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and burning sensation in the throat.

Local people have found ways to show defiance. Faced with loss of lands and livelihoods, many villagers see no choice but to find ways to avoid or refuse to plant. Some buy seedlings but don’t plant them; others plant less than ordered; signboards promoting biofuels have also been defaced.

By Amraapali N., a writer in the Mekong region, e-mail: amraapali@gmail.com

The report “Biofuel by Decree” published by the ethnic Community Development Forum (ECDF) is available for download at: http://cban.ca/Resources/Topics/Agrofuels and http://www.terraper.org/key_issues_view.php?id=17

WRM Bulletin (in full) found at: http://www.wrm.org.uy/