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The political economy of biofuels: consequences of industry expansion in Mozambique and beyond


By Phoebe Holmes


Biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, are renewable materials derived from plant-based biomass used to complement or replace existing fossil fuels. Deininger (2011) estimates between 445 million ha and 1.7 billion ha of land is currently available for biofuel production globally, with Africa accounting for the lions’ share of this. It is widely cited that Western, particularly European Union, governments are responsible for the spread of this industry in the past decade, having set ambitious mandated targets for renewable energy to tackle crises surrounding climate, food, energy, and development (McMichael, 2010; Neville 2015; Palmer, 2014; Mshandete, 2011; Borras and Franco 2010; Oxfam International, 2008). An array of orthodox academic and institutional actors too promote this win-win narrative (for example UNFCC, 2017; Timilsina, 2011; Balat, 2009; Dincer, 2008; Hacisaligoglu, 2009; Dermibas, 2009).

The politically-loaded term 'agrofuel' has surfaced referencing the intense social and political relations arising in biofuel production. Financially elite actors, through publicly sponsored private accumulation (McMichael, 2009), reinforce and enhance their control over vital global resources, with the support of nation states and international institutions. In a process of ontological reconstruction and abstraction, agricultural systems continue to be financialised, whereby socio-ecological elements with multifaceted cultural and symbolic value are transformed into one-dimensional commodities defined by exchange value only (Ouma, 2018, 2020; McMichael, 2009). This frequently results in destructive consequences for the poor majority, including displacement, cultural damage and food insecurity (Oliviera et al, 2017; Zoomers 2010; Dixon, 2013; Vigil, 2018).

This article adopts an eco-socialist political outlook, informed by the exceptional 'Democratic Marxism' series edited by Satgar (2018). An eco-socialist standpoint identifies the expansion of a capitalist social order as the primary cause of persisting environmental degradation and social exclusion. It thus understands there to be fundamental limitations in pursuing capitalist solutions to (capitalist borne) climate crises. This inherent dissonance is due to the relationship between society and nature under a capitalist system being predicated on rights, extractivism and ownership that ultimately sets out to generate added “value” for a minority class (Guerro, 2018). While one can turn to Foster (2000) or Burkett (2014) for discussions in favour of Marx’s ecological considerations, there is debate as to whether original Marxist theory paid due attention to ecological wellbeing. An eco-socialist perspective aspires to rectify any such omissions, through the consolidation of democratic socialist values (participatory policy reform, public ownership of resources, representative decision making, etc.) with ecological concerns Therefore, eco-socialism centres the healthy sustainment of all flora and fauna, of which human wellbeing is a necessary, but not primary, component. This lens is particularly potent in the current analysis of the Mozambican biofuels sector, in that it ultimately resists the capture of climate solutions by corporations, through questioning their entrenched heightened position of power and challenging the extreme inequality that characterises patterns of energy consumption (Guerro, 2018). In overtly highlighting the political underpinning of climate outcomes, individualised solutions targeting personal resource consumption are exposed as inadequate, and structurally-oriented political and economic mechanisms are brought to the fore.

The following section provides the context for this article, highlighting the colonial roots of consequences that arise from biofuels production, whilst touching upon the Mozambican setting. Existing literature on the impact of biofuel expansion is then critically reviewed and emergent themes are explained. Finally, the article is concluded by offering potential future avenues of research based on the gaps identified.


Practices of land-grabbing over poor rural populations, rationalised through promises of progress and civilisation by a forceful perpetrator, is rooted in the imperialist foundations and traditions of the current paradigm. The capitalist system rests upon a series of social dichotomies (the most relevant here being nature/society and coloniser/colonised) that promote a simplified and disassociated view of reality. These were advanced by philosophers of the Enlightenment, who sculpted justifications for colonial intervention by introducing a linear vision of development (McEwan, 2018). At one end of this path existed inferior, savage beings, whilst at the other was the rational, civilised Western male (Strang, 2018). In his work 'Orientalism' Said’s (1978) offers what has come to be a prominent discussion on the origins of systemic "othering", a notion that discursively promotes those in poor countries as lacking autonomy or voice (McEwan, 2018). Appropriation of lands leading to social and ecological breakdown and repression of indigenous culture, in favour of commercial profit and visions of modernity is integral to the history of colonialism, and has set the precedent for land and agricultural policy in the modern era (McMichael, 2010; Hunsberger, 2010; Dixon, 2013; Verma, 2014; Magdoff, 2013). This is demonstrative of the ongoing social oppression and territorial dispossession, in which indigenous groups are marginalised through elitist attempts to modernise their ways of being (Boelens et al, 2010; Velez-Torres, 2012). Verma (2014) provides reflects on this trajectory through a gendered lens, highlighting that the catalyst to obtain land has always been driven by the desires of elite males.

Colonialism, market liberalisation and capital accumulation have long shaped energy regimes in Mozambique, and the country’s “troubled transition” to capitalism from Marxism-Leninism since 1990 has left behind a complicated political economy (Power et al, 2016). The capitalist trajectory of marketisation became further pronounced with worldwide neoliberal expansion, which saw a profound entrenchment of financiers in agricultural systems (Ouma, 2018; Magdoff, 2013). Powerful actors continue to reject any philosophy of social reproduction not underpinned by accumulation and private property (McMichael, 2010). Magdoff (2013) presents a telling narrative of the endemic displacement across the global South, from the 1700’s and continuing to present day accumulation by rural dispossession driven by Western desires for 'green' biofuels. Under the Frelimo administration’s neoliberalisation of Mozambique, patronage, state capture and other forms of corruption became commonplace. Today, concerns persist surrounding the governments’ centralisation of power and favouritism of political and economic elites (Power et al, 2016).

Mozambique has been frequently labelled by pro-capitalist actors as one of the most “promising” African countries for an economically successful biofuels sector (Moyo, 2014; Hartley et al 2019; Schut et al, 2010). The country’s apparent underutilisation of its agricultural landscape, and combined abundance of low-cost labour, aligns perfectly with the biofuels investment profile devised by international institutions. Mozambique’s biofuels industry is rapidly growing, having been a primary recipient of investment in the region, alongside great enthusiasm from governments, development agencies and corporate actors for further expansion (Moyo, 2014; Borras et al, 2014). It is therefore sensible to pursue the questions posed by this work in the context of Mozambique, under the assumption that the recent high levels of agrofuel-driven exploitation and community displacement will endure in coming years.

Despite the progressive nature of Mozambique’s official land laws (eg. Land Law 1997), which theoretically protect customary institutions and grants specific rights to vulnerable groups, legislation has seldom materialised into advantages for the poor majority (Verma, 2014; Borras and Franco, 2010).  Over half the population live in poverty, and inequality is exacerbated by centralised power and influence over resource use (Schafer and Bell, 2002). Dauvergne and Neville (2010) highlight that late-entry states to biofuel production are more vulnerable to the interests of TNCs. This may underscore the widespread concerns of corruption in land deals struck between corporates and the Mozambican state, who consistently fail to uphold their lawfully proclaimed sovereignty (Moyo, 2014; Borras et al, 2011). For a discussion on economic crime and state-corporate collusion, one should turn to Tombs and Whyte (2009), Tombs (2010; 2011), Lynch and Stretesky (2010) and Michalowski and Kramer (2014). These alliances frequently result in elitist interests being prioritised over local communities’ needs, perpetuating the colonial geographies described above (Borras et al, 2011; Power et al, 2016).

Environmental consequences

Broadly, the dominant narrative justifies sustainability assertions by incorporating biofuel crops’ end use only, ignoring the aggregate climate impact that occurs in the production process. This generates new frontiers for capitalist expansion through the "façade of market environmentalism” (McMichael, 2010; Oliviera et al 2017). Biofuels favourable environmental outcomes, as declared by mainstream actors, are contested in a multitude of studies. Fargione et al (2008), Scharlemann and Laurance (2008) and Searchinger et al (2008) have all been influential in debunking these myths, and many others present findings consistent with their claims (e.g. Dauvergne and Neville, 2010; Weis, 2010; Mshandete, 2011; Oliviera et al, 2017; McMichael, 2010; Righelato and Spracklen, 2007; Palmer, 2014; Rainforest Action Network, 2007).

The primary environmental consequence of biofuels that is presented in the literature is the increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs), the 'carbon debt', that occurs through several avenues in the production process. There is a burst of GHG emissions released in many methods of clearing of land, such as fire clearing, to make way for biofuel plantations. In addition to this, ploughed up vegetation will immediately release its’ stored carbon into the atmosphere, and the decay of branches, leaves and other wood products also cause a slow leak of GHG’s (Fargione et al, 2008; Searchinger et al, 2008). Further to these processes, the debt is enlarged through the carbon sequestration potential being compromised when compared to the lands original form (Righelato and Spracklen, 2007; Weis, 2010; Mshandete, 2011). The cumulative impact of these factors is colossal, notably demonstrated in analysis by Fargione et al (2008), evidencing that the conversion of grasslands, savannas or rainforests to monocrop feedstock products for biofuels can ultimately release up to 420 times more CO2 than annual Green House Gas (GHG) savings gained by moving away from fossil fuels. Put differently, it would take 420 years to repay the carbon debt. Admittedly, this is the most extreme example (palm biodiesel produced in the Indonesian tropical rainforest) given in the sample, but various other biofuel crops have too been predicted to take decades or centuries to arrive at a carbon-neutral point (see Appendix 1). The extent of the carbon debt will depend on multiple variables, including the lands original carbon absorption rate, technological advances, transportation and processing, reallocation of food crop production, and price-related energy consumption changes (Fargione et al, 2008; Weis, 2010).

Although these insights are significant, the literature’s preoccupation with GHG emissions also represents an important downfall, in that it inadvertently succumbs to Western-centric macro concerns. It is consumers in the global North that have been promised GHG reductions. While this outcome affects the population globally, albeit rather disproportionately, it is local biodiversity loss and degradation of resources that will have the greatest effect on communities in regions of biofuel expansion - the literature overlooks this. Knock-on effects relating to physical health and spiritual wellbeing have also been neglected, as well as the disparity of the ecological impacts felt by local actors; it is not clear which groups will suffer most and why. An exception to this is Dauvergne and Neville (2009), who unremarkably contend that “indigenous forest peoples” will be the most vulnerable. There is no analysis on the gendered differential impact of resource quality erosion in Mozambique, since it is primarily rural women and girls that are tasked with preparing food and collecting water for the household. This oversight is particularly acute in the otherwise penetrating analysis provided by Borras et al (2011) on the ProCana case, Mozambique.

Overall, the literature fails to demonstrate the structural or economic conditions that lead to specific, localised ecological outcomes (such as reduced ecosystem resilience, biodiversity loss, degradation of soil and water quality), and how these outcomes affect differentiated rural groups. Additionally, the majority of existing biofuel sustainability estimates are reliant on findings extrapolated from analyses in earlier biofuel hotspots, typically Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia. Thus, there is a lack of insight into local ecological effects in contemporary contexts, including Mozambique. This is despite unprecedented production expansion into new regions with differing landscapes and ecosystems.

Social consequences

One prominent way that capitalist players justify the large-scale acquisition of land is through assertions that only 'marginal', 'idle' or 'unused' (see Exner et al, 2015 for a discussion on the nuances of these terms) areas will be allocated to biofuel production. However, as has been exposed by multiple authors (eg. Borras et al, 2011; Exner et al 2015; McMichael, 2010; Borras and Franco, 2010), land is flippantly deemed marginal if it is not being utilised in a neoliberal sense (i.e. exploited for commercial profit). Typically, many of the lands classified as idle actually were being used, but in more traditional ways (Borras et al, 2011). Furthermore, it is the often the most vulnerable or marginalised of groups, such as women and refugees, that rely on these communal lands to grow crops and graze cattle (McMichael, 2010; Cotula et al, 2008; Mshandete, 2011). So, that which is deemed a wasteland for neoliberal winners in fact acts as a lifeline for millions (McMichael, 2010). Land tenure is inherently political, and to approach its’ allocation in a technical way is impossible. Although these decisions are framed as efficient, rational and objective, they are inextricably underpinned by Western political ideologies. These top-down, constructivist, neutralised land categorisations are steered by a savage crusade for capital, intentionally simplifying landed social relations through the invisiblisation of local perceptions of communal land (Exner et al, 2015). This ultimately serves to further entrench the dominance of the already-powerful.

This neoliberal categorisation of land on the African continent has considerable social consequences for local populations, having justified widespread land grabbing practices that perpetuate deep-rooted structural inequalities of power.  In Mozambique, many projects commenced prior to the existence of a legal regulatory framework (Mshandete, 2011; Borras et al, 2011), causing vulnerable groups to have even less opportunity for legitimate negotiation. Massive tracks of land are passed over to corporations, causing entire communities to be displaced, leading to food insecurity, resource deprivation, social polarisation and political instability (Moyo, 2014; Magdoff, 2013; Zoomers 2010). Given the symbolic significance of ancestral agricultural land, and its foundational role in civilisation (Sippel, 2018; Magdoff, 2013; Exner et al 2015), this widespread displacement constitutes vast spiritual and cultural loss. Analysis of this process is complemented by Harvey’s (2007) work, that explicates neoliberalism’s “creative destruction” of “ways of life, attachments to the land, [and] habits of the heart” (ibid, p.23).

The displacement process has been aptly labelled “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey, 2003), highlighting how the needs of capital are met by disrupting local communities. However, Kumar (2015) criticises this notion, claiming that Harvey overlooks the institutionalisation of capital as a whole, emphasising the importance of analysing particular actors that justify systematic accumulation, of which marginalisation is a mere by-product of. By delving into the roles of certain powerful actors that drive the reproduction of capitalism, we move from the realm of “blameable universals”, towards concrete and answerable offenders (White, 2011). Awareness of nation states facilitative role in these processes, then, is crucial. Borras and Franco (2010) describe external investors’ close relationship with local Mozambican governments, who cultivate enabling conditions, or even act as a broker in the transaction. Yet, the literature has generally failed to delve deeper into side effects of the state-corporate relationship. It is not clear whether displacement outcomes are more or less severe with the helping hand of local elites. The literature also fails to provide longitudinal data and account for the sustained and differentiated effects felt by particular groups, separated along ethnic, class or gender lines, in the face of displacement. With the exception of Dauvergne and Neville (2010), who highlight that rural-urban dichotomies are often insufficient in describing community interests, generally, the desires of rural populations are homogenised, and indigenous and ecological viewpoints are merged. This internal or intra-class disparity is particularly relevant to biofuel-related displacement, since rural communities affected will need to act in collective solidarity to overcome the extreme power asymmetries that they face.

Food (in)security consequences under biofuel expansion are well-reported (see Zhang et al, 2010; Graham-Rowe, 2011; Thompson, 2012; Tenenbaum, 2008). Generally, authors in the 'food versus fuel' debate highlight that as competition and demand rises for land to produce staple crops for biofuel feedstock and/or domestic food consumption, prices for these products increase, causing higher levels of poverty. Mshandete (2011) explains that this will persist if the country in question has a majority of net food purchasers over net food sellers. However, these studies neglect the needs of subsistence farmers, and when these actors are acknowledged, a simplified subsistence-commercial dichotomy exists. This should be reframed, since the level of 'subsistence' available to an individual is often dictated by class and gender – those who are poor often rely the most on access to markets for food consumption (Peters, 2013). Future studies should also analyse the gendered differences in food security-related consequences of biofuel, given that up to 80% of food in the global South is farmed by women (Mshandete, 2011).

Economic consequences

As touched upon earlier, mainstream actors skilfully reframe their actions, and power imbalances lead to investors’ developmental narrative becoming dominant, thus suppressing the realities of the displaced. Biofuel projects are publicised as positively contributing to consumption of local goods and services, income, employment and productivity, and technological transfer (Dermibas, 2009; Vigil, 2018; Borras and Franco, 2010).  Exemplifying the extent that job creation is overestimated and/or overpromised, one project in Mozambique had pledged a generation of 2,600 jobs, yet created fewer than 40 positions of full-time work (Aabø and Kring, 2012). Highly asymmetric power relations supplant the need to adhere to any such promises (Verma, 2014). This causes many to be pushed out of legitimate employment and toward the informal economy (Magdoff, 2013), where rights, conditions and opportunities are bleaker.

The excess labour is attributable to the fact that corporate, profit-centric agricultural production is often capital-intensive. Many of Africa’s biofuel-investor hotspots are unable to organically absorb labour expelled from the land’s original use, creating societies of “surplus people” (Davis, 2006; Peters, 2013). This term has nuanced interpretations: displaced groups might be considered surplus to the needs of capitalist expansion, labour requirements, or to development generally (Li, 2009; Tanner, 2010; Bernstein, 2004). Studies in the literature, however, fail to speak to one another about the difference between these terms and the groups they represent. Further explanation is required as to which groups are “successfully” absorbed into capitalist agricultural processes and why. It would also be interesting to consider the rifts this partial absorption can cause within the rural population, and the potential damage or loss of culture such a divide can have long term.

Land tenure historically tells us that the likelihood of communities economically benefitting from these opportunities is limited (Dauvergne and Neville, 20101). Whilst contracted work is desirable for some, on occasions where job creation does materialise, it is often seasonal, unreliable, involve lower wages and poor conditions (Mshandete, 2011; Vigil, 2018). However, the more fundamental matter is the subordinate position that workers (the 'lucky ones' in the biofuels landscape) will find themselves in, through their subjection to wage labour relations and production requirements. Oliviera et al (2017) explain that in Brazil, employment conditions have been “slave-like” and have even led to death by over exhaustion. That employment can be used as a legitimation tactic for biofuels projects despite such a dismal track record in this area is indicative of a marked lack of accountability, owing once again to distorted power relations in the industry.


Normative solutions, such as further development of social frameworks, adaptation strategies, intensification of production, and so on, have been suggested by some authors mentioned in this article (Moyo, 2014; Timilsina, 2011; Schut et al, 2010; Dermibas, 2009). Borras et al (2011) highlight that international organisations, increasingly aware of biofuels’ socially destructive path, are too advocating for technical interventions such as enhancing mechanisms of accountability, transparency and free, prior and informed consent. The limits of these methods are reported on extensively (for example Owen and Kemp, 2014; Mahanty and McDermott, 2013; Aaronson, 2011; Weis, 2010). While (some) code-of-conduct approaches do genuinely aim to uplift the poor, change is advocated with no fundamental paradigmatic alterations. Even with the most stringent of policies in place to defend entitlements of rural communities (a commendable attempt, for instance, is the Code of Conduct promoted by the International Food and Policy Research Institute), if the fundamental underpinnings of the market go uncontested then efforts to truly realise the rights of communities will be inadequate, since these frameworks ultimately seek to sustain the today’s globalised and industrialised food system (Borras and Franco, 2010; Dauvergne and Neville, 2010). These normative positions are consistent with mainstream actors, essentially regarding native reproduction systems as backward, and insisting rural populations should acquiesce to the current system of global, commercialised agricultural production. Crucially, these approaches do not allow room for the self-determination of indigenous peoples and other groups. Terreblanche (2018) describes the need for communities to be granted promises of restoration, rather than compensation, illuminating the irreplaceability of the invaluable connection local people have with their ancestral land.

It is argued here that apolitical approaches, situated within distinct power imbalances, will not suffice to bring lasting peace to Mozambican communities affected by biofuel expansion. As long as capitalist ideology shapes the agricultural landscape, society’s dichotomous relationship with nature will continue to be characterised by ownership, exploitation and domination by a minority class (Moore, 2010; Guerrero, 2018). A post-capitalist, post-productivist development path is required, where renewable energy sources can be socially owned, existing in a participatory and democratic policy space guided by sustaining life and not economic growth (Satgar, 2018). While displacement and ecological destruction is inherent to the fundamental basis of capitalist ideology, so too would any political system that continues to centre around meeting current global trends of mass consumerism. A productivist Marxism, for instance, would too contribute to the planet’s demise and civil devastation (ibid).


This work has outlined just some of many consequences of the biofuels sector in Mozambique and across the global South. Insights presented here provide the basis upon which the mainstream narrative, of biofuels being a just and sustainable alternative to fossil fuels, must be heavily scrutinised. Such analysis is becoming ever-more necessary in an age where development plans are increasingly shaped by climate outcomes. The greenwashing of socially damaging processes ultimately serves to further entrench the dominance of a financially and politically elite class, who capitalise on the exploitation of a less powerful majority. This article has extended the biofuels critique in its identification of a number of oversights in existing knowledge from both pro- and anti-biofuels writers. Far more work is needed to identify the cultural, spiritual, social and ecological ramifications as the industry burgeons into unprecedented territory, and these investigations must place rural communities at their centre. What differentiated socio-cultural impacts exist within the rural classes? What political and economic conditions determine the severity felt by groups impacted by biofuel production? What have been the localised ecological consequences of biofuel production, in Mozambique and in other territories that the industry has now expanded into? What methods of reconciliation are available to local rural actors that have experienced differentiated consequences from industrialised biofuel production? Pursuing work to understand the answers to questions such as these will contribute to the generation of a decolonised narrative depicting the biofuels landscape.


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