The Tropics and Biomass Energy

Gilberto Felisberto Vasconcellos

In the 21st century, two major crisis that are closely tied arise: the last days of fossil fuels and the capitalist threat to the environment. Fossil combustibles – coal and petroleum – through the emissions of carbon dioxin into the atmosphere have caused the ecological crisis. The polluting consequences of hydrocarbon substances are global warming, acid rain and sea cataclysms.

In the combination of energy and technology, coal was one of the most relevant strategic natural resources used by steam machinery in the British industrial revolution. The same interplay between energy and technology, in the process of capital accumulation, will appear later with monopoly capital, the so-called second industrial revolution that was stimulated by petroleum along with the internal combustion engine.

It is not unreasonable to assert that petroleum and the combustion machine were intrinsically related to the US’s hegemony over monopoly capital in the 20th century. There is a connection between petroleum and capitalist imperialism, monopoly capital was spread and driven by fossil energy. If we come to think of the 21st century, certainly it will not be the petroleum century. It’s important to remember that after the 1800s industrial capitalism had been associated with the coalmine, a sort of less concentrated energy than petroleum.

Although energy is not a determining factor in history, advanced societies were geographically located in cold and temperate zones of the planet, where there are coalmines and oil wells, whereas the more backwarded countries were located in the tropics. It is true that coal and petroleum can also be found in some of these regions, but the majority of these resources were concentrated in areas above the Tropic of Cancer.

Colonialist expansionism, with its fossil energy model, universalized all over the world. Up to today, no tropical country, under a capitalist regimen, became a developed country. History is not moved by climatic situations or geological contingencies, poor countries are a result of the uneven development inherent of capitalism.

 With regard to colonialist ideology, we must remember that in the recent past many Brazilian engineers and scientists attempted to justify our historic backwardness by mentioning the absence of coal or its bad quality in the region, like many others who blamed the sun for poverty. The fact is that even the sun was considered a devil in the tropics, a devil-sun hostile to progress. Today, we realize that there are no longer conditions for such a stupid hostility against the sun, because on the account of other motives, the temporary cycle of fossil fuels is going down in a worldwide scale.

Clean and renewable energy
Let us quote an accurate definition of biomass given by Brazilian geologist Marcelo Guimarães, one of the members of the biomass school [2]: “we call biomass every product of photosynthesis that can be used as energy. Out of forest biomass, we can obtain timber, vegetable coal, alcohol and tar. The most important agricultural biomass is sugar cane, which produces alcohol-fuel. Tropical countries have other fuel production alternatives such as manioc, dendê (a very greasy strain of palm) and gramineous of rapid growth”.

The fact is that everything produced with fossil energy may also be attained by biomass derivatives. For the very first time in history, it is possible to plant food and energy simultaneously in the same land. In this point lies a crucial energetic difference: fossil forms of energy can only be drawn from the earth, whereas biomass energy is not found in a concentrated manner like coalmines and oil wells. Thus, biomass energy is dispersive, decentralized and decentralizing. It can be planted and produced anywhere in the tropics, needing only sun and water. As the Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha stated: “the sun belongs to the people". Vegetable energy can be taken from sugar cane, manioc, sunflower and castor-oil plant. Let us emphasize this point: it is possible to extract the energy necessary for industry from all these plants. Even stainless steel can be produced with charcoal, another derivative of the planted forests. 

Experiments conducted in the brazilian countryside of Minas Gerais, with alcohol micro-distilleries in small properties, have proven the mistake of associating biomass energy to latifundia. The truth is that any small land owner can produce simultaneously alcohol fuel and cachaça [3] with just a few hectares. We ought to say that such means of energy production should not be processed in a capitalist scale economy. We must emphasize that the transition from the coal-mine to the oil-well was achieved within the same fossil chemical paradigm, in which the entire history of colonialism occurred, including its imperialist phase.
The control of concentrated energy, extracted from mines and wells, was the base of imperialistic power. History displays an interaction between concentrated fossil energy, monopoly capital and political power. What will turn out from the end of this petroleum civilization? Who will take control of the biofuel sources in the tropics? Who will take hold of the sun, land and sweet water of the tropics? 

We must elucidate that the energetic exuberance of tropical nature is not necessarily a promise of happiness to the people; on the contrary, it can be a catastrophe. The brazilians must make a choice. It is a choice between ethanol (biomass school prefers the arabic word alcohol) produced in small properties with national sovereignty and large-scale ethanol production under multinational corporations in highly mechanized latifundia. Our dilemma involves the following problem: if it’s possible to create biomass energy in small properties under monopoly capital.

Energetic turning point
After the Arabian petroleum embargo in 1974 the whole world became aware of fossil fuel's extinction. Thence began the consciousness that future energy should be extracted from vegetable sources. There can no longer be any doubt that the process of energetic production had moved towards the tropics'. In fact, there is petroleum in tropical undersoil, but its natural vocation – due to the vigorous incidence of sun and water abundance – are agrofuels. As we have already noted, its greatest advantage is not polluting the atmosphere. It is clean energy that is planted and picked: a permanently renewable energy crop. In addition to this, in the tropics plants and trees show an extraordinarily fast growth, due to sun and rainy climate. Meanwhile, forests grow slowly on areas above the Tropic of Cancer. In southern geographic conditions, with decentralized energy production, the territorial occupation may be done in a nonconcentrating manner by employing workers in rural areas. Megalopolies were developed with fossil fuels. After the 1800s european industrial cities were created by and around the coal-mines. Thus, following the Second World War, mainly after 1960, the industrial cities became megametropolies, just in the moment when petroleum fertilizers penetrated into agriculture with ammonia sulfate.

Sufficiently well-known is the connection between scale economy, agrochemicals and monopoly capital. Nowadays, in almost every place of the world, agriculture depends on chemical substances made of petroleum derivatives. Monopoly capital and its control of agriculture universalized the use of fertilizers and agrochemicals. As a result, food production depends largely on giant corporations. Concerning fertilizers, the sugar cane residuum is an excellent organic one, as well as food for bovine. Even urea may be produced by using sugar cane bagasse and eucalyptus leaves. In a word, food production should no longer depend on fossil nitrogenous fertilizers.

The greatest merit of the biomass school was to outline that alcohol microdistilleries are an achievement of small-scale economy. Microdistilleries are articulated units of bio-energetic agriculture producing ethanol, cachaça, meat, milk and organic fertilizers. Furthermore, even electricity can be obtained with charcoal and timber.

  One thing that has to be demystified is the false opposition between food and ethanol. It only applies to monoculture latifundia. It does not verify in small properties. As we already stated, the novelty in agriculture history is to plant food and energy in the same crop. One cannot eat a fossil dish as we do with sugar cane and manioc. 

With microdistilleries producing alcohol fuel during 200 droughty days the sugar cane residuum serves to nourish the livestock, consequently the farmers have an abundance of meat and milk. Small producers make their own energy and, at the same time, their food. That’s why we call it an autodevelopment process, which does not allow any sort of monoculture and it also favors territory occupation with small producers. It would not be a delirious formulation to assert that while diesel oil fossil takes 600 years to make up, the sunflower of which bio-oils are produced needs only two months. One fact now seems very clear: the time required to produce biomass energy is not a miracle, it is a natural phenomenon, a result of the sun in the tropics.

Still the sun alone is not enough; it takes much water as well. In the desert of Sahara for example, there is sun but no water so there is no transformation of solar electromagnetic energy into chemical energy. In this sense, the civilization of the tropics could be the carbohydrate civilization, different from societies based on hydrocarbon. It is time for alcoholchemestry to replace petrochemistry. As we already noted, awareness of the energetic significance of the tropics only appeared recently with the sign of fossil fuel exhaustion in the whole world. 

Energy and imperialism
The biomass model based in microdistilleries that could possibly generate thousands of jobs, is not the outcome of a decision taken by a few scientists. It is a political question that encompasses Brazil’s destiny and its people. In fact, what actually exists is a social structure ruled by multinational corporations allied with land monopoly. Its consequence is the super exploited labour force under the goal of the multinational in the use of raw materials and the production of manufactured goods.

 In this process of social inequality, the latifundium is a partner to international monopoly capital, resulting in the migration of landless workers from the countryside to the city slums. The more multinational corporations penetrate peripheral economies, more masses of unemployed and underemployed workers multiply. We must make one point clear: super exploited labor force, allocated for the increase of export production, remains the same as the economic model of the 1964 dictatorship. Brazilian democracy did not change the economic system settled with foreign corporations operating internally, which undoubtedly deepened denationalization. After the state enterprises were privatized, during the democratic period, now it is time to sell the territory. The privatization program means handing the country over to the foreign capitals, that are purchasing the land. Today Brazil is a country entirely meant for export. Exporting is the solution, as said by our economists sold-out to imperialism.

 Certainly, it is no news that the servile native ruling classes have always been associated with the multinational corporations. However, in the last decades, the ubiquitous domain of foreign capital is facing the end of petroleum under imperialism domination. When we look at the rising energetic importance of tropical territory, we have to keep in mind that the closer oil fuels come to an end, the more oil wars are deployed by imperialist power.

Although the post-petroleum period does not mean necessarily the end of capitalism, what must be put in focus is the relationship between core and peripheria in view of such energetic crisis, considering that the need of shifting the energetic matrix is not a simple event. Such a dramatic crisis was never before seen in the history of capitalism. 

 The alternative to fossil fuels must be sought in intertropical areas, not in cold or temperate zones of the planet. We shall not argue that a new phase or type of imperialism is being configured with the tropics as the energetic epicenter in the 21st century. Rather, our intent is to demonstrate the unfortunate bond between biofuels demanded by advanced societies and monopoly control of the plantations with imperialist occupation of tropical countries. If such is attained, instead of wealth or progress, biomass energy under oligarchical rule, will bring even more misery to the vast majority of the population, increasing unemployment in the countryside with highly mechanized agriculture. It is difficult to predict, but the internal structure of energy production will be determined by the international economic system as a whole. The plantation for export will bear an energetic destination, quite different from the raw materials of previous colonial extraction. Ethanol and bio-oil, the most coveted substitute fuels to fossil, are not mere colonial products like sugar cane, rubber, coffee, gold or silver.

Bio-fuels will soon become indispensable resources to the development of imperialist countries. This is a survival issue, because petroleum can no longer supply the needs and luxuries of the advanced societies. In the core of imperialism, which is economically rich, the current energetic situation is shadowy and very problematic. Yet despite the continuation of “oil wars”, fossil fuel is a bygone energetic form. The future is biomass, a form of energy that is eternal while there is sun.

The world connection between wealth and poverty, which lies in the heart of imperialist theory, if seen through an energetic angle, shows that what could be an advantage to tropical countries, on the contrary could further extend uneven capitalist development.

Another dramatic factor of biofuels emerging in this 21st century is the serious risk of tropical territories becoming a target of military conflicts amongst powerful nations in the pursuit of control of their vegetable energy resources. The war of the future is possibly the war over biomass appropriation. 

Let us make an additional point that Brazil, for example, is a very rich country in natural strategic resources, but does not have any ability in military defense. Beyond these considerations lies the question about what will become of imperialism with the end of the fossil fuels’ epoch. In short, the tendency is on setting-up a new geopolitical strategy of switching from the Middle East (petroleum) to the tropical biomass forest. 

Yet the dollar continues to be the basis of the international monetary system; indeed, only the dollar detains the military monopoly of buying petroleum in the Middle East. On the other hand, we still do not know if expensive and dangerous nuclear energy would be considered a viable alternative to the petroleum near-last days. Certainly, it is not, because there is an atomic bomb embedded in every nuclear plant.

1. The biomass school refers to a group of researchers during the mid 1970’s, led by Bautista Vidal who made the pro-alcohol program, the world’s first alternative for replacing petroleum either intensively or extensively.
2. Cachaça is a brandy made from sugar cane.

Gilberto Felisberto Vasconcellos is a professor at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora - Minas Gerais (UFJF), Brazil.

Back to Home Page

Oct 27, 2019

Gilberto Felisberto Vasconcell <[email protected]

Your Comment if any