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Resisting Biofuels: the ‘coloniality of power’ and indigenous knowledge systems ‘decolonising’ the land

Jasber Singh | Journal: Issues | NeoColonial Politics of Sustainability [13] | Apr 2016

Jasber Singh, Madhoo N, Michel Pimbert, Sagari Ramdas and Tom Wakeford

Introduction: climate change and biofuels

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that climate change, set in train by ongoing emissions of carbon dioxide and other by-products of industrial society, is likely to result in devastating droughts, floods and extreme storm events throughout much of the world. Unfairly, the poorest (mainly women and children) in the global south will be the most affected.[1]

As a renewable source of energy, biofuels could, it is argued, reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions.[2] Various studies, however, have shown that biofuel cultivation can lead to land-use changes, as rainforests, peatlands, savannas or grasslands are converted to the production of biofuels. The carbon dioxide levels released through such changes in land use may in some circumstances even be greater than emission levels resulting from continued fossil fuel consumption.[3]

The social impacts of biofuels have also been studied, with researchers claiming both positive and negative consequences.[4] It has been reported that in global south countries, biofuels are potentially beneficial as sales from the cash crops could increase farmers’ purchasing power, and thereby reduce the risk of malnutrition and starvation.[5] Oxfam research suggests that biofuels could also provide clean renewable and accessible energy for rural communities.[6]

Potential negative attributes of biofuels became clear in the food crisis of 2007-2008. The crisis was stimulated by a sharp rise in the price of food, particularly in the global south. Many poor people, who spend 50-80% of their income on purchasing food, could not cope with the inflated prices.

Other problems associated with biofuels include: colonial-style land grabs, large-scale industrial plantations which destroy ecologies and livelihoods, and the creation of markets that makes small and marginal farmers economically dependent and vulnerable.[7]

Biofuels in India

Biofuels are termed ‘biodiesel’ in the Indian policy context. The National Biodiesel Policy was released in late December 2009.[8]. Government advocates argued that biodiesel production could also promote energy security and rural development in India.[9]

Interestingly, the policy states: ‘The Indian approach to biofuels, in particular, is somewhat different to the current international approaches which could lead to conflict with food security. It is based on non-food feedstock to be raised on degraded or wastelands that are not suited for agriculture, thus avoiding a possible conflict of fuel vs food’.[10] The government argued that biodiesel would be obtained through non-edible oils such as jatoropha and pongomia that would be cultivated on so-called ‘wastelands’ and other unproductive land.

However, the very notion of ‘wasteland’ in India is a heavily contested term.[11] The category of wasteland was first employed by the British Raj in 1865 when it introduced the Indian Forest Act.[12] Before British colonialism, these lands were used to grow food or used by villagers for grazing, for fodder, fuel wood, and to harvest non-cultivable foods and other biomaterials. The national biofuels policy of modern India is thus rooted in deeply-discredited colonial-era attitudes to land and its use, to the detriment of rural people today.

Recognising the history of colonialism and widening the analysis of biofuels beyond food vs fuels

The main critiques of biofuels have been framed around the conflict between food and fuel, alongside land grabs and biodiversity loss. These analyses have led some NGOs such as Oxfam and Christian Aid to claim that better biofuel policies could solve these problems, providing that the plantations were small in scale and avoided competition between food and fuel. However, it is also important to recognise the history of colonialism and widen the analysis beyond food vs fuel.

To investigate these issues further, at the grassroots level, participatory research was initiated in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh[13] India in 2009, by a team comprising members of the people’s organisation Adivasi Aikya Vedika, NGOs that work with the peoples movement (Yakshi and Anthra) and researchers who are now associated with Coventry University. Our study developed and conducted participatory action research in which primarily indigenous peoples, the adivasis, small farmers and pastoralists, could articulate their perspectives and experiences of cultivating biofuels. In this paper we draw upon the study findings from the Adivasi districts.

A conversational research approach

Four districts: Adilabad and Nalgonda (now in Telangana), East Godavari and Srikakulam (in Andhra Pradesh) were chosen for this research. Whilst the study in Nalgonda involved farmer and pastoralist communities, the study in the other three districts was with indigenous communities. These districts include diverse geographic-cultural regions, where the peoples organisations and support NGOs have been actively engaged.

We used a participatory action research approach in order to provide a space for people to inquire and reflect.[14]  The research team actively listened to communities and discussed the pros and cons of biofuels. Mixed-gender group meetings were also conducted in the village. The ratio of women to men within the mixed-gender groups were often high, but there were times when male dominance still occurred. Our response was to intervene to ensure that the women were given space to articulate their perspectives. Following the group discussion, conversations with women on their own were pursued so as to capture their experiences and thoughts, which they were often reluctant to express in mixed group meetings.[15]

Biofuels and the reality on the ground

Whilst each adivasi and village had its own particular story, there are some generalisations that we can make about communities cultivating biofuels in parts of Andhra Pradesh. These are as follows:

The people who promoted biofuels worked for a range of different companies, including British Petroleum. They aggressively targeted men and ignored women, promising that jatropha or pongamia would yield well and require only a limited amount of water. They convinced the men to start cultivating biofuel crops on the grounds that they would get a minimum purchase price for the crops, and that scientific research would ensure the crops would yield precise amounts. The price for crops would provide them with enough money to buy food as well as other things.  Men replaced women on the land and instead of growing food they cultivated biofuels.

In all the villages we visited pongonima and jatropha had stunted growth or at worse failed to grow.  Clearly the scientific narrative in the laboratory did not translate to the ecology of the farm. Predictions made by those developing biofuels appear to grossly under-estimate the amount of water required to irrigate the crops and over-estimate their suitability for these ecologies.

Biofuels stimulates patriarchal control of land

Women spoke about how they had cultivated food on the land before biofuels. Traditionally women in all these communities were the custodians of seeds, and the primary decision makers on food to be grown on their lands.[16] Without their knowledge there would be no food. However, when biofuel crops were grown instead – by local men targeted by biofuel corporations – the women’s knowledge became irrelevant. Biofuels effectively ‘displaced’ women from the land, enhancing patriarchal control.

Speaking to adivasi women it became clear that there was a reduction in food availability as the land had been diverted from food to fuel. Households suffered as a result, and some women even talked about starvation in the village.  Some of the women also considered migration as life became difficult due to the lack of food and other concerns.

Women have vital knowledge which ensures that there is adequate and long-term food availability for their households and more broadly the village. Women as food producers are also the central drivers for festivals and other forms of celebrations linked to food production and the harvest. Women talked about how, as the food crops were replaced, the festivals connected with them were observed less often or stopped. Thus adivasi culture, ways of life and the broader harmony of the village were all disrupted.

Adivasi women return to the land

As biofuel production supplanted food production and disrupted the adivasi way of life, women made the decision to take back control of the land. They defiantly uprooted biofuel crops, making the end of this extension of male power. By once again using their knowledge to cultivate food, they regained their link with the land and their power. The women’s knowledge was rooted in the culture and traditions of generations of adivasi women who have worked the land. When men cultivated biofuels, by contrast, the knowledge they relied on was rooted in globalised, industrialised agriculture science.

Coloniality of power

We argue that the knowledge-system imposed by the push for biofuel production has roots in the colonial era and even acts to sustain such influence today. Here we find useful the concept of the ‘coloniality of power’, developed by Quijano to describe the ‘world system’ from the 16th century to the present day.[17] This widely accepted concept is based on historical and theoretical analysis.[18] During the 16th century, European powers colonized the Americas. This marked the start of a new ‘world system’, colonialism, that dominated most of the world by the start of the 19th century. Quijano has argued that race was the central organising principle of colonialism and that race/racism defined the social relations between the colonisers and the colonised.[19] The extraordinary violence meted out to colonial subjects was justified by the idea that Europeans were superior and the rest of the world inferior. Eurocentric hegemony classified the rest of the world population and then subjected it to racist systems of colonial domination.[20]

Quijano has shown that this period of colonial domination was a constitutive part of modernity; the two paradigms were intertwined. The ideas that stemmed from this period included scientism, capitalism and the political domination of the rest of world. All these elements were entangled in the modern/colonial power matrix that constituted the world system.[21] This world system, the pre-cursor to today’s neo-liberalism was more than a single force such as capitalism, positivist science or colonialism.

History has shown the modern/colonial matrix of power was challenged by decolonisation movements. These movements stimulated a period of juridical-political decolonisation where nation-states were free from direct colonial administration. However, Quijano and Grosfoguel argue that the decolonisation of nation-states did not dismantle the modern/colonial power matrix. The world system is still in place and has evolved from colonialism, (characterised by direct colonial administration) to a period of coloniality where nation states and territories are not under formal colonial administration but controlled by other means: for example, through international finance systems such as the World Bank and the IMF.

Quijano’s ideas suggest that a whole range of situations and institution could be subject to the coloniality of power. It is widely recognised that knowledge is one way in which the coloniality of power is advanced and we discuss this below.

Knowledge and coloniality

The assumed superiority of western knowledge is a constitutive part of the prevailing coloniality of power. The superiority of western knowledge is assumed through scientism – the belief that the natural sciences and its methods are the only route to reliable knowledge.[22]  Those who adopt this worldview believe they have a universal rationality that is superior to all other ways of knowing.

Feminist and anti-colonial thinkers have critiqued the idea of western hegemonic knowledge. Donna Harraway has eloquently shown that all knowledge is situated and speaks from a particular power structure. Enrique Dussel has termed this the ‘geopolitics of knowledge, an idea that indicates knowledge is located and projected from a subject. In the worldview of scientism, however, the subject that speaks is often either hidden from analysis or erased completely.[23]

Scientism promotes the idea that it is neutral and non-situated, disembodied from the ethnic/racial/gender/sexual epistemic location of that subject. This gods-eye view has also been termed the ‘point zero’ view, in that it has no point of view, other than a universal truth. However, using the ‘geopolitics of knowledge’ concept, it makes the hidden in science visible, that is it is rooted in an Eurocentric subject and power system.[24]

Biofuel production is a form of coloniality

Biofuel production can be seen as a form of coloniality because the knowledge that dominates the farmland and its production is based on western science and the modern/colonial matrix.  When biofuels are cultivated in this situation, the land and its production have been marked and subjected to the ‘coloniality of power’.

The modern/colonial matrix requires a knowledge system that can dominate indigenous systems with a proclaimed ‘universal truth’. The logic that follows is that projections about plant yields based on laboratory studies and a few field trials will have widespread applicability.  However, for the adivasis growing biofuel crops, the resulting plantations proved to be stunted or did not grow at all. By contrast, the women knew through long experience the specific ecology of their land and knew which crops would thrive on it.

Knowledge is power: women resisting biofuels and decolonising the land

When women returned to the land to grow food, it was their knowledge that determined the use of the land. Once women’s knowledge drove the production of land for food, the land was no longer marked by the ‘coloniality of power’. Geopolitically, the power now lies with the women and their experience. Growing food becomes a form of resistance to attempts to colonise the land and its production. Their knowledge effectively decolonised the land and can also be seen as a form of what Shiv Visvanathan has called cognitive justice. [25]

Final Reflections

Biofuel production has been promoted as a form of sustainable agriculture that tackles climate change. This conclusion is misleading. Geopolitically, biofuel production is based on the worldview of scientism and subjects its growers to coloniality.

The modern/colonial knowledge system to which biofuel research belongs effectively displaced women from the land and disrupted the adivasi way of life and the broader harmony of the village. It also advanced the patriarchal idea that land belongs to men and undermined food availability: as a result women and children suffered.

It is important to emphasise that it was again the poorest people in the global south rather than people in the west that suffered from this coloniality. It reminds us of Stuart Hall’s work: The ‘west’ and the ‘rest’.[26]  However, the suffering evoked the spirit of resistance. Inspiringly, adivasi women defiantly uprooted biofuel crops and resisted the ‘coloniality of power’ through their own knowledge systems. Once again, they reclaimed the land and grew food, and furthered cognitive justice.

Notes

1. See Christian Aid. The Climate of Poverty: facts, fears and hope. (Christian Aid, 2006); Christian Aid. Human Tide: the real migration crisis. (Christian Aid, 2007); UNICEF. Climate Change and Children. (UNICEF, 2007); Lawson, M. Credibility Crunch. Food, poverty, and climate change: and agenda for rich-country leaders. (Oxfam International, 2008); Asher, M. Biofuels Growth. Rhetoric vs Reality of Agrofuels In the Indian Context. (Foundation for Ecological Security, 2008). [↑]

2. We prefer the term agro-fuels as it show a shift in agriculture from food to fuel. However, in this paper we use the term biofuels to empathize the point that it is promoted as a ‘bio’/environmentally friendly crop. [↑]

3. Fargione, J., Hill, J., Tillmand, D., Polasky, S., Hawthorne, P. “Land Clearing and the Biofuels Carbon Debt.” Science (Vol 319, 2008), pg, 1235-1237; Searchinger, T,. Hemlich R., Houghton, R.A., Dong, F., Elobeid, A., Fabiosa, J., Tolgoz, S., Hayes, D., Yu, T-H. “Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions From Land-Use Changes.” Science. (Vol 319, 2008).  [↑]

4.  Altenburg T., Dietz, H., Hahl, M., Nikolidakis, N., Rosendahl, C., Seelige, K. Biodiesel policies for rural development in India. (German Development Institute, 2008);  Cotula, L., Dyer, N and Vermeulen, S. Fuelling exclusion? The biofuels boom and poor people’s access to land. (International Institute for Environment and Development ( IEED) and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2008); FAO. The State of Food and Agriculture. Biofuels: Prospect, risks and opportunities. (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2008); Bailey, R. Another Inconvenient Truth. How biofuels policies are deepening poverty and accelerating climate change. (Oxfam International, 2008).  [↑]

5.  Bailey, R. Another Inconvenient Truth. How biofuels policies are deepening poverty and accelerating climate change. (Oxfam International, 2008); Cotula, L., Dyer, N and Vermeulen, S. Fuelling exclusion? The biofuels boom and poor people’s access to land. (International Institute for Environment and Development (IEED) and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2008). [↑]

6.  Bailey, R. Another Inconvenient Truth. How biofuels policies are deepening poverty and accelerating climate change. (Oxfam International, 2008). [↑]

7.  Shiva, V. Soil Not Oil, Climate Change, Peak Oil and Food Insecurity. (Zed Books, 2009); FIAN (2008). Fuelling Poverty? An Agro-Fuel Guideline For India. (FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN), 2008); GRAIN. ‘Seedling Biodiversity, Rights and Livelihood’. Agrofuels Special Issue. (Grain, 2007); GRAIN. India Biofuels Annual. (GAIN Report Number IN9080, 2009); Hansen-Kuhn K. Food, Farmers and Fuel: Balancing Global Grain and Energy Policies with Sustainable Land Use. (Action Aid, 2008); Right and Resource. Seeing People Through the Trees. Scaling Up Efforts to Advance Rights and Address Poverty, Conflict and Climate Change. (Rights and Resources, 2008) Anthra. Bridging the Knowledge Divide. Livestock Livelihood Resources In the Emerging Context. (Anthra, 2008); Anthra,Yakshi and Girijana Deepika Teams. “Changing Livelihoods, Livestock and Local Knowledge Systems: Women stake their claim in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra”. Indian Journal of Gender Studies. Vol.8, Number 2. pp175-194, (July-Dec. 2001); Friends of the Earth International(FOI). Colonising the Commons: an invasion through Jatropha. (FOI Report, 2009). [↑]

8.  See www.mnre.gov.in [↑]

9.  Altenburg T., Dietz, H., Hahl, M., Nikolidakis, N., Rosendahl, C., Seelige, K. Biodiesel policies for rural development in India. (German Development Institute, 2008)  [↑]

10.  GRAIN India Biofuels Annual. GAIN Report Number IN9080, 2009.  [↑]

11.  Ramdas, SR. “Adivasis, Pastoralists, and Forest Governance: Challenges and Opportunities.” Pg  63-99. In Lele, S and Menon, A (ed), Democratizing Forest Governance in India. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014).  [↑]

12.  Shiva, V. Soil Not Oil, Climate Change, Peak Oil and Food Insecurity. (Zed Books, 2009).  [↑]

13.  India’s 29th and newest state Telangana, was created by the division of the former state of Andhra Pradesh in June 2014.  [↑]

14.  Cammarota, J., & Fine, M. (Eds.). Revolutionizing education: Youth participatory action research in motion. (Routledge, 2010)  [↑]

15.  The full research project will be documented in a forthcoming paper/report. [↑]

16.  Anthra. Bridging the Knowledge Divide. Livestock Livelihood Resources In the Emerging Context. (Anthra, 2008).  [↑]

17.  Quijano, A. “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality.” Cultural Studies, 21:2-3, 2007, 168-178  [↑]

18.  Grosfoguel, R. “The Epistemic Decolonial Turn.” Cultural Studies, 21:2-3, 2007, 211-223.  [↑]

19.  Quijano, A. “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality.” Cultural Studies, 21:2-3, 2007, 168-178  [↑]

20.  Said, E. Orientalism. (Penguin, 1977)  [↑]

21.  Grosfoguel, R. “The Epistemic Decolonial Turn.” Cultural Studies, 21:2-3, 2007, 211-223.  [↑]

22.  Midgley M and Wakeford T. “Science and the imagination.” Coventry University Critical Thinking Podcasts: Podcast 1, 2014. Accessed here: http://coventryuniversity.podbean.com/e/podcast-1-science-and-the-imagination/; Sorell, T. Scientism: Philosophy and the infatuation with science. (Routledge, 1991); Visvanathan, S. A carnival for science: essays on science, technology, and development. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997).  [↑]

23.  Haraway, D. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3, 1988, pp. 575-599;  Grosfoguel, R. The Epistemic Decolonial Turn. Cultural Studies, 21:2-3, 2007, 211-223.  [↑]

24.  Haraway, D. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3, 1988, pp. 575-599;  Grosfoguel, R. “The Epistemic Decolonial Turn.” Cultural Studies, 21:2-3, 2007, 211-223; Visvanathan, S. A carnival for science: essays on science, technology, and development. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997).  [↑]

25.  Visvanathan, S. “Globalization and the challenge of engagement”. Leach, M., Scoones, I., and Wynne, B.(eds.) Science and Citizens. (Zed Books, 2005).  [↑]

26.  Hall, S. ‘The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power‘. Formation of Modernity. (Polity Press, 1992).  [↑]


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