World Rainforest Movement

Women the most impacted by agrofuel production

The expansion of large-scale plantations –either crops or trees– for the production of liquid agrofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel is increasing in many Southern countries –with harmful impacts on people and the environment.

Now, even the FAO admits the risks. A recently published FAO report looks into agrofuel production and their gendered impacts, explaining that it may increase the marginalization of women in rural areas, threatening their livelihoods.

The large-scale pattern of agrofuel feedstocks conveys increased land requirements that put pressure on so-called “marginal” lands, which provide key subsistence functions to the rural poor and are frequently farmed by women. The report acknowledges that replacement of local crops with monoculture energy crop plantations could threaten agro-biodiversity as well as the extensive knowledge and the traditional skills of smallholder farmers in the management, selection and storage of local crops, all activities performed mainly by women.

In addition, agrofuel production may negatively impact the livestock sector, which is key to the food security of rural households, through a reduction in the availability of land for grazing and an increase in the price of fodder (due to the growing use of agricultural commodities for agrofuel production).

The potential depletion or degradation of natural resources associated with large-scale plantations for agrofuel  production may place an additional burden on rural farmers’ work and health, in particular on female farmers. If agrofuel production competes, either directly or indirectly, for water and firewood supplies, it could make such resources less readily available for household use. This would force women, who are traditionally responsible, in most developing countries, for collecting water and firewood, to travel longer distances thus reducing the time available to earn income from other sources.

The potential loss of both biodiversity and agro-biodiversity presents risks to food production as well, posing a serious threat to rural livelihoods and long-term food security. In particular, the potential deforestation associated with the establishment of large-scale plantations for agrofuel production may negatively impact the peoples who depend on such forests for their livelihoods, increasing their food insecurity.

Agrofuel production might also have gender-differentiated impacts on food access, through both price and income effects. There is growing evidence that the increasing demand for agricultural commodities for the production of liquid agrofuels is contributing to reverse the decrease in the price of both agricultural commodities and food that has occurred in the last few decades. This may have negative food security impacts, particularly for households that are net purchasers as well as countries that are net importers of agricultural commodities and food.  The rising demand for liquid agrofuels could also make the prices of agricultural commodities and food more unstable, exposing a significant number of households and individuals to the risk of food insecurity. Sudden increases in food prices would have negative repercussions in particular for poor households and vulnerable groups, particularly women and female-headed households, which tend to be particularly exposed to chronic and transitory food insecurity, due also to their limited access to income-generating activities.

Furthermore, the alleged employment opportunities in rural areas of the establishment of plantations for agrofuel production are targeted mainly to low-skilled agricultural workers and these are rather seasonal jobs or on a casual basis.  FAO reports that a growing number of these workers are women, who due to existing social inequalities generally tend to be disadvantaged, compared to men, in terms of employment benefits and exposure to occupational safety and health risks.

In general, the cultivation of sugarcane and oil palm has been linked, in several Southern countries, to unfair conditions of employment, health and safety risks, child labour and forced labour. In some cases, working conditions on plantations (including those of agrofuel feedstocks) tend to have a differentiated gender impact. Landowners tend to prefer women workers, as they are able to pay them less than their male counterparts and find them a docile and dependent workforce, and are therefore more exploitable.

Reliable data on the share of women waged agricultural workers are difficult to obtain, given the prevalence of informal labour arrangements. There is evidence, however, that this share has been rising worldwide and women now account for 20-30 percent of total waged agricultural workers. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the figure is 40 percent, while, in African countries, this percentage is likely to be higher. There is evidence that women tend to receive on average less training and instruction than men, they often do repetitive work that can result in health problems, and face reproductive hazards as a result of exposure to agrochemicals. In Malaysia, for instance, women, who represent about half the workforce on plantations, are often recruited as sprayers of chemical pesticides and herbicides, without proper training and safety equipment. This may have serious implications for the long-term health of these women workers.

The FAO report concludes that efforts to mitigate climate change through the promotion of liquid agrofuels production can reduce people’s socio-economic resilience (especially among the most vulnerable groups, including women), weakening their ability to cope with exogenous shocks such as climate change.

However, FAO fails to take a committed stance against the agrofuels model being promoted, which is unsustainable by its own nature, and ends with the wishful thinking that “making sure that biofuels production is beneficial to both men and women in developing countries would therefore strengthen their ability to cope with the impacts of climate change”.

We welcome the information provided by the FAO report, though we feel that its final conclusion doesn’t hold water. Agrofuels are increasingly proving that they bring no environmental or social benefits, and the FAO report depicts how they affect especially poor and rural women. The conclusion should therefore be strong and clear: if you want to benefit poor and rural women, do not promote agrofuels!

Excerpted, adapted and commented from: “Gender And Equity Issues In Liquid Biofuels Production Minimizing The Risks To Maximize The Opportunities”, Andrea Rossi and Yianna Lambrou,  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2008,