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Large-scale biofuel production may increase marginalization of women

© FAO/G. Bizzarri

Rapid increases in the large-scale production of liquid biofuels in developing countries could exacerbate the marginalization of women in rural areas threatening their livelihoods, according to a new FAO study.

21 April 2008, Rome – The study notes that large-scale plantations for the production of liquid biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel require an intensive use of resources and inputs to which small farmers, particularly women, traditionally have limited access. These resources include land and water, chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

“Unless policies are adopted in developing countries to strengthen the participation of small farmers, especially women in biofuel production by increasing their access to land, capital and technology - gender inequalities are likely to become more marked and women’s vulnerability to hunger and poverty further exacerbated,” said Yianna Lambrou, co-author of the paper entitled Gender and Equity Issues in Liquid Biofuels Production –Minimizing the Risks to Maximize the Opportunities. “Biofuel production certainly offers opportunities for farmers – but they will only trickle down to the farm level, especially to women, if pro-poor policies are put in place that also empower women.”

The pressure from biofuel production

The growing global demand for liquid biofuels, combined with increased land requirements, could put pressure on so-called “marginal” lands, which provide key subsistence functions to the rural poor and are frequently farmed by women, the report noted. The conversion of these lands to plantations for biofuels production “might cause the partial or total displacement of women’s agricultural activities towards increasingly marginal lands,” with negative consequences for women’s ability to provide food, according to the report.

The potential depletion or degradation of natural resources associated with large-scale plantations for biofuel production may place an additional burden on rural farmers’ work and health, in particular on female farmers. If biofuel 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 report also warned that the 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.

Unequal employment opportunities

The establishment of plantations for biofuel production may create new employment opportunities in rural areas. These opportunities are targeted mainly to low-skilled agricultural workers, who are increasingly employed on a seasonal or casual basis. A growing number of these workers are women (around 40 percent of the total in Latin America and the Caribbean), who due to existing social inequalities tend to be particularly disadvantaged, compared to men, in terms of wages, working conditions and benefits, training and exposure to safety and health risks.

The report stresses the need for further research and data on the socio-economic effects of liquid biofuel production on men and women.

The study calls for an environmentally sustainable and pro-poor biofuel development strategy, integrating energy crop plantations into existing local agri-food systems in order to protect smallholder farmers’ traditional agricultural activities, skills and specialized knowledge, which are crucial to the food security and long-term resilience of rural communities.

Measures should be taken to ensure that women and female-headed households have the same opportunity as men to engage in and benefit from the sustainable production of liquid biofuels. This is all the more important as the number of households headed by women is growing, with around 40 percent of the total in Southern Africa and 35 percent in the Caribbean.

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