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When economic interests have precedence over common sense

Since April 2006 our lawyer, Dr. José Pablo Durán Gómez, sued the Colombian government, demanding for more research be carried out on the production and combustion of biofuels to better understand, anticipate and mitigate as far as possible, the mechanical, environmental, social, economic and public health effects that these biofuels have and will have.

The phenomena associated with biofuels are not well understood and even worse, ignored or underestimated, which have lead to recent and strong pronouncements from organizations such as FAO, World Bank, UN, EU and a significant number of environmental and human rights organizations throughout the world.

Despite a large number of international studies demonstrating risks and dangers associated to the use of biofuels, added to those that appear every day worldwide, Judge Matilde Lemos Sanmartin, ex-fifth Administrative Judge of Bogotá, said that “the evidence presented is insufficient,” and thus refused the request of more and deep studies, ignoring the precautionary principle and the legal mechanisms followed to obtain these studies, mandatory when the discussion is so important for the citizenry and the country, what can be applied to many other Latin American countries.

It sounds like she does not read newspapers or hear the news. Curiously, our demand was the last judgement signed by Lemos Sanmartin before being promoted to Judge of the Administrative Tribunal in the Arauca Department.

In Colombia there were only 2 studies on 8 automobiles, which anyway show that ethanol harms some components, especially in older carburetor cars, more than a half of the colombian vehicle fleet.

It is ironic that while in countries like Germany, large automobile manufacturers, have decided to reduce the proportion of ethanol blending from 10% to 7% because of the damage it can cause to their vehicles and have postponed until 2009 the usage of ethanol, in Colombia the government is trying to accelerate the process to force an increase in the mixture, raising the minimum to 20% by 2012 and starting with 12% in the period 2009-2010. 

There are no vehicles in Colombia that can withstand these mixtures, and even if the new cars are made with the required specifications, nothing is said about the possible mechanical damage to nearly 5 million vehicles currently circulating in the country, which demonstrates improvisation and irresponsibility about the topic.

By the other hand, the Health Secretary of Bogotá reported for 2007 an increase of more than 1700 cases of acute respiratory illness in children under the age of 5 years old, only in this city, with respect to 2006. These cared-for cases are linked, probably, to the increase in the concentration of tropospheric ozone caused by the higher volatility of gasoline when it is mixed with ethanol, which leads to a greater amount of volatile organic compounds, VOCs, in the atmosphere, which due to photochemical reactions, produce this and other pollutants hazardous to health, such as ozone, nitrogen oxides and acetaldehyde.

This increase, about 6% compared to 2006, is surely much higher taking into account that many of those affected children have no access to health care system and therefore these cases of morbidity and mortality are not recorded.

Moreover, is also necessary to include other risk groups such as elders and those already suffering lung disease, throughout the country; this increase should be carefully evaluated, global warming and climate change can not be the unique and magical explanations for these phenomena, the colombian government must do everything that is feasible and humanly possible to address this situation.

The increase in food prices, of which Colombia is no an exception although the government affirms otherwise, is only the visible tip of the iceberg, perhaps the most painful of the problems that if not widely studied, monitored and controlled, can lead in the nearby to very serious consequences as has happened in Malaysia, the third CO2 donor in the world due, in large percentage, to african palm monoculture.

Nothing is mentioned by the colombian media about the imposition of an environmental quality stamp by the European Union to palm oil exportations from Colombia due to the negative environmental effects caused by the clearing and burning carried out to sow sugar cane and african palm, low-paid work in harsh conditions, the forced displacement and crimes committed in relation to the appropriating of farmlands, with the only exception of a paid notice in which the stamp is presented like a generous gift for all of us from palm oil sowers.

Unfortunately, there are many more unwanted consequences; in the medium and long term we can expect more forced displacement and killing of peasants, changes in the use of farmlands, desertification, pollution of soils and water, economic and technological dependency, impoverishment of large population groups, concentration of farmlands in the hands of large economic groups and corporations, severe ecological damage due to intensive use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, to name just a few unwanted results of this “boom.”

Ethanol contains a third less energy than gasoline, so vehicles travel less kilometers per gallon, however around 800 gallons of water are needed to produce one of ethanol. The search for new energy sources is necessary but we can not simply change some pollutants for others, affording the risk of creating more serious problems than those to be resolved; all efforts to fully understand the whole consequences that the production and usage of this biofuels are necessary and urgent.

We will not relent in our efforts to demand that ethanol and oil palm production be carried out with human and social sense, and not only commercial objectives like what are happening right now in Colombia. Biofuels should be seen as a temporary and partial solution, not as a total remedy.

We do not consider acceptable nor secure the omission of serious and conclusive studies in order to protect economic interests that hardly benefit persons other than the owners of this profitable business; we will appeal to all possible instances in Colombia and abroad to force that precautionary principle be applied in order to protect ourselves and future generations of irreparable damage which could result prohibitively expensive in terms of environment and public health.