Impacts of Biofuel Production on Tropical Forests Is Focus of Event

A conference on the social and ecological sustainability of biofuels and the im­pact of their production on the forests of Central and South America — sponsored in part by the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) — will take place this month in Panama City, Panama.

The Dec. 5 conference, titled “Biofuels and Neotropical Forests: Trends, Implications and Emerging Alternatives,” is co-sponsored by the Environmental and Leadership Training Initiative (ELTI) and the Program in Native Species Reforestation, both joint programs of F&ES and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

“Biofuels tend to be marketed as an eco-friendly alternative to gasoline and diesel, and their production often is portrayed as providing a much-needed source of jobs for rural populations through the production of feedstock,” said Eva Garen, the ELTI coordinator for Latin America and a research associate at F&ES. “Yet there is increasing concern that the industry could be causing a host of adverse impacts, such as promoting widespread deforestation, increasing greenhouse-gas emissions and food prices, and displacing indigenous and forest-dependent communities.”

The conference will explore the direct and indirect impacts of biofuel production on tropical forests and how biofuels production could support or hinder emerging efforts to conserve tropical forests; whether or not biofuels increase greenhouse gas emissions; the social implications of biofuel production on indigenous and forest-dependent communities; whether alternative approaches to biofuel production are sustainable; and the implications of the expanding biofuel industry for tropical forests and rural and indigenous communities in parts of Mexico and Central America.

The conference will cater to scientists, natural resource practitioners and policy-makers, and the proceedings will be held in Spanish and English. Presenting at the conference will be William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute; Philip Fearnside of the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas de Amazonia; Fidel Mingorance of Human Rights Everywhere; Helena Paul of Econexus; Renton Righelato of World Land Trust; Stanley Burgiel of the Nature Conservancy’s Global Invasive Species Program; and Arnaldo Viera de Carvalho of the Inter-American Development Bank.

Biofuels come from biomass, meaning trees, agricultural crops, manure, landfill methane and some household and manufacturing waste. Conventional thinking says that if society can get enough energy from the products of the living world, then energy consumption can be brought back into the natural cycle, with carbon being continuously released and recaptured by current plant growth. The buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that is a result of fossil fuel use has been implicated in global warming.

In some Central and South American countries, biofuels are being mandated to be part of all fuel used for transportation, and projections indicate that the United States will be importing more biofuels from the area in the near future. Many of the countries are receiving substantial international assistance to increase the production of biofuel feedstock, such as sugarcane and oil palm, either for domestic use or for export to the United States and elsewhere.

The mission of ELTI is to significantly strengthen and advance conservation in Asian and Latin American tropical forest regions. The initiative’s principal investigators are faculty of F&ES, including Mark Ashton, the Morris K. Jesup Professor of Silviculture and Forest Ecology; Lisa Curran, professor of tropical resources; Amity Doolittle, associate research scientist in conservation and development; and Bradford Gentry, senior lecturer in sustainable investments and a research scholar. ELTI is supported by a grant from Arcadia, a fund established in 2001 that supports programs that preserve cultural and social knowledge or protect natural diversity.

For information about the event and to register, call (507) 212-8247/8179.