In the lush stalks of sugarcane and towering fronds of Costa Rica’s African palm plantations, the Oscar Arias administration sees a chance to reduce the country’s carbon footprint and give farmers a foot up at the same time.
Next month, the government is planning to announce that all gasoline and diesel will soon include a mixture of ethanol and biodiesel – plant-based fuels that give off less of the greenhouse gases blamed for global climate change.
Under the plan, starting in October all gasoline in Costa Rica would contain between 7 and 7.5 percent ethanol, and all diesel fuel would be 5 percent biodiesel.
The hope, say officials, is that a variety of plants that can be used for fuel – chief among them sugarcane and African palm – will become the new cash crops for farmers across Costa Rica.
Being homegrown products, farmers and companies around the country could produce either biofuel and sell it to the National Oil Refinery (RECOPE) or on the international market.
Julio Matamoros, the vice minister of energy and environment, said he hopes that medium-term government contracts will offer more stable prices than those in the international market and entice producers to keep their biofuels here at home.
The new fuels, he said, would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide Costa Rica emits by 20,000 tons in 2009.
While Costa Rica has been praised for producing 81 percent of its electricity through hydropower and wind power,Matamoros said the nation continues to depend on fossil fuels for its cars, buses and trains.
“I would calculate that the sector with the biggest emissions would be transportation,” he said.
The oil dependence is not only environmentally unfriendly, but with spiraling gas prices, it’s also an economic burden for a small economy like Costa Rica’s. Last year’s petrol bill reached $2.2 billion, and Matamoros said this year’s bill could reach $3 billion.
However, Costa Rica is launching this initiative at a moment when researchers across the globe are raising serious doubts as to the supposed environmental benefits of biofuels.
In the United States and other countries, the farming of corn for use as ethanol has been criticized as causing more greenhouse gases than it prevents. The heavily subsidized U.S. corn industry also is criticized as being a major factor in the spike in world food prices.
Several countries that promote biofuel policies found themselves fending off criticism last week at a three-day United Nations summit on the world food crisis, held in Rome.
Central American and Caribbean leaders also met for a similar summit in Nicaragua last month and ended with a final declaration condemning “programs in developed countries that use food for the production of biofuels, which aggravates the already critical food situation.”
Costa Rica and El Salvador, both biofuel proponents, did not to sign the declaration (NT,May 16).
But would a policy pushing biofuels in Costa Rica reap the same results? Matamoros says no.
“It depends on the type of policies. The United States’ incentives based on corn have had a lot of controversy,” he said. “But when we look at the case for biofuels in Latin America, it is a successful case, principally for ethanol in Brazil and biodiesel in Colombia.”
In Costa Rica, Matamoros said, ethanol would be produced from sugarcane, which is acknowledged to be more environmentally friendly than corn. Biodiesel, he added, is practically free of controversy.
In addition, he continued, the government is currently looking into a variety of different crops that could be used for biofuels beside sugarcane and palm, including bitter manioc and Barbados nut. With a diversity of plants that can do well in different conditions, farmers have more options of where to plant, Matamoros said.
“This policy is designed so there won’t be conflicts with food production,” he said. Francisco Alpízar, an environmental economist, however believes not enough research has been done.
Alpízar, who has been studying biofuels with the Environment for Development Initiative, a global research program housed in Costa Rica at the Tropical Agronomy Research Center (CATIE), said there is no way of telling how many other crops will be abandoned if biofuel crops become more profitable.
“How will sugarcane and African palm spread to areas that are suitable?” he asked.
He also warns that other efforts, such as encouraging landowners to reforest property to connect protected areas in biological corridors, could be affected.
“I’m not saying this is the case. I’m saying this has to be studied, and nobody has done it,” he said. “There are not enough grounds for supporting or rejecting biofuels.”
Proponents of biofuels will often point to Brazil, where national production of biofuel using sugarcane has been largely lauded as successful. Alpízar, however, cautioned against the comparison to Costa Rica.
“Biofuel production has proven to be efficient in very particular circumstances.
Brazil is the most efficient. They pollute less than most other countries and produce more energy per hectare,” he said.
“How do they do this? They basically have these huge monocultures that are fully integrated,” he continued. “From the production of the original plant to the final processing, it’s all one single company, so the whole production line is integrated into one single unit. Their trucks run on biofuels, the factories are inserted in the middle of a crop.
None of this is valid for Costa Rica.”
The economist also raised other concerns, such as the possibility of small-scale farming being further pushed out of the way by large corporations.
Ticos Sound Off On Gas
Ticos have not been inoculated from skyrocketing world oil prices, where the price of a barrel has more than doubled within the past year and continued to climb this week.
Domestic fuel prices rose an average of 6 percent on Tuesday. The Tico Times’ Leslie Friday asked some Ticos on the street how they are coping.
Marco Zumbado, 30, San Antonio de Belén Weekly fuel bill: ¢30,000 ($60) Zumbado drives his pest-control company’s car wherever he goes. He used to spend ¢100,000 ($200) a month on gas about four months ago. Now, he spends ¢120,000 ($240) a month. His company’s solution to rising prices at the pump: “We have to raise prices (for our customers).”
Naín Abarca, 43, Tres Ríos Weekly fuel bill: ¢84,000 ($168). A 20-year veteran taxi driver, Abarca has to drive several more hours a day to make up for the money he loses at the pump. “Really, you have to live with this situation,” Abarca says.
Nelson Barboza, 40, San José Weekly fuel bill: ¢50,000 ($100) Barboza does not think he can keep up the same lifestyle or the same expenses with increasing gas prices. He says he has not changed the way he drives yet but, “It’s going to change.”
Sergio Muñera, 23, Zapote Weekly fuel bill: ¢3,000 ($6). Unlike most of his friends, Muñera drives a motorcycle. He is happy that he bought the bike, given the current state of gas prices. “I have saved a lot,”Muñera says.
Mónica Muñoz, 22, Santa Ana Weekly fuel bill: ¢15,000 ($30). Traveling 80 kilometers a day for work, Muñoz says she had to change the way she drives. She no longer uses her car as much. Another person loses out on that deal: her boyfriend in Tres Ríos, east of the capital. “I visit my boyfriend less,”Muñoz quips.