The Scramble for Biofuels and Timber in Africa

By Carmody, Pádraig | Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

The Scramble for Biofuels and Timber in Africa


Carmody, Pádraig, Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations


According to the second law of thermodynamics, entropy is a feature of natural systems, meaning that they have a tendency to move from a more organized state to a less organized state. For example, as the sun burns, its matter moves from a more compact, organized form to one that is less compact and organized.1 Arguably, the globalization of social systems is also characterized by increasing entropy. This paper argues that it is this ordered entropy, together with the reactions of those who are opposed to it which will define international relations in the twenty-first century. In order to examine said entropy, this paper explains the nature and organization of competition around two of the most important land-based natural resources in Africa - biofuels and timber - as well as their role in globalization. I argue that while globalization is often thought to be associated with the rise of a global informational economy, natural resources remain central to understanding social relations of globalization, particularly in Africa.

Using the lens of the new scramble for Africa's natural resources, this paper explores the impacts of this ordered entropy. The new scramble for Africa is currently underway as the global economy continues to grow, but the stock of natural resources is largely fixed and diminishing.2 While competition over oil, and to a lesser extent hard minerals, has attracted much attention from the academic community there is also substantial competition over access to Africa's renewable resources.3 This competition and it impacts, especially its environmental and economic impacts, make clear the need for further investigation of such issues.

For example, as the currencies of most African countries are non-convertible, land and natural resources serve as a substitute for hard currency. They are therefore a source of economic and social power for the national governments.4 African states are increasingly leveraging their land and natural resources in order to create a sense of sovereignty and legitimacy within the state. (I refer to this sense of sovereignty and legitimacy as stateness in the remainder of the article.) However, often times the methods employed to leverage such resources generate internal resistance and accelerating environmental degradation.

Land is what the famous historian Karl Polanyi called a "fictitious commodity"5 It is something bought and sold on the market, yet not produced through market mechanisms. Land is consequently a limited resource over which there will be increased competition, given the growing global population and economy. Likewise, many natural resources are also limited and therefore sustainable habits and usage must be established and practiced in Africa, and must be done elsewhere in the world.

The advent of globalization has made the movement of goods and ideas both easier and faster. Ideas can now be accessed almost anywhere in the world through the internet.6 However, this increased interconnection is not necessarily a positive phenomenon, as it opens regions up to potentially negative flows such as illicit trade in natural resources or people and other dangers from foreign locales. A crisis may also be transmitted from global economic epicenters such as FLurope and North America, which in turn may then become worldwide in nature, as the global financial crisis (GFC) has demonstrated. However, over the longer-term it is the environmental impacts of globalization which will perhaps be most pernicious.

BIOFUELS IN AFRICA: FUELLING HUNGER AND LAND LOSS?

Some argue that we have now passed the period of "peak oil," meaning that more than half of the world's oil supply has been used. This event, coupled with a rapidly growing demand, particularly in Asia, has dramatically increased the price of oil and has further pushed the search for alternative fuels, such as biofuels, in Africa.7 Biofuels come from renewable resources, which are living things that derive their energy from the sun, either directly as plants do or indirectly as animals do.

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