CSOs tell EU to ‘stop grabbing Indonesia’s land for biofuels’

Campaigners outside the European Parliament, Strasbourg, September 2013

DTE 96-97, December 2013

A crucial vote on biofuels in the European Parliament on September 11th 2013 has failed to fix a flawed policy which is driving deforestation, landgrabbing and human rights abuse, while undermining communities' food sovereignty in producer countries like Indonesia.

Rocketing carbon emissions; forests burned or bulldozed and wildlife habitats destroyed; the livelihoods of forest-dependent peoples devastated, their ancestral lands taken without consent. In Indonesia, the devastating costs of the European Union’s biofuel revolution are clear and it is time Europe took responsibility.

This was the message conveyed during a joint campaign by Indonesian and international CSOs – including Down to Earth – in Europe in September 2013, as Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) gathered to vote on amendments to the EU’s Renewable Energy and Fuel Quality Directives (RED and FQD) (see box). 

The RED and the FQD

The RED and the FQD are key policy directives aimed at increasing the share of renewables in the EU’s energy mix and reducing Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. They have also had the effect of increasing the demand for palm oil from Indonesia, the world’s biggest producer of the crop, as well as other palm oil producers.  The EU is a major destination for Indonesian palm oil, and the top importer of palm biodiesel produced in Indonesia.

Nur Hidayati of Walhi (Friends of the Earth Indonesia) and Bondan Andriyanu of Sawit Watch (Oil Palm Watch) - supported by DTE and fellow European groups - presented decision makers at the Parliament with a picture of what life is like for Indonesian local communities affected by palm oil expansion for agrofuels. They also highlighted the fact that using palm oil for biofuels is counterproductive in terms of tackling climate change.  A statement signed by 59 Indonesian CSOs appealed to all 766 MEPs not to ignore the devastating impacts of agrofuels production in producer countries such as Indonesia (see CSO statement).

Indonesia is planning to more than double its oil palm estate which extends to around 11 million hectares today. According to Sawit Watch, the government has already issued preliminary concessions, or ‘location permits’ (izin lokasi) covering 26.7 million hectares of land for palm oil development, over a third of which are on peat.[1]

The run-up to September’s vote

Back in October 2012, the European Commission (EC) proposed long-awaited policy amendments to the RED and the FQD.[2] The proposal attempted to limit the impacts of Europe’s demand for agrofuels by introducing two critical amendments to the Directives: 1) the introduction of a 5% cap[3] on the amount of food crop-based biofuels allowed to be counted towards the 10% renewable energy target for transport fuels, by 2020; and 2) reporting – but not accounting - of emissions caused by Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) (see DTE’s April 2013 agrofuels update for more background).[4] The proposal was positive in that it was the first time that the Commission had formally recognised the dangers of using food for fuels and the impacts of ILUC. However, DTE and other NGOs argued that the amendments did not go far enough to address the real impacts of agrofuels on people and the environment in producer countries such as Indonesia, nor for reducing GHG emissions.[5]

Untangling the jargon

The following exploration of terminology attempts to point out some of the differences and overlaps between the variety of terms used in agrofuels debates.

Biofuels vs  agrofuels:

The EU defines biofuels as liquid fuels from a non-fossil biological origin and a renewable energy source, to be distinguished from fossil fuels, and consisting of two categories: biogasoline and biodiesel.[6]

Crops used to make biofuels are generally either rich in sugar (such as sugarcane), starch (such as corn) or oils (oil palm).  Biofuels can be derived from a wide range of crops including soya,  sugar beet, oilseed rape, canola, jatropha, rice and wheat, as well as corn/maize, sugarcane and oil palm. 

The term agrofuels is not part of the EU glossary, but is commonly used to indicate biofuels derived from crops that are grown on a large-scale, often in monocultures. DTE favours this term because it is these large-scale monocultures that cause the worst impacts for people and the environment.

Forest and agricultural crop residues, such as the stalks and leaves, are also used to produce biofuels/agrofuels.

Biodiesel vs bioethanol

Bioethanol and biodiesel are biofuels commonly used in transportation. Biodiesel is made from oily products such as vegetable oils or animal fats. It is the most common biofuel in Europe and is usually produced by extracting the oils from crops such as palm oil from Indonesia. Bioethanol is made from starch or sugar crops such as wheat or sugarcane, largely grown in South America and Africa.

Food crop-based biofuels are derived from crops, which could otherwise be used as food – thus presenting competition for food production.

Land-based biofuels are derived from food or non-food crops, which require land to grow. Palm oil and jatropha are both types of land-based biofuels feedstock.

Energy crops are crops used to produce fuel or other forms of energy, and include food and non-food crops. Jatropha and special grasses are examples of non-food energy crops.

Biofuels can be classed as 1st, 2nd or 3rd generation, depending on the type of feedstock and the process of production.

A feedstock is the raw material used to make a type of biofuel. Palm oil, wheat, agriculture residues and algae are all types of feedstocks.

1st  generation (‘conventional’) biofuels use conventional technology to transform the oils, starches or sugars found in food crops into fuels. Palm oil, wheat and maize are some of the most widely used 1st generation biofuel crops. As the crops are usually grown for the sole purpose of biofuels, they are considered to be in competition with food. Currently, almost all biofuels in EU are made from 1st generation feedstocks.

2nd generation biofuels are usually made from agricultural and forestry wastes or residues such as cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin or pectin (i.e. the bits left over when the crop is harvested for primary products, such as food or wood products). They can also include purpose-grown, non-food crops such as energy grasses or jatropha.

3rd generation biofuels are still in the early days of development. Algae is the most advanced and energy dense biofuel source, and does not require arable land to grow, making it a much more promising option. However, its current high cost of production means that it would be too expensive at the pump, limiting its viability as a commercial fuel.

The term ‘advanced biofuels’ is often used for biofuels made from 2nd or 3rd generation feedstock and indicates the more advanced technological processes used to produce the fuel.

But the terminology should be treated with caution! 2nd generation biofuels are not always more sustainable than 1st generation. Issues relating to land use, competition with food crops and the amount of energy used in the production process need to be taken into consideration when assessing the true sustainability of biofuels.

A long process

Several further stages of negotiations were required before the amendments could be agreed and passed into Law. First, the proposal had to be negotiated by seven key committees of the European Parliament who would put forward their own positions on the policy amendments. It would then be passed for a full plenary vote by the European Parliament on 11th September 2013, meaning that all 766 MEPs would have their say on which amendments should be accepted or changed.

In July 2013, the Environment Committee (ENVI), tasked with leading the process, presented its final position to MEPs. This contained a number of critical changes to the EC’s original proposal, including mandatory accounting (rather than just reporting) of ILUC emissions in both the RED and the FQD, to take effect immediately. It also proposed to increase the cap on agrofuels to 5.5% (0.5% higher than the EC’s proposal) but importantly, this cap included not only food crops but all land-based crops and would be applied to both the FQD and RED – an essential amendment which would have more positive impacts in terms of limiting overall Indirect Land Use Change. Overall, the ENVI’s position was an improvement on the EC’s proposal, but NGOs urged MEPs to strengthen the amendments further by tightening the cap on all land based crops to 5% as a way of limiting the use of land-based fuels to just above the current usage level of 4.7%. The NGO demand for a 5% cap was an interim damage limitation proposal, as a step towards bringing consumption down to zero as soon as possible.

Despite the ENVI’s leadership in the process, other committees had the power to influence how the MEPs voted. The Industry, Research and Energy  Committee (ITRE), more receptive to the biofuels industry’s demands, pushed to weaken the EC’s and the ENVI’s proposals. The ITRE demanded a 6.5% cap, more scientific evidence before considering ILUC reporting, and rejected options for ILUC accounting altogether.

Agrofuels speaking tour

As the September vote at the Strasbourg seat of the European Parliament drew near, lobbying intensified from both sides of the debate. It was important that NGOs and the community mobilised to counteract the demands of the first generation biofuels industry lobby and to urge all MEPs to vote to support (or strengthen) the ENVI’s proposal. A campaign team consisting of DTE, Watch Indonesia, FoE Europe, Misereor, Sawit Watch and WALHI, organised a two-week long speaking tour at the Brussels and Strasbourg Parliaments to ensure that MEPs heard directly about the impacts of EU policies on the ground in producer countries directly from representatives of the Indonesian CSOs. Through public meetings, presentations, media interviews, and discussions with MEPs, the groups highlighted four main problems with agrofuels:

They are bad for the climate

When the impacts of indirect land use change (ILUC) are accounted for, most agrofuels mean more, not less, carbon emissions. When peatland is considered, palm oil from Indonesia becomes one of the dirtiest fuels around, far more carbon intensive than fossil diesel. Existing agrofuels policy ignores this.

They promote land-grabbing, human rights abuses, conflicts

Millions of hectares of land are being grabbed from communities in countries like Indonesia to meet Europe’s growing demand for agrofuels. Indigenous Peoples’ right to Free Prior and Informed Consent is not respected. Security forces are brought in to deal with community opposition to landgrabbing by large companies, leading to violent conflicts and human rights violations.

They are bad for biodiversity and environment

Indonesia’s precious forests and biodiversity are under serious threat from massive palm oil expansion – driven partly by Europe’s agrofuels demand.  Endangered orangutans lose their habitats as forests are converted into palm oil. Illegal burning creates smog, choking Indonesia and neighbouring countries.. Intensive agriculture and chemical use on plantations causes river pollution, water scarcity, soil degradation and health problems for plantation workers.

They don’t make business or development sense

Huge agrofuels industry subsidies paid for by Europe’s tax payers created only 3600 direct jobs across Europe in 2011, while leading to forest destruction and higher GHG emissions. This contradicts EU economic and political efforts aimed at reducing Indonesian deforestation. Growing public concern about negative impacts makes agrofuels a risky business investment and undermines the EU’s duty to conduct “responsible development”.

The group called on MEPs to vote for:

  1. Full accounting of all CO2 emissions resulting from growing agrofuel crops (so-called ‘indirect land use change’ / ILUC), through crop-specific ILUC factors – for the FQD as well as the RED. This is the best policy option currently available to dis-incentivise agrofuels that are counter-productive in reducing carbon emissions (particularly palm oil).
  2. A halt in the growth of agrofuels that compete with vital food crops, with a genuine and robust cap (i.e. 5% or less applied to the FQD and the RED) on the use of agrofuels. Vote for the lowest cap possible

And, as next steps:

  • An independent social and environmental impact assessment of EU agrofuels policies on countries such as Indonesia – with a view to developing mandatory sustainability criteria to exclude any agrofuels or agrofuel feedstocks imported into the EU that do not meet environmental and human rights standards, and fair trade principles.
  • Policy steps towards a phase out of all land-based agrofuels, and a phase out of subsidies, to bring their consumption down to zero as soon as possible.
  • The introduction of policy incentives which put our transport onto a genuinely green path. Overall, policies which focus on greenhouse gas reductions, big energy savings, and a modal shift in transport will be a more effective means of climate change mitigation, without the social and environmental costs of agrofuels.[7]

EU biofuels – a threat to Indonesia’s food sovereignty

Food sovereignty refers to the rights of  people to define their own food systems and be at the centre of decisions on food systems and policies.

Indirect land use change caused by palm oil plantation expansion for biofuels destroys forests used by millions of local and indigenous people for hunting, gathering and growing food.

By reallocating land to grow biofuels crops rather than to feed people, the EU's biofuels policies are taking away Indonesia's people's rights to food sovereignty.

As a panelist alongside the ENVI Rapporteur Corinne Lepage at the Parliamentary Big Biofuels Debate, Nur Hidayati of Walhi presented the concerns of Indonesian CSOs to an audience of 180 industry, political, media and NGO representatives. Colourful street protests at the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg saw activists dressed as corn cobs calling for ‘No food for Fuel’ and for the EU to “stop grabbing Indonesia’s land for biofuels”. On the day of the vote, CSOs handed over petitions with 243,998 signatures to key MEPs, including the Rapporteur (see images).

DTE, with support from Biofuelwatch also called on EU citizens to write to their MEPs and urge them to vote to secure these amendments. [8]


Protest in Berlin

Almost a hundred people attended a meeting to discuss agrofuels and their impacts at a meeting organised by NGOs in Berlin. Presentations were given by Bondan Andriyanu of Sawit Watch amongst others. The event was timed to coincide with the launch of RSPO Europe which is aiming to promote the use of sustainable palm oil in one of its main markets. Watch Indonesia! and others organised street actions to highlight the negative effects of palm oil..

Many thanks to everyone who wrote to their MEPs in response to our call for action in September!

The vote was very close, so every letter counted towards swaying MEPs to vote against the higher cap on land-based biofuels. Your support also helped to back-up our message for policy reform when meeting MEPs in Brussels.

It was really useful to read your responses so a special thanks to those who emailed us to let us know how their MEPs responded.


Key outcomes of the vote

MEPs voted to set a 6% cap on the use of ‘land-based biofuels’ (also knows as first generation) to meet Europe's demand for fuel. As first generation biofuels already claim a 4.7% share of the EU transport fuels market, NGOs were pushing for MEPs to cap this to 5% in order to limit the current usage, and the damage it causes, to just above current levels. Although only 1% higher, the 6% cap that MEPs voted for will have major impacts on food security and food sovereignty  in some of the world’s poorest countries and, according to  international NGO Actionaid, “would allow crops with the potential to feed over 20 million people to instead be burnt each year as fuel in cars.”[9]

MEPs did vote in favour of the accounting of ILUC emissions in the Fuel Quality Directive, but this will not be introduced until 2020 and will not be applied to the RED. This decision is seriously irresponsible, resulting in another seven years of Europeans paying high subsidies to support biodiesels which have a bigger carbon footprint than fossil fuels.

MEPs backed a 2.5% target for so-called second generation biofuels, made from non-food sources such as agricultural waste, sewage and algae. They also voted in favour of ‘multiple accounting’ for advanced biofuels – meaning that certain advanced fuels can be counted 2 or 4 times toward the renewable energy targets.  These changes send a positive signal to the industry to move away from 1st generation and towards 2nd generation biofuels.

Another important decision was a 7.5% target for the share of bioethanol in biofuels – signalling a shift away from biodiesel to bioethanol. While the shift away from biodiesel would be a positive step for countries like Indonesia, which provides palm oil for biodiesel, it is bad news for countries which suffer the environmental and human rights impacts of plantations for bioethanol crops.


The vote was a close-call and many MEPs acknowledged and acted on the concerns of Sawit Watch and WALHI, but a strong core of MEPs swayed the outcome in favour of weaker reforms. The result will not bring any immediate relief to communities suffering the impacts of the EU’s agrofuels policies on the ground – a disappointing u-turn on the EU’s promises to improve the failing policy.

“MEPs have ignored the concerns of millions of Indonesians about the impacts of the EU’s agrofuel policies on their land and livelihoods. This vote will worsen deforestation, land grabs and human rights abuses in Indonesia,” said Nur Hidayati from WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia).[10] The EU has missed a critical chance to fix the most damaging aspects of its biofuel policy and once again, has prioritised industry and trade over people and the environment.

FPIC proposed amendment

One potentially positive outcome was the inclusion of the principle of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) in the amendments proposed by MEPs in the September 2013 agrofuels policy vote.

The wording is as follows for both the FQD and the RED:

‘4a. Biofuels and bioliquids taken into account for the purposes referred to in paragraph 1 shall not be made from land-based raw material unless third parties’ legal rights regarding use and tenure of the land are respected, inter alia by obtaining the free prior and informed consent of the third parties,[11] with the involvement of their representative institutions.’[12]

Indonesia’s reactions

The campaign generated strong reactions in Indonesia, with negative accusations towards both local and foreign NGOs for voicing their concerns about the pulp and paper and palm oil industries. A few days after the September 11th vote, the Deputy Head of Indonesia’s Chamber of Commerce called on the government to play an important role in expelling NGOs, especially foreign ones, who attack pulp and paper and palm oil industries. He urged these industries to counteract the negative image by being more proactive in promoting their environmentally friendly operations. The environment minister agreed that NGOs - especially foreign ones - deliberately blow up environmental issues with the aim of preventing the development of Indonesia's pulp and paper and oil palm industries, and shouldn't be allowed to continue to do this.[13]

This reaction, and the debate in Indonesia about biofuels and the effects of the EU’s policy, is a signal that the Sawit Watch and WALHI messages were voiced effectively in Europe. In addition, discussions on how to improve the dispute resolution system of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has been given an extra boost by the Europe campaign. A resolution drafted by Sawit Watch, which is an RSPO member, was recently passed at the organisation’s latest meeting in Medan.

What happens next?

The results of the European Parliament’s vote (the ‘first reading’) had to be passed on to the Council of Ministers (i.e. Member States) for further review before being set in law. To speed up the process,Rapporteur Corinne Lepage requested a mandate from the Parliament to immediately move ahead on negotiations with the  Council – but her proposal was rejected by one vote. Instead, a group of MEPs made a counter-proposal to have the amendments returned to the European Parliament for a ‘second reading’, following the Council’s review - and won by two votes. This was a critical moment in the process, which could lead to indefinite delays in fixing the policy.

More delays

The ball is now (December 2013) in the EU Council’s court as they finalise the first reading of the policy amendments. The Council has the opportunity to strengthen the amendments, but the European Parliament’s position has divided the Member States. Key players such as the UK, Netherlands, Belgium and Finland are reportedly keen to see the cap reduced, but for food crops only. Others, such as Germany, refuse to speak out publicly about their position or are pushing for the cap to be increased to 7% or even 8%. Several member states are pushing to exclude ILUC factors from the policy altogether.  

The ongoing debate means that the Council will not finalise their position and pass this back to the European Parliament for final review (second reading) until mid-December 2013. With the Parliamentary elections set for April next year and a new set of Commissioners to take their seats, it is unlikely that an agreement will be concluded before 2015.

So what does all this mean?  In a nutshell, the EU has effectively put the brakes on any positive progress towards fixing biofuels policy for at least another year, ignoring the scientific evidence of the policy’s devastating impacts.

More delays allow more time for the Industry lobby to pile the pressure on decision-makers to weaken or abandon the amendments. The delay also creates further uncertainty for investment in more innovative, renewable energy alternatives, including advanced, sustainable fuels. Worse still, it increases the risk of higher food prices, more carbon emissions and land conflicts in producer countries such as Indonesia.

Further information: Clare McVeigh dteproguk@gn.apc.org

Call for action - please help us to keep up the pressure!

We have between now and 12th December 2013 to urge the EU Governments to put forward a strong proposal on how to fix the failing biofuels policy.

If you live in the EU, please help us to support the calls from Indonesia by contacting your Energy Ministers and Prime Ministers/Presidents), by email, phone, letter or Twitter asking them to:

1) Set the cap on all land-based biofuels to current consumption levels - in the RED and FQD.

2) Introduce mandatory ILUC accounting in the RED and FQD, to ensure all carbon emissions from biofuels are taken into account.

3) Ensure that the multiplication factor for advanced biofuels applies only to the 10% transport fuel target and not to the whole 20% renewable energy target set out in the RED.  

You can find the contact details at your country’s parliamentary website. To see an example letter, click here. We’d really appreciate it if you would let us know if you contacted your ministers and how they respond. Contact Clare McVeigh at dteproguk@gn.apc.org.

More action needed in 2014...

After the EU Council’s decision, the paper goes back to the European Parliament for a second reading before being set in legislation – so we will still need to keep up the pressure in 2014! Please keep an eye on the agrofuels page on the DTE website for information on what happens next or contact Clare McVeigh at dteproguk@gn.apc.org.


Further information:

All available on DTE’s website at: http://www.downtoearth-indonesia.org/campaign/agrofuels-and-oil-palm-plantations

An agrofuels message to Europe: short video interview with Bondan Andriyanu of Sawit Watch and Nur Hidayati of WALHI:

Indonesian CSO statement

Addressing the impacts of the EU's agrofuels policies on Indonesia, Joint briefing by DTE, 11.11.11. Sawit Watch, WALHI, Friends of the Earth Europe, Watch Indonesia! and Misereor, September 2nd, 2013:

Europe's agrofuels vote fails on food sovereignty, rights and climate (joint statement by DTE et al)

Protest images from Strasbourg

[1] FPP,CIRAD, ILC Palm oil and indigenous peoples in South East Asia, January 2011, p.21; Norman Jiwan ‘Deforestation Moratorium is not Panacea?’, Jakarta Post, 1st July, 2010 at http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2010/07/01/deforestation-moratorium-not-panacea.html

[2] See EC's proposals for agrofuels policy amendments - background, DTE agrofuels policy update, April 2013 Part I

[4] See EC's proposals for agrofuels policy amendments - background, DTE agrofuels policy update, April 2013 Part I

[5] See DTE’s analysis of the EC’s agrofuels policy amendments, DTE agrofuels policy update, April 2013 Part II

[7] See Addressing the impacts of the EU’s agrofuels policies on Indonesia, Briefing by DTE, 11.11.11. Sawit Watch, WALHI, Friends of the Earth Europe, Watch Indonesia! and Misereor, September 2nd, 2013

[8] See DTE Urgent Agrofuels Action, September 2013

[9] ‘Food should be used to fill people, not cars’ Lucy Hurn, Actionaid, 24/Sep/2013.

[10] See Europe's agrofuels vote fails on food sovereignty, rights and climate, Joint statement by DTE, 11.11.11, Watch Indonesia! and WALHI 13/Sep/2013.

[11] Note: FPIC is part of the body of international law that has developed in relation to indigenous peoples, and therefore ‘third parties’ as set out in the proposed amendment, while including indigenous peoples, is rather too broad a category. For some further discussion of this, see The Rights of Non-Indigenous ‘Forest Peoples’ with a focus on Land and Related Rights, Existing International Legal Mechanisms and Strategic Options, FPP Discussion Paper, 18 September 2013.

[12] P7_TA-PROV(2013)0357, Fuel quality directive and renewable energy ***I, European Parliament legislative resolution of 11 September 2013 on the proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Directive 98/70/EC relating to the quality of petrol and diesel fuels and amending Directive 2009/28/EC on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources (COM(2012)0595 – C7-0337/2012 – 2012/0288(COD)), available at http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/seance_pleniere/textes_adoptes/provisoire/2013/09-11/0357/P7_TA-PROV(2013)0357_EN.pdf