The global biofuels boom risks harming poor people in poor countries by forcing them off land they depend on, says a report published by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
But the report adds that biofuels are not all bad, and shows that their production can also allow poor groups to increase their access to land and improve their livelihoods if the right policies are in place.
The report comes as world leaders meeting in Rome this week hear calls for new guidelines on biofuels, which some have blamed for diverting resources from food production. It points out that all biofuels are not equal and recommends policies that would increase the social benefits biofuels production can bring to the rural poor in developing countries.
"Despite the highly polarised debate, biofuels are not all good or bad," says lead author Lorenzo Cotula of IIED. "Biofuels can either help or harm the world's poor depending on the choice of crop and cropping system, the business model, and the local context and policies."
Biofuel production is set to expand in the coming years despite growing concerns about the role of biofuels in mitigating climate change, promoting deforestation and taking land formerly used to produce food.
The report shows that that large-scale biofuel production is affecting poor people's access to land in Africa (e.g. Mozambique, Tanzania), Asia and the Pacific (India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea) and Latin America (e.g. Colombia).
Elsewhere however small-scale farmers have been able to increase their access to land to seize opportunities that the biofuels boom brings. "Biofuels can benefit poor producers but only if they have secure land rights," says Cotula. "In many places the rush to produce biofuels takes place where local land rights are insecure, which results in poorer people losing out. What are often lacking are both adequate land laws and the local people's capacity to claim and secure their rights."
The report shows that large and small-scale biofuels producers can co-exist, if governments and the private sector have the right policies and practices.
The findings have direct implications not only for national and local tenure systems in producer countries, but also for international processes such as a post-Kyoto regime to address climate change, for certification schemes and for policies in importing countries.