HAVANA - The governments of Cuba and Venezuela are planning
to move forward together on biofuels production, but they will rely on
producing alcohol from sugarcane, in order to spare food crops.
Official Cuban sources described the cooperative alcohol program between
the two countries as part of their "joint efforts" to protect the
environment, reduce consumption of fossil fuels and promote alternative
energy sources, while holding fast to the principle of not using edible
crops to make fuels.
A protester holds up corn during a march on the streets against the rising price of tortillas (thin corn patties that are a staple of the Mexican diet) in Mexico City in this January 31, 2007 photo. Using plants to feed their fuel needs may be a great idea, and the biofuel goldrush could be a moneyspinner for several poor countries, but some experts warn people may go hungry as food prices rise. REUTERS/Henry Romero
At present Venezuela imports Brazilian ethanol to mix with gasoline
distributed in the eastern part of the country, in preference to methyl
tert-butyl ether (MTBE), an oxygenate additive which is a pollutant.
The Venezuelans "are planning to add eight percent ethanol to petrol in
the first instance," said the head of the state Cuban Institute of
Research on Sugarcane Derivatives, Luis Gálvez, on a television panel
program on alternative energy, in which experts warned that the rush to
produce fuel alcohol could threaten food production.
Venezuela is planning to grow 276,000 hectacres of sugarcane, to produce
some 25,000 barrels per day (bpd) of fuel ethanol from bagasse, the plant
matter left over after the sugar has been extracted.
Along with a wide range of cooperation projects totalling 1.5 billion
dollars agreed on Feb. 28, the two governments signed an agreement to
instal 11 ethanol plants in Venezuela and develop sugarcane production
On that occasion, Cuban Sugar Minister Ulises Rosales del Toro and
Venezuelan Energy Minister Rafael Ramírez also signed contracts for
supplying the first four plants, according to a detailed report published
in the local daily Granma.
"Cuba is playing an important role, not only in supplying Venezuela
through several of our sugar mills, but also with cooperation on
technological aspects," Gálvez said.
The official defended alcohol production from sugarcane rather than from
cereals like maize, which the United States uses as raw material for its
entire ethanol consumption. The U.S. is the world's second largest
producer of alcohol, after Brazil.
According to Gálvez, sugarcane is the best answer to three of humanity's
pressing concerns, namely food, energy and the environment.
"Sugarcane production today is inevitably linked to alcohol and energy,
for economic and market reasons," said Gálvez, citing Brazil, the world
leader in producing fuel alcohol, as a prime example of "flexible
Expert sources consulted by IPS estimated that a ton of sugarcane bagasse
can yield between 65 and 90 liters of alcohol. They emphasized that as the
source is biomass, the fuel alcohol produced does not contribute to global
Other experts participating in the forum on Cuban state television were
insistent on the danger posed by the global biofuels fever to developing
countries, as industrialized nations "talk of substituting one (energy)
source for another, without changing their current patterns" of high
"What they are considering is a scheme in which most of the biofuels are
produced in underdeveloped countries in Asia, Latin America or Africa, to
be exported to the industrialized world," said Ramón Pichs, of the World
Economy Research Center (CIEM).
According to this model, developing countries would provide large areas of
their cultivable land and cheap labor, and suffer a negative impact on
food production and the environment, he said.
According to Pichs' calculations, filling a car's five-gallon tank with
biofuel for two weeks would consume the amount of grain that would feed 26
people for a year.
The surge of interest in biofuels is caused by the drawbacks of using
fossil fuels: high oil prices, their role in global warming, and their
non-renewable nature as an energy source.
In 2002, Cuba restructured its sugar industry, closing down half of its
156 factories and cutting sugarcane cultivation. Now it is interested in
manufacturing fuel alcohol, primarily for export.
It has therefore modernised at least 11 of its 17 distilleries, and
intends to build seven new plants. These will be devoted to producing fuel
grade dehydrated (anhydrous) ethanol, treated to remove the four percent
of water contained in ordinary distilled alcohol.
The program requires an investment of between 100 and 150 million
dollars, and will increase ethanol production to about 500 million litres
a year, from its current base of between 100 million and 150 million
liters a year.
Cuba and Venezuela have close political and economic ties, and are
promoting an integration strategy known as the Bolivarian Alternative for
the Americas (ALBA), which Bolivia joined in 2006, as did Nicaragua after
Daniel Ortega became president on Jan. 10.
Under the terms of an energy agreement in force since 2000, Venezuela
supplies Cuba with 93,000 to 100,000 bpd of oil, as well as technological
support for developing oil and gas production on this Caribbean island.
After the meeting in Havana to assess the progress of a wide-ranging
integrated cooperation agreement in force for over six years, the two
countries agreed to stimulate development of new energy sources in Cuba
and Venezuela that will also benefit "other sister nations."
© 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service