Spatial Interactions and Land Use Conflict

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As the world makes the transition from a fossil fuel and petroleum-based economy to one that uses biological products and processes for energy, materials, chemicals, and services, it is reasonable to expect that the effects of this transformation will appear throughout society and the environment. Competition between land uses will occur in ways that are not obvious or intuitive. Geographical displacement of some land uses or types of agriculture may occur and, in turn, create demographic shifts, changes in employment patterns, political realignments, new transportation networks, and new patterns of resource consumption and life cycles.

Let us use again the example of U.S. ethanol biofuel production, which has stimulated investments in, and construction of, processing plants throughout the U.S. Midwest (Figure 23.3). To be economical, ethanol processing must be geographically co-located to a ready supply of grain or cellulose. Currently, planned and existing production processing plants in the U.S. and Europe are concentrated geographically in locations that are distant from the points of consumption (i.e., urban areas along the coasts). This is creating overlapping material source regions in ways that have specific impacts on land use and fuel production: shortages of source material, rapidly rising grain prices in some locales, increasing use of continuous cultivation over rotations that restore nitrogen, reduction in natural ecosystems as fuel crops expand, and loss of land area in nonfuel crops. With too many processing plants coming online within a single source region, investment risk is rising rapidly, and there is concern that food production will be at risk by new economic investments that are not assured success (Baker and Zahniser 2006).

Enlarged area

IZZI 12,000-29,999 IZZI 30,000-55,999 IZZI 60,000-132,000

Corn hectares by county, 2002

IZZI 400-11,999

Ethanol plant capacity (million l/yr)

Current Expansions

Enlarged area

Corn hectares by county, 2002

IZZI 400-11,999

Ethanol plant capacity (million l/yr)

Current Expansions

Figure 23.3 Location-specific nature of biofuel (Baker and Zahniser 2006).

Capacity range

Figure 23.3 Location-specific nature of biofuel (Baker and Zahniser 2006).

International expansion of biofuel crops is also rapidly influencing land transformation and access to land resources in developing countries, with expanded disparities in economic benefits to the rural poor. Palm oil production is replacing tropical forests, and large areas of plantations are displacing rural poor marginal farmers who lack land tenure security to already marginal land. It is ironic that many biofuel crops are successful on marginal land where rural farmers in developing countries struggle to make a subsistence living. Because the valuation of this land for biofuel crops vastly exceeds its value for subsistence crops, rural farmers are being pushed to ever-increasing margins of land fertility.

These geographical displacements and alterations are not limited nationally, but are global in extent. Changes in resource allocation associated with biofuel production could have unexpected, indirect impacts, and economic geography can help anticipate them and minimize their impacts. Recent experience with ethanol provides an illustration. Rising demand for biofuels has bid up the price of food, with global effects. For example, the increased profitability of corn has reduced the area planted for soybeans, thus raising the price of cooking oil. This, in turn, has increased the incentive for farmers in Southeast Asia to convert rainforest to palm oil plantations.

Internationally, large tracts of land are being converted to seed oil, palm oil, natural rubber, and other bioproducts and biofeedstocks, as the economies of China and India place production demands on regions that are geographically distant from points of consumption. Globalization influences, and is influenced by, this rising demand for bio-based products. In Thailand and Laos, farmers are replacing rice with natural latex production for Chinese markets; throughout India large tracts of Jatropha oil plantations are being put into production by British and German companies; the Brazilian Department of Agriculture, EMBRAPA, is heavily investing in sugarcane production in Ghana; in Africa the miracle plant, Neem, is being grown for biopesticide production in North America. The emerging new geography of the bioeconomy is leveraged in a globalized market for materials and products in ways we have not experienced in past decades.

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