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The contentious political economy of biofuels : transnational struggles over food, fuel, and the environment Neville, Kathryn


The quintessential image of a farmer in a field summons to mind an industry at the heart of debates over land, environment, and food. A picture of an oil rig, silhouetted against the sky, conjures its own questions of progress, growth, and power. As agricultural products modified into energy commodities, biofuels—liquid fuels derived from plants—are located at the intersection of these industrial complexes, and, consequently, at the crux of these concerns. Over the course of a decade, starting in the early 2000s, public discourse over biofuels has spanned early optimism to uproar over food security to outcry over land appropriation. This project investigates why both the rules governing and the actual implementation of biofuels investments underwent such rapid and continuous revision. What, it asks, explains these seemingly-stochastic shifts? Why do state, society, and corporate actors not align into and remain part of more coherent pro- and anti-biofuels camps? And why, in spite of media reports of protests, campaigns, and lawsuits against biofuels projects, can we not identify consistent movements and counter-movements? Drawing on original fieldwork in coastal Kenya and Tanzania from 2010-2011, and triangulating field-based interview and observational findings with media reports, policy documents, and secondary literature, this dissertation argues that biofuels are challenging objects of contention for claim-makers and power-holders alike, for two reasons. First, their position at the junction of commercialized energy and agriculture implicates them in difficult-to-track, globalizing, and distant political economy relationships. Second, at the production level, biofuels are a diverse set of crops that affect local ecologies and livelihoods in geographically-specific ways, while in energy markets, they are a largely-unified fuel alternative. These differences across sectors make them difficult to promote, regulate, and resist. This dissertation proposes a framework of contentious political economy to analyze these complex claims and responses. The project brings together a dynamic, cyclical understanding of the capture and appropriation of identities, interests, and historical grievances with a political economy perspective on new market forces and commodities. Beyond biofuels, the project considers the social and environmental repercussions of the intersection of new resource economies with long-standing grievances.

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