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The Race for Biofuels


Philippines Generational Clash Over Cassava Ethanol Plant

February 25th 2009

Energy / Environment - Cagayan de Oro
Cagayan de Oro

Cassava ethanol has ignited a clash of generations among tribal peoples in the southern Philippines. The scene is idyllic Cagayan de Oro, where rivers and air come together to create a favorite tourist destination.

Yet this is where Alsons Consolidated Resources (ACR) plans to construct a cassava ethanol plant to help the Philippines meet its legislated ethanol mandate. The anticipated demand for fuel due to rapid industrialization in that country will increase harmful vehicle emissions. As such, the Philippines reportedly needs up to 20 ethanol plants by 2011 to meet the mandatory requirements of the Philippines Bio-fuels Act of 2006.

ACR's facility calls for a $42 million plant on 24 hectares of land stretching through Bayanga and Mambuaya villages, both of which boast rich agricultural lands, as well as tourist attractions.

The feedstock is cassava. Using it, ACR's will produce ethanol, using water from the Munigi River, the sole source of potable water for the two villages.

At first blush, it sounds eco-friendly. But there is little agreement on the plan that many say will solve one problem only by creating another.

Emotions became heated at a January 29 public hearing at the Cagayan de Oro village hall, where the feared toxic implications of the plant and environmental impact were bluntly debated in a classic NIMBY drama.

Two elderly women of the Higaonon tribe held a sign saying the tribe is against any plant construction in the vicinity, called locally as "the barangay" which can also translate to "the barrio." A coalition of civil society groups, led by Cagayan de Oro archdiocese, also oppose the plant’s location because, they say, it will destroy the barangay's fragile environment and affect the ecology of Cagayan de Oro City and the health of all Cagayanons.

Typical was the reaction of fourth-year high school student Jenny Agustin. She scolded her elders publicly for supporting the proposed plant. "You are already old and will be dead in a few years, while we, the young, will suffer for the rest of our lives!" she told project proponents in the local Cebuano dialect, to the applause of schoolmates at the public hearing.

"Stay away from our watershed zone!" shouted the placards her classmates carried to the Cagayan de Oro City village hall.

About a thousand people, many agitated, attended that meeting which included officials and technical personnel of ACR, protesting civil society groups, local government, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro. Two congressmen elected from the city also attended.

ACR chairman Tomas Alcantara said the company's facility will begin operating commercially by early 2011 as the first ethanol plant in the Northern Mindanao region. Citing a Department of Energy forecast, ACR predicted annual domestic ethanol demand could reach 309 million liters by 2009 and 713 million liters by 2013. ACR targets a daily production rate of 100,000 liters for the Bayanga-Mambuaya plant alone.

The larger environmental concerns did not sway Jay Lumantas, student council president at Bayanga National High School. He expressed his fear over the use of cassava, asserting the root is "known to contain cyanide, a dangerous chemical."

ACR project engineer Gerome Magkasig responded that the company is using sun-dried cassava chips that contain none of the toxic substance. "We have tried fermenting it at our facility," he said.

Company officials argued that the plant would create jobs. But protestors argued that residents in the two villages are unskilled and not likely to get technical jobs, just menial or temporary construction positions.

Father Jose Cabantan, director of the Archdiocesan Social Action Center rebutted that three years, those jobs would be gone. "Can we exchange two or three years of employment of a few residents ... for the long-term destruction it will cause us and our descendants?" he asked. 

Cabantan urged "all Cagayan people" to oppose the project. "It will destroy us all along with our environment," he warned. The priest pointed out that pollution from the plant's wastewater would flow into Munigi and Cagayan de Oro rivers. The planned wastewater exit into the Munigi is only meters upstream from where water is pumped to the Bayanga village system. The Munigi flows into the Cagayan de Oro.

A representative of one environmental group called the plant a "good idea in a wrong location."

The Cagayan de Oro clash is a reminder that in alt fuels, there is always a gritty underside.

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