Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is aiming to turn his country into a biofuel superpower using ethanol and biodiesel. But environmentalists are warning that this could trigger a massive expansion of the agricultural frontier deeper into the Amazon, destroying habitat and biodiversity.

Already an established user of ethanol, Brazil has developed technologies and a sugarcane economy that ensures absolute competitiveness. But now, this South American giant intends to fight for the biodiesel market, with Colombia and Argentina also seeking to encourage development of biofuels. In Brazil, consumption of 840 million litres of biodiesel is forecast by 2007.

Colombia too has rapid expansion plans: “Colombia could be third in production of biofuels, surpassed only by the United States and Brazil, if production of palm oil for biodiesel comes out favourably,” says David Cala, director of CORPODIB, a consortium of businesses, university and technology centres involved in industry development of biotechnology. So too Argentina, where the Biofuels Act, approved in April, imposes a requirement of five percent biodiesel or ethanol in petroleum derivatives beginning in January 2010.

This is worrying environmentalists. “It is worrisome that a new economic cycle based on biofuels would trigger the expansion of monoculture crops and, consequently, deforestation,” says Délcio Rodrigues, from Vitae Civilis, a Brazilian non-governmental organisation that is active in fighting climate change.