- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2006

The United States has two addictions: one to oil and the other to drugs. In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush announced the United States must end its addiction to oil. And he advocated agricultural crops as alternative energy sources. What he failed to note is that those same crops could also address another addiction — cocaine.

A proposal to encourage Andean growers to substitute grasses that can be converted to ethanol for the lucrative coca plant could help address the scourge of cocaine. With a world market suddenly craving ethanol, not only would farmers have a crop with insatiable demand, but growing it would provide a legal, sustainable income. This 2-for-1 result could form the foundation of an approach to Latin America that addresses the region’s need to address security, poverty reduction, energy needs, and sustainable development.

Our dependence on imported petroleum from conflict areas must end. There is no better opportunity than in our own backyard. The Caribbean and Central America are especially ripe for a full-blown energy policy that uses the agricultural resources already in place — sugar and oil palms — to support ethanol and bio-diesel industries that will reduce dependence on fossil fuels, create employment and address an ever-increasing demand for sustainable energy from renewable resources. In the Andean region, hundreds of hectares of illegal cocaine are grown and destroyed. The potential to convert these plants into biofuels for transportation could transform the economy of the entire region.

With $70 dollar a barrel oil, and no end in sight, Caribbean nations are quickly turning to biofuel production as a future alternative to their mono-economies based on sugar and tourism. And high oil import prices make it even more profitable for regional producers to develop ethanol from sugar cane.

With the market for Caribbean sugar limited in Europe and the United States., small producers are making the switch. St. Kitts and Nevis have already diverted their sugar harvest to ethanol, and larger islands like the Dominican Republic and Barbados are exploring such prospects, while thinking about ways to convert other sources such as palm oil to bio-diesel. This model could also be replicated in the Andean countries, where large-scale production of feedstock for biofuels opens an entire new market for international trade and development.

Brazil began tapping ethanol more than three decades ago. More than 40 percent of Brazil’s energy comes from green sources, compared with 7 percent in the developed world. Brazil plans to become energy self-sufficient this year, a landmark accomplishment. The country has developed ethanol technology and is aggressively marketing its technology to other countries, particularly the Caribbean.

The efficiency of converting sugar cane into ethanol is enhanced by using the waste, bagasse, to fuel the entire process, thereby eliminating dependence on fossil fuels and reducing energy costs.

Even with the second-largest supply of natural gas in the hemisphere, Bolivia remains dependent on foreign oil sources for transportation fuel. If a program to encourage energy self-sufficiency were launched with a way to generate better livelihoods for current coca plant growers, the potential for creating a drug-free zone in the Andes would accompany energy independence.

An enlightened new policy toward our Latin American relations must attack our addiction to oil and drugs in a way that also addresses national security concerns. Biofuels are part of the solution. Continued income inequality produces political unrest which can prepare the ground for terrorism to take root quickly like crabgrass. And corruption from the trade in illegal narcotics, porous borders, weak governance and continued regional dependence on subsidized Venezuelan oil weaken U.S. leverage in a region integral to our own post September 11, 2001, security concerns and national interests.

A Latin America policy that anchors itself developing alternative energy sources such as ethanol and biodiesel not only addresses the challenge of future energy needs, but also becomes a major tool for development, poverty reduction and regional diplomatic and commercial cooperation.

A renewable energy policy for the hemisphere — especially the Caribbean, Central America and the Andean region — developed in close cooperation with Brazil will confront some major concerns:

• Energy self-sufficiency as oil supplies are being depleted, a reality in some countries as early as 2025.

• Poverty reduction and sustainable livelihoods by developing very marketable products — the demand for which grows steadily as China, India and other countries expand rapidly.

• An alternative to expanding nuclear energy in poor countries that can ill-afford the construction, let alone the maintenance, of nuclear power plants.

• Ending the tyranny of drug cartels that corrupt security forces, and victimize growers who have few viable economic alternatives in farming.

• Reducing the risks of failed states, especially in the Caribbean.

The president’s message of ending addictions should be taken at face value. Isn’t reducing poverty and income inequality, while also ending the vagaries of global petroleum supply, a good approach to our hemispheric security policy?

Johanna Mendelson-Forman is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Norman A. Bailey is a political economist at the Potomac Foundation.

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