How do biofuels grown on ‘marginal’ lands impact energy security and rural livelihoods? This is an important question because recent policies have advocated the production of biofuels on ‘marginal’ lands to avoid conflicts with food security and land use change. For my dissertation, I examined this question in India because the country was one of the first to mandate the production of biofuels on ‘wastelands’, an official government classification of marginal lands. Through field work in the southern state of Tamil Nadu using research methods from political and industrial ecology, I found that India’s wastelands are not exactly ‘marginal’: their existing land usage provides approximately four to 15 times more useful energy than would the country’s proposed biodiesel system.
I also found that the process of defining, classifying and developing wastelands, a government-sponsored program that began in the late 1970s, is an inherently political process that often obscures local land users. Instead, agriculturalists are framed in policy documents as stocks of surplus labor and potential beneficiaries of wasteland development programs. Further, the ambiguity as to what constitutes wastelands has helped to facilitate questionable land acquisitions by biofuel companies that have dispossessed rural farmers. Thus, my research demonstrates that biofuels, a highly promoted alternative energy resource, may not necessarily be more advantageous than existing forms of energy provision.
For my future research, I will expand the industrial and political ecology framework I used for my dissertation to examine the land use change impacts of urbanization through targeted micro-studies of select geographies and energy technologies. Specifically, I will focus on the changes to land tenure and systems of energy provision induced by an increasingly urbanized world.