Plans by the French government to build five soya-fired biofuel plants in French Guiana would risk massive Amazon deforestation, according to a Mongabay report on 2 December.

In 2018, the French government had launched a multi-year plan to convert French Guiana’s ageing energy infrastructure to power stations mostly burning biofuels, Mongabay said, and this would have major negative implications for the region.

French Guiana, an overseas department of France on the northeast coast of South America, lies mostly within Amazonia. Bordered by Suriname and Brazil, 98% of this area is covered by dense rainforests and mangrove.

Four of the proposed new biofuel-fired energy stations along the coast of the region are small at 5MW or less.

However, the largest of the proposed biofuel plants – Larivot in Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana – would require between 84,000 and 140,000 tonnes/year of soya to generate enough liquid biofuel to power the 120MW plant.

Growing that much soya would require a large amount of rainforest clearing, Mongabay said, and environmentalists had concerns over the loss of forest carbon sequestration and harm to the region’s biodiversity.

“A local government representative has authorised the establishment of an oil-fired power station in a mangrove forest two miles from the edge of the Amazon forest,” said Francois Kuseni, an environmental activist and member of French Guiana’s Ecology Party from Cayenne.

“The government has promised a study of two years to supply the power station with bio oil. The representative said explicitly that they want to grow the soya plants [to be made into biofuel] locally.”

Environmentalists’ main concern was that due to the region’s limited available farmland, growing soya as a biofuel could lead to massive deforestation, Mongabay said.

“The fact that France is pushing for policy deviations in French Guiana from European Union sustainability standards is incredibly alarming.… There will be an impact on forests if they change the laws and it could be pretty massive,” said Almuth Ernsting, a biomass researcher with Biofuelwatch, an environmental NGO.

French authorities, meanwhile, had argued that the region’s antiquated power generation system was inadequate to support French Guiana’s small but growing population, Mongabay said.

Current French law prohibited widespread deforestation in France and French Guiana, Mongabay said, although that could change.

On 4 October, an amendment within a proposed law would have allowed requests for unlimited land leases in French Guiana to increase from 150ha to 5,000ha, Mongabay said. However, the legislation had been rejected.

The French government, as in the European Union generally, classifies biofuels as a renewable energy source on a par with zero-carbon wind and solar energy.