New Internationalist

Growing pains

Issue 430

Africa’s great biofuel land grab continues

China recently secured land in the Democratic Republic of Congo roughly the size of Belgium, to set up the world’s largest palm tree plantation for biofuels. In December, Rwanda signed a $250 million investment deal to produce 20 million litres of biodiesel per year from jatropha, a hardy ‘wonder plant’ that can grow in low-quality soil. All over Africa the land grab to plant biofuels is speeding up. Ghana, Rwanda, Angola, Tanzania, Ethiopia – country after country is rushing into production of jatropha, hoping it will bring them foreign currency and cut their dependence on oil imports. But there are also threats: water shortages, evictions of farmers and corruption.

Take Tanzania. In October 2009, the Government reportedly suspended millions of dollars’ worth of biofuel investments. The reason? Growing public outcry over the looming evictions of local farmers. Foreign companies were planting biofuel crops on fertile lands intended for growing food.

The problem in Tanzania, as in many sub-Saharan countries, is lack of policy to guide biofuel investments. The cost of unclear procedures is borne by villagers, who often have no knowledge of their own rights. In exchange for land, companies promise to build schools, roads and water supply systems. But such promises are rarely put in writing. Laws to protect the environment are lacking. Water is being diverted to irrigation, threatening supply for the biggest city, Dar es Salaam. Jatropha, native to Central America, replaces local plants, and is grown in massive monocultures that require the use of pesticides. ‘Ministry officials told me that the coastal forests have been cleared,’ says Emmanuel Sulle, Research Associate at Tanzania Natural Resource Forum. ‘Protecting them is a challenge, since there is poor co-ordination between the Ministry of Lands and Ministry of Natural Resources.’

Tanzania is pushing to become a world leader in the production of jatropha, which can provide income for farmers from otherwise unproductive soils. According to the Tanzania Investment Centre, the country has over 33 million hectares of uncultivated, arable land. But uncultivated doesn’t mean unused. For many villagers such land is a source of firewood, medicinal herbs and building materials. When foreign investors come, locals get displaced.

Moreover, loss of economic opportunities is rarely included in compensation for land legally belonging to a village. In Kilwa District in southern Tanzania, villagers were paid less than $10 per hectare by a biofuel company for giving up their right to their farms. The International Institute for Environment and Development, a London-based think-tank, calculated that in some cases the value of timber harvested from such land each year is higher than the compensation the villagers receive.

According to Esther Mfugale, biofuels co-ordinator at Tanzania’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Co-operatives, the guidelines for biofuel investment will be ready in early 2010. ‘So far we’ve been learning,’ says Mfugale. ‘Now we are going to create awareness in local communities about land issues and biofuel potential. We are going to be very busy.’ But guidelines may not be enough to protect farmers and the environment. What is needed are laws, enforcement and co-operation between state agencies. ‘But at least they are trying,’ concedes Emmanuel Sulle. Which, unfortunately, cannot be said about many other African governments.

Marta Zaraska

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