Sun, Dec 05, 2010 - Page 12 News List

Africa mulls biofuels as
land grab fears grow

A recent study by Friends of the Earth has found that demand for biofuels is driving a new land grab, and as this demand grows, tensions between farmers and big business will only get worse

By Simon Akam  /  Reuters, YAINKASA, Sierra Leone

Workers construct an earthen dam at the Addax Bioenergy project at Lungi Acre outside the town of Makeni, Sierra Leone, on Nov. 17.

Photo: Reuters

Farmers in this iron-roofed village in Sierra Leone say they didn’t know what they were getting into when they leased their land for a biofuel crop they now fear threatens their food harvests.

Addax Bioenergy, part of privately-owned Swiss Addax & Oryx Group, says it went through long consultations with locals when it won a lease for around 50,000 hectares for ethanol sugarcane in the poor West African country’s center.

Despite that, a land dispute has flared up, one that highlights a major obstacle to efforts to tackle climate change by growing fuel in some of the world’s poorest places.

“We were tricked. We feel the way we’re being treated is not in line with our agreement,” said rice farmer Alie Bangura, 68. “They promised things when we gave up our land that didn’t happen.”

Addax says a large share of a competitive US$12 per hectare goes directly to farmers, rather than via landlords or officials, and that a development program to help farmers improve yields will ensure all villages have enough to eat.

Proponents of biofuel crops in rural Africa say they will help fight climate change, meet Africa’s own chronic energy shortages and give badly needed income from under-used farmland; critics say they take food out of hungry mouths by turning arable land over to feed cars, stoking tension with communities.

As environment ministers gathered in the Mexican resort of Cancun last Sunday for UN talks aiming for agreement on steps to slow down global warming, biofuels are likely to get little attention as doubts grow about whether they are realistic.

By one estimate, satisfying the EU’s biofuel targets alone will require an additional 4.5 million hectares of land by 2020, an area the size of Denmark.

Environmental groups have become alarmed at the pace with which vast tracts in Africa are being bought up for fuel crops.

A study by Friends of the Earth in August said biofuel demand was driving a new “land grab” in Africa, with at least 5 million hectares acquired by foreign firms to grow crops in 11 countries it had studied.

Ethiopia has earmarked 700,000 hectares for sugarcane and up to 23 million for -jatropha. In Tanzania, rice farmers have been forced off their land to make way for sugarcane, the group says.

Kenya and Angola each have received proposals for the use of 500,000 hectares for biofuels and a plan for 400,000 hectares of oil palms is underway in Benin. Environmentalists are worried.

“The rush is definitely still ongoing. It is quite alarming the rate of land acquisitions by large companies,” Greenpeace Africa director Olivia Langhoff said by telephone. “It’s doubtful that Africans will see any benefits. There’s very little involvement from local communities or farmers.”

Langhoff said that in many cases promises are made that only fallow or marginal land will be used, but the plantation expands into good land as demand increases, squeezing out food crops.

Residents near the Addax plantation, many of whom signed away their land with thumb prints because they can’t write, say they thought the farm wouldn’t affect their fields in what they call “bolilands,” seasonally waterlogged areas suitable for rice growing, because the sugarcane is being planted in drier areas.

But irrigation channels dug up by the company have drained some of the bolilands, they say, damaging their rice fields. Other food crops of theirs such as cassava and wild palm trees used for cooking oil were razed when it developed the land.

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