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Sunday, November 07, 2010

African land grabbed for agrofuels. Will India be next?

I’ve just read a report by an NGO called ‘Friends of Europe’, which has looked into the problem of European and Chinese companies acquiring – legally or otherwise – huge tracts of land in many African countries to grow crops for agrofuels.

The report explains the term “agrofuels” as the liquid fuels derived from food and oil crops produced in large-scale plantation-style industrial production systems. These agrofuels are blended with petrol and diesel for use primarily as transport fuel. Biofuels on the other hand, refer to the small-scale use of local biomass for fuel.

These crops are being grown at the cost of food crops, which that continent needs because dying of starvation and hunger is still a horrible reality for them. Here are a few salient points from that report. For more details, click here - http://www.foeeurope.org/agrofuels/FoEE_Africa_up_for_grabs_2010.pdf

- The agrofuel crops that these countries are increasingly growing are sugarcane, castor bean, castor, sugar beet, palm oil, jatropha, sweet sorghum (for ethanol) – all of this for fuels and food crops like maize are rotting or not being cultivated.

- The reason for this is the need for foreign investment and economic development is driving a number of African countries to welcome agrofuel developers onto their land. Most of these developers are European companies, looking to grow agrofuel crops to meet EU targets for agrofuel use in transport fuel.

- Concerns about energy supply appear to be a key driver behind the demand for agrofuel crops - with the EU aiming for 10 per cent of transport fuel to come from “renewable” sources by 2010.

- This demand for agrofuels threatens food supplies away from consumers in the case of crops such as cassava, peanuts, sweet sorghum and maize. A study for the World Bank found that crops being used for agrofuels was a major factor in the rising price of food. Non-edible agrofuel crops such as jatropha are competing directly with food crops for fertile land. The result threatens food supplies in poor communities and pushes up the cost of available food. Farmers who switch to agrofuel crops run the risk of being unable to feed their families.

- While foreign companies pay lip service to the need for “sustainable development”, agrofuel production and demand for land is resulting in the loss of pasture and forests, destroying natural habitat and probably causing an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

- Just as African economies have seen fossil fuels and other natural resources exploited for the benefit of other countries, there is a risk that agrofuels will be exported abroad with minimal benefit for local communities and national economies. Countries will be left with depleted soils, rivers that have been drained and forests that have been destroyed.

- Biofuels have been described as “one of the most thirsty products on the planet” because of the amount of water need to produce the fuel. To grow the soya needed to produce one litre of biodiesel requires 9,100 litres of water. A litre of bioethanol produced from corn takes 4,000 litres of water and a litre of bioethanol produced from sugarcane can also use as much as 4,000 litres of water.

- Researchers at Pennsylvania State University in US are looking at improved strains of jatropha, including GM jatropha and the Gates Foundation is also promoting biotech solutions for African agriculture. Shell is involved in research in GM cassava.

- A study by the United Nations Environment Programme warned of the risks to “high value natural ecosystems” of cropland expansion. It concluded that “Global resources do not allow simply shifting from fossil resources to biomass while maintaining the current patterns of consumption”

- Ironically, 15 African nations joined forces to set up what has been described as a “Green OPEC” and a number of national governments have also introduced domestic targets and strategies for agrofuel use at home. The hot targets are Angola, Congo, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Ghana. Countries not specifically mentioned but known to be targets of land grabbers are Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and Sudan.

This report defines the significance of land in Africa as “To the vast majority of societies in Africa land is regarded not simply as an economic or environmental asset, but as a social, cultural and ontological resource. Land remains an important factor in the construction of social identity, the organisation of religious life and the production and reproduction of culture. The link across generations is ultimately defined by the complement of land resources which families, lineages and communities share and control. Indeed land is fully embodied in the very spirituality of society.”

The emotional connect with land sounds exactly like how it is in India. So, do Indian farmers also need to be aware of any possibility of illicit/underhand land grabbing that could happen here? I think they do. Our government should work with them on this issue, if it ever cropped up – pun intended – rather than work against their interests.

1 comment:

Klaus-Martin Meyer said...

it is a wrong way to grap other peoples land even if the purpose is to grow biodiesel!