By Rainer Chr. Hennig African Future, 20 February 2008
African Future, 20 Feb. - Uproar is slowly spreading among African civil society organisations and scientists, fearing that the biofuel revolution will bring more food insecurity, higher food prices and hunger to the continent. A petition calling for a 'moratorium on new agrofuel developments in Africa' has so far been signed by over 30 NGOs all over the continent.
Biofuels have already revolutionised agriculture in the US, Brazil and parts of Asia, and if EU energy commitments are lived up to, soon will do so in Europe. Now, foreign investors are queuing at African government offices to realise giant biofuel projects on this fertile continent, promising a new 'green revolution', greater independence from the oil market and even fuel export possibilities.
And they are successful. So successful that the petitioners fear a quick negative impact on African food security, which is already endangered by rising world market prices for basic foods. 'Investors are rushing to privatise our land for their plantations, while our governments willingly allocate millions of hectares from the 70% of Africa's land that is still communally owned,' the petition warns. 'Jatropha' is being pushed as one of the new miracle crops for African small farmers to produce fuel, and the impact is already being felt around the continent.
In Tanzania, thousands of farmers growing rice and maize are already being evicted from fertile areas of land with good access to water, for biofuel sugar cane and jatropha plantations on newly privatised land. Villages are being cleared, but families have been given minimal compensation or opportunities for their loss of land, community and way of life, according to the petitioners.
Millions of hectares in Ethiopia have been identified as suitable for biofuel production, and many foreign companies have already been allocated land from farmland, forests and wilderness areas. Even protected areas are not safe from the spread of biofuels. One European investor has been granted 13,000 hectares of land in Oromia state; 87% of which is the Babile Elephant Sanctuary, a home to rare and endangered elephants.
In Zambia, jatropha cultivation is booming without privatisation. Foreign investors are using contracts with a large number out-growers that last up to 30 years. The petitioners fear that the out-growers have been tricked: 'These contracts serve to transfer control over production from the farmer to the company, through a system of loans, numerous extra charges and service payments, and prices determined by the company. Under such a system of dependence, farmers are likely to increase their indebtedness to the company, until they may be obliged to hand over their land altogether.'
In West Africa, jatropha is already being grown in Togo, Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Côte d'Ivoire and Niger. Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade has placed fuel crops at the heart of an agriculture renewal programme in his country. In Ghana one company is planning to plant one million hectares of jatropha with support of the government, while in Benin another company has obtained permission to plant a quarter of a million hectares of biofuel crops. Farmers in Benin and in many other countries in the region have, on the average, no more than 1 hectare to grow there products and the biofuels are expected to make a serious dent into their food production.
The petitioners therefore hold that the biofuel revolution is 'geared to replace millions of hectares of local agricultural systems, and the rural communities working in them, with large plantations. It is oriented to substitute biodiversity-based indigenous cropping, grazing and pasture farming systems by monocultures and genetically engineered agrofuel crops.' In agreement with several new scientific analyses, they hold that 'the current push for agrofuels exacerbate, rather than solve, the problem of climate change.'
'Among Africa's many challenges, food security is one of the most serious. A full car tank of ethanol uses the same amount of grain that can feed a child for a year. We do not understand how our governments can willingly take our food, land and water to meet the fuel luxuries of the wealthy in the North, when we already face problems of food security and environmental destruction at home,' the petition reads.
The call for a moratorium on new biofuel developments in Africa is in line with warnings from the main UN agencies involved in agriculture and food aid, WFP and FAO, registering that the increased acreage used for biofuels is already contributing to higher food prices and may lead to more hunger in the world. Indeed, already in October last year, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, in his annual report called for a world-wide 5-year moratorium on building biofuel manufacturing plants that use food stocks.
Experts Cast Doubt on Agra's Soil Fertility Plan
Wanjiru Waithaka Business Daily (Nairobi, Kenya), 18 February 2008 http://allafrica.com/stories/200802190987.html
Agriculture experts have criticised a programme seeking to restore soil fertility in Kenya and other African countries, saying that similar programmes implemented in India and elsewhere aggravated farmer's problems instead of providing solutions.
At stake is the future of the continent's agricultural practices -what is grown, how it is grown, who gets to grow it, who processes it, who sells it and where and how much the African consumer will pay.
The programme is an initiative of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra), which recently announced that it was committing $180 million to the five-year project in 13 African countries. Agra's soil health programme is targeted at small scale farmers and aims to increase farm yields and incomes by giving farmers seeds and inputs such as fertilizers through licensed agro-dealers.
The Sh12.6 billion grant has been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Sh11.55 billion) and the Rockefeller Foundation (Sh1.05 billion).
Kenya's pilot project started last year and farmers have been receiving a Sh6,000 voucher from the Government enabling them to acquire various farm inputs like seeds, fertilisers, stock borer dust and post-harvest pesticides. Agro-dealers in major towns are being trained on how to handle farmers and supported financially to have enough stocks to ensure farmers have adequate supply. 8,000 farmers in 10 districts across the country, mainly in Western Kenya are currently signed up.
In Chuka and Runyenjes, the programme is being made sustainable by compelling farmers to give to the village programme coordinator about five bags of the harvest, which is collectively sold and used to buy inputs for the next planting season.
In western Kenya, farmers who meet every day or the last day of the week to discuss farming issues also deposit about Sh10 per day each. The money is deposited with an agro-dealer and used to purchase inputs when the planting season arrives.
Critics, however say that Agra's programmes are a Trojan horse for genetically modified seeds which in Africa have only been fully embraced by South Africa. Although popular in many regions of the world GMO use in Africa has been hindered by safety concerns and regulatory issues even though the continent is in dire need of boosting its food production.
Agra has also been accused of fronting for seed and fertilizer companies in the West such as Syngenta and Monsanto that are hungry to take a slice of the African seed market.
'Although Agra does not on the face of it promote the use of GM technologies, 70 organisations from 12 African countries see Agra as shifting African agriculture to a system dependent on expensive, harmful chemicals, monocultures of hybrid seeds, and ultimately GMOs,' says the African Centre for Biosafety in a paper authored by Mariam Mayet.
'These groups argue that the Green Revolution under the guise of solving hunger in Africa is nothing more than a push for a parasitic corporate-controlled chemical system of agriculture that will feed on Africa's rich biodiversity,' she says.
These concerns were also echoed by participants from 25 countries representing farmers, agricultural and pastoralist organisations at a forum held in Mali from November 25 to December 2 last year to discuss the pitfalls of Green Revolution in Africa.
'Once the mask of philanthropy is removed, we find profit-hungry corporations vying to control the seed market in African countries, create a path for genetically modified seeds and foods and to pry open a market for chemical fertilizers-which in turn will have an adverse effect on African indigenous seed populations and destroy bio-diversity, not to mention the devastation of the environment and the salination of the soil,' said Mukoma wa Ngugi, co-editor of Pambazuka News in a recent commentary in Business Daily.
Agra's programme has been likened to Monsato's 'Seeds of Hope Campaign' in South Africa. The company which has a strong foothold in South Africa's seed industry introduced 'Combi-Packs' containing hybrid maize seed, some fertilizer, and some herbicide.
The company also promotes 'no or low till farming' meant to meant to be a minimally invasive conservation farming technique, in that farmers do not plough or till the land.
Instead, they cut small furrows for the seeds. This farming practice entails negligible soil disturbance, maintenance of a permanent vegetative soil cover, direct sowing, and sound crop rotation and is particularly beneficial for smallholder farmers, because there is no need to use a tractor, a major cost saving.
However, using this technique requires the increased use of herbicides, since weeds are not removed by tilling the land, and Monsanto is therefore a fervent supporter of this technique says Ms Mayet.
'Several studies have shown that Monsanto's Roundup herbicide is a threat to human health; not only a hormone-disruptor, but is also associated with birth defects in humans,' she says. In most areas these packs are sold through private agents. They are substantially more expensive than conventional seed and usually subsidized meaning that withdrawal of state support will leave poor farmers out in the cold, in a replica of the first Green Revolution in India in the 1960s.
Dr. Namanga Ngongi, Agra's president, says comparing Agra's programmes with those of Monsanto in South Africa is a mistaken view of Agra. 'Agra's seed programme is firmly rooted in conventional breeding and the use of Africa's rich agro-biodiversity. We will use indigenous crop varieties that are adapted to the various agro-ecological zones of the continent,' he says.
'Green revolution' was first coined in 1968 to describe the success in increasing yields in wheat, maize and rice in India and Southeast Asia.
The essential features of that model comprised of a technology package involving the use of external inputs such as inorganic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, laboratory developed hybrid seeds, mechanisation and extensive irrigation projects.
The Rockerfeller Foundation which is also financing Agra played a crucial role in promoting this technology package that also formed the basis of agriculture development aid and assistance at that time.
'These varieties only produced the desired 'high yielding' results if there was irrigation, mechanisation, and plenty of chemical fertilisers (the real key) and pesticides,' says Grain, an international non-governmental organisation which promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people's control over genetic resources and local knowledge.
Under the programme, India increased its wheat production ten-fold and its rice production three-fold. But the country paid a heavy price. 'The use of large amounts of water, fertilisers and chemical pesticides impoverished soils, leaving them less fertile and highly polluted,' says Grain in a paper titled 'A new Green Revolution for Africa?'
Local biodiversity was drastically reduced, bringing farmers under the dependence of pesticide manufacturers and outside seed suppliers.
'The profound cultural and economic changes wrought by the Green Revolution produced a massive rural exodus, and, with it, a profound loss of traditional knowledge and skills. For most farmers, any early profits were soon converted into debts, with many farmers, unable to repay their debts, taking their own lives,' says the NGO.
Dr. Ngongi disagrees with this assessment of Asia's green revolution.
'Asia's green revolution saved many millions of lives and contributed immensely to the dynamic economic performance of Asian countries. Yes, it also had some negative impact on small-scale farmers and on the environment. However, the positives greatly outweighed the negatives,' he says adding that an African green revolution has the advantage of learning from the errors that were committed when Asia was launching its green revolution.
Dr Ngongi says that misuse of fertilizers, improper and uncontrolled use of water, the construction of huge dams, and the concentration on breeding a few miracle varieties of a few crops are now well understood and will not be repeated.
'Agra's approach is to work with national institutions, in both public and private sector in close partnership with farmers, especially small-scale farmers, most of whom are women, to resolve problems that have a negative impact on farmers' productivity and incomes,' he says.