Agrofuels threat looms in Africa
While community cultivation of agrofuel crops in the African continent for local use may be a sustainable source of higher income for farmers, the current land grab by corporations for the large-scale and export-driven expansion of agrofuel production has ominous implications. The article below reveals the looming threat in Africa.
The article was published in Third World Resurgence No. 223 (Mar 2009).
AS I sat watching a news programme on television the other day, I was struck by the news that crude oil price had slid to less than US$50 per barrel. One could not help but think about the implications of this price slump and the economic model that is bringing about so much uncertainty. Just a few months ago the price of a barrel of crude had hit US$150 and was straining to burst through the roof. US$50/barrel is the lowest crude has hit in about three years. This will signal a relief for energy-deficient countries, especially those in Africa, whose resources have been hugely impacted by high crude oil prices. Other questions arise, however. Will this slump mean a slowing down on efforts to develop and promote alternative and renewable energy sources? Will this slump kill off the march towards huge investments in agrofuels and in newer-generation bio-fuels?
Agrofuels have been portrayed as the 'green' and golden solution to the energy and ecological problems in the world. The European and American governments, international financial institutions such as the World Bank and multinational agribusiness, oil and transport companies are promoting agrofuels as a solution to world energy needs. Africa looms large on the radar of agrofuels promoters and African governments see in this a potential for energy sovereignty and other benefits.
The rush for African land
The most common and prodigious kinds of crops needed for agrofuels grow best in tropical climates found in Africa, Asia and Latin America. With a persistent picture of Africa as a hopeless continent with a vast land good, the continent is often seen through no other filter than those that suggest her exploitation.1 It is equally well known that the continent is viewed as being over-populated with a huge army of hungry folk. One would expect that such a 'densely populated continent' would have precious little land to play with. However, energy-hungry and importing countries of the North and their agribusiness partners now insist that Africa has so much unused land which they characterise as marginal lands that can now be put to better use to save the world from an energy crunch. Without any evidence of rigorous science, we are told that Africa's marginal lands should be turned into jatropha plantations. In fact, the UN estimates that Africa has at least 500 million hectares of marginal, unused and underused land and that the Democratic Republic of Congo is believed to have around 150 million hectares.2
Furthermore, agrofuels are presented as a sustainable source of higher income for farmers and the business is touted as a ready avenue for employment opportunities for youths.
Agrofuels for a 'green OPEC'?
The president of Senegal inaugurated the so-called 'green OPEC' in 2006. The green OPEC, the Pan-African Non-Petroleum Producers Association (PANPP), is made up of 13 countries without crude oil, but which are poised to become exporters of agrofuels possibly by converting cultivable lands into fuel-crop farms.
According to President Wade, 'The members of PANPP aspire to become leaders in the field of biofuels and alternative energy strategies, following in Brazil's footsteps. But the development of a biofuels industry, particularly cellulosic biofuels made from agricultural wastes and prairie grasses (which President Bush touted in his State of the Union address) could take a decade or more to come to fruition. Africa needs help today.'3
A statement by an American commentator provides a good lesson for Africa. He wrote, 'The only economical way to make ethanol right now is with corn, which means the burgeoning industry is literally eating America's lunch, not to mention its breakfast and dinner.'4 The obvious downside of the investment in large-scale/commercial production of agrofuels has been variously documented. Shifting from fossil fuels to agrofuels following the same market paradigm will not increase the poor's access to energy but would aggravate existing problems such as land grabs and create particular challenges to food supplies due to a shift from food cropping to fuel cropping.
African governments have largely accepted the notion that agrofuels are the panacea to a host of challenges facing the continent. It does appear that such a stand is based on the propensity to adopt externally suggested paths and solutions. The example of the devastating impacts of various structural adjustment programmes imposed on the continent by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is clear for all to see. An analyst noted that many of the African countries that received intensive treatment from structural adjustment had negative or zero growth. In a rather sharp summation of the continent's dilemma, it has been said that almost all recent cases of collapse into anarchy have been preceded by heavy World Bank and IMF involvement.5
The craze for agrofuels has been largely driven in Africa by the global North, to purportedly address three main issues: climate-change mitigation, energy security and agricultural development. The idea of producing energy from a reproducible source is readily appealing. When that energy source is said to have a multiplicity of benefits, for example, being part of the solution to a global crisis like climate change, then you have a bestseller on your hands. This is how agrofuels have come in.6
However, it is pertinent at this point to say that we do not dispute the use of agrofuels for community use, as in the case of Malian communities where domestic energy needs are met from this source. In such communities they make use of non-edible crops like jatropha and these are grown in hedges around homes or gardens and are not propagated on a large scale. Agrofuels relying on large-scale adoption of intensive monoculture practices are almost certain to impact negatively on people and livelihoods. Common wisdom instructs that when large-scale enterprises go wrong it is much easier to correct the small mistakes rather than the large ones.
An issue that we must repeatedly state is the wrong-headedness of seeing the market as the only route to progress and development. The current economic spirals have eliminated any need for further debate on this. It is also instructive to see that the global commodity market is not concerned with the overall good of humanity but rather with profit maximisation. If the cheapest commodities are agrofuels crops - like oil palm, cassava, maize, groundnuts, etc. - cultivated on cheap African lands, what this means is that we are not only stoking the fires of humanitarian disaster, but also building an environmental disaster.7
In this article we make a distinction between large-scale cultivation of agrofuels monocultures and small-scale, locally produced and owned agrofuels activities. The former is usually accompanied by environmental externalities associated with intensive use of water, chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides, etc. These often result in polluting, depleting and degrading available water resources. This is the type of production model driven by corporate giants and industrial societies. On the other hand, smaller-scale efforts are needs-driven and their impacts are on the positive curve as the entire process is intimately connected to the people. For example, where jatropha is used to produce oils for machines or lamps, the residues are used in producing soaps and other products that all add up to economic empowerment of local women and their families.
The fact that agrofuels have triggered a new scramble for Africa is no longer news. Millions of hectares are being grabbed with little concern for the poor who are bound to face displacement and for the impact that this will have on family farms and other small-scale farms and food production on the continent.
One case in point is an unfolding transaction in Madagascar. There, we are told, a South Korean firm Daewoo Logistics plans to buy a 99-year lease on over a million hectares for the production of 5m tonnes of corn a year by 2023, and to use another 120,000 hectares for the production of palm oil.8 This deal, estimated to cost the company about $6bn over 25 years, is acclaimed as the biggest of its kind in the world.9 The land to be parcelled off to Daewoo Logistics covers arable land about half the size of Belgium. For a mostly arid country with three food crisis situations in five years, this is a huge challenge indeed.
The firm claims that thousands of jobs will be created and that it will use a mainly South African workforce, but the produce will be mainly earmarked for South Korea.10 In other words, that chunk of Africa would simply be a South Korean farm for South Korea. Although the crops are said to be for food, the lesson for land and land rights is the same for agrofuels.
The Guardian article11 from which the Madagascar story was quoted presents us with additional reasons to worry. We are told that in Sudan there are efforts by the state to attract investors for almost 900,000 hectares of its land, while the Ethiopian Prime Minister is reported to have been courting would-be Saudi investors. Commentators believe that these negotiations are lopsided and may weigh against Africa. A number of factors impact the quality and amount of arable lands available in many African countries. In the case of Ethiopia, the pressure on natural resources has led to the burning of animal dung for fuel instead of utilising it as a resource for soil quality improvement. Over 600,000 tonnes are said to be lost in crop production annually due to these pressures on the land. This loss amounts to double the amount of yearly food aid requests from the country.12 The additional pressures that use of land for agrofuels would bring to bear on food deficits in countries in similar conditions are easy to imagine.
A further downside is that small farmers without official land title are already on the losing end. Add to this the fact that details of these land deals are hard to come by. With a lack of transparency there is no assurance of safeguards for the poor or even the overall long-term interest of the continent.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) advocates an urgent review of agrofuels policies and subsidies in order to preserve the goal of world food security, protect poor farmers, promote broad-based rural development and ensure environmental sustainability.13 Its head, Jacques Diouf, has clearly warned that the controversial rise in land deals could create a form of 'neo-colonialism', with poor states producing food for the rich (and their machines) at the expense of their own hungry people.14