Biofuel land grab

Friends of the Earth says that biofuel crops, including sugar cane, 'are competing directly with food crops for fertile land'

European Union countries must drop their biofuels targets or else risk plunging more Africans into hunger and raising carbon emissions, according to Friends of the Earth (FoE).

In a campaign launching today, the charity accuses European companies of land-grabbing throughout Africa to grow biofuel crops that directly compete with food crops. Biofuel companies counter that they consult with local governments, bring investment and jobs, and often produce fuels for the local market.

FoE has added its voice to an NGO lobby that claims local communities are not properly consulted and that forests are being cleared in a pattern that echoes decades of exploitation of other natural resources in Africa.

In its report “Africa: Up for Grabs”, the group says that the key to halting the land-grab is for EU countries to drop a goal to produce 10% of all transport fuels from biofuels by 2020.


“The amount of land being taken in Africa to meet Europe’s increasing demand for biofuels is underestimated and out of control,” Kirtana Chandrasekaran, food campaigner for FoE in the UK, said. “Especially in Africa, as long as there’s massive demand for biofuels from the European market, it will be hard to control. If we implement the biofuels targets it will only get worse. This is just a small taste of what’s to come.”

A number of European companies have planted biofuel crops such as jatropha, sugar cane and palm oil in Africa and elsewhere to tap into rising demand. But the trend has coincided with soaring food prices and ignited a debate over the dangers of using agricultural land for fuel.

Producers argue they typically farm land not destined, or suitable for, food crops. But campaigners reject those claims, with FoE saying that biofuel crops, including non-edible ones such as jatropha, “are competing directly with food crops for fertile land”.

ActionAid claimed this year that European biofuel targets could result in up to 100 million more hungry people, increased food prices and landlessness.

Natural disasters including floods in Pakistan and a heatwave in Russia have wiped out crops in recent weeks and intensified fears of widespread food shortages.

The United Nations has singled out biofuel demand as a factor in what it estimates will be as much as a 40% jump in food prices over the coming decade.

Estimates of how much land in Africa is being farmed by foreign companies and governments, either for food or fuel crops, vary significantly. The FoE report focuses on 11 African countries in what it sees as a rush by foreign companies to farm there. In Tanzania, for example, it says that about 40 foreign-owned companies, including some from the UK, have invested in agrofuel developments. It argues that such activities are actually raising carbon emissions in many cases because virgin forests are being cut down.

Lip service

The report concludes: “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.”

Sun Biofuels, a British company farming land in Mozambique and Tanzania and named in the report, criticised the charity’s research as “emotional and anecdotal” and said that its time would be better spent looking into ways to develop equitable farming models in Africa.

Sun’s chief executive, Richard Morgan, said his company’s leasing of land in Tanzania had taken three years, during which 11 communities, comprising about 11,000 people, were consulted.

“I find it insulting from Friends of the Earth. Somehow it’s indirect criticism of Mozambiquan and Tanzanian governments that they would allow this dispossession to take place,” he said.

Morgan conceded that such a protracted process could raise expectations among local people of jobs and investment that could not be met, and said that it was often those negative testimonies that were collected by newspapers and NGOs. But he insisted that Sun was creating jobs where possible and that much of the biofuel production was destined for domestic markets in Africa rather than Europe.

“There’s an opportunity here to get investment into local communities in an ethical way,” he said.

In many cases, biofuel production was replacing or reducing illegal tree felling, Morgan added. “Tanzania has a large landless community felling forest land. If you give employment to those people as an alternative, there is a chance you can intervene commercially there in a good way.”

Biofuel crops were being grown on land that was not intended for food production, he said: “Often we are growing trees on land already cut down for charcoal or in some cases tobacco. We haven’t displaced anyone.”

But FoE argues that “most of the foreign companies are developing agrofuels to sell on the international market”. Its campaigners in Africa are demanding that African states should immediately suspend further land acquisitions and investments in agrofuels. Instead, they want to see fundamental changes in consumption habits in developed countries – be it making more use of public transport or adopting different diets.

Chandrasekaran said: “Biofuels is just a small part of what is happening. What needs to change are consumption patterns in the west. That means [eating less] meat and dairy, given more than a third of the world’s agricultural land goes to feeding meat and dairy production. It also means [reducing] consumption of fuel.”

Source Guardian