The European Union has been urged to drop its pledge to produce 10 per cent of all transport fuels from biofuels by 2020 because of the effect this has had on the purchase of African land by multinational companies.
According to a report released on August 30 by a UK-based campaign group, Friends of the Earth, the amount of land being taken in Africa to meet the EU’s rising demand for biofuels “is underestimated and out of control.”
Its report echoes findings from another UK aid agency, Action Aid, which predicts that the EU biofuels target could result in up to 100 million more hungry people across the continent, increased food prices and landlessness.
The report’s findings are challenged by companies who argue that they typically farm land not destined or suitable for food crops.
It’s an argument rejected by the Friends of the Earth report, which argues that biofuel crops — including non-edible ones such as jatropha — “are competing directly with food crops for fertile land.
“The African continent is increasingly being targeted as a source of agricultural land and natural resources for the rest of the world.
“National governments, private companies and investment funds are buying up access to land across the continent to grow crops for food and fuel.”
The FoE report concentrates on 11 African countries, including Kenya and Tanzania, where it says that around 40 foreign owned companies have invested in agro-fuel developments.
It says that many of the activities are actually raising carbon emissions because virgin forests are being chopped down to make way for the crops.
This report looks in detail at the deals for agrofuels and questions the impacts on local communities and the environment.
It finds that although information is limited, there is growing evidence that significant levels of farmland are being acquired for fuel crops, in some cases without the consent of local communities and often without a full assessment of the impact on the local environment.
The FoE report estimates that a third of the land sold or acquired in Africa is intended for fuel crops — some 5 million hectares.
While some of this land is sold outright — to private companies, state companies or investment funds — most is leased and some is obtained through contracting with the farmer to grow specific crops (known as “outgrowing”).
A number of, often small, EU companies are involved, sometimes with support or involvement from their national government.
Many are keen to vaunt the social and environmental benefits of their business, offering employment and the promise of development to rural areas.
But FoE says there is also a growing awareness of the downsides of this agrofuel boom. As scientists and international institutions challenge the climate benefits of this alternative fuel source, local communities and in some cases national governments are waking up to the impact of land grabs on the environment and on local livelihoods.
In Tanzania, Madagascar and Ghana, there have already been protests following land grabs by foreign companies.
Companies have been accused of providing misleading information to local farmers, of obtaining land from fraudulent community landowners and of bypassing environmental protection laws.
Agrofuels are competing with food crops for farmland, and agrofuel development companies are competing with farmers for access to that land.
And this appears to be as much the case for jatropha, as for other crops, despite the claim that it grows on non-agricultural land.
The result however is that because of losing their access to traditional land, local communities face growing food insecurity and hunger — “their human right to food is threatened,” the report says.
Pressure on farmland has led to forests being cleared to make way for agrofuel plantations, destroying valuable natural resources and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. In Ethiopia, land inside an elephant sanctuary was cleared to make way for agrofuels.
Farmers have found that the much vaunted wonder crop jatropha, rather than bringing a guaranteed income, in fact takes valuable water resources and needs expensive pesticides.
In some cases, food crops have been cleared to plant jatropha, leaving farmers with no income and no source of food.
But the Guardian quoted Sun Biofuels, a UK company named by Friends of the Earth, as saying the reports findings were “emotional and anecdotal.”
Chief executive Richard Morgan said that biofuel production offered “an opportunity to get investment into local communities in an ethical way.”
The FoE report however disagrees, saying that this is an issue which is likely to become fiercely political over the coming decade.
“While (African) politicians promise that agrofuels will bring locally sourced energy supplies to their countries, the reality is that most of the foreign companies are developing agrofuels to sell on the international market,” the report concludes.
“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.”