africa: mapping the expansion of agrofuels

Switching to agrofuels has been portrayed as a golden opportunity, a ‘green’ solution that could tackle the world’s energy crisis and help to mitigate climate change. Industrialized countries, international financial institutions such as the World Bank, and multinational agribusiness, oil and transport companies are all promoting agrofuels as a panacea to the world’s problems.

Agrofuels in AfricaAfrica looms large on the radar of agrofuels promoters. Most agrofuels crops grow best in tropical regions, and there is a persistent picture of Africa as a hopeless continent with vast areas of so-called ‘marginal lands’ that could be planted with crops such as jatropha.

African governments also see agrofuels as a way of sidestepping their dependence on expensive oil imports, benefiting energy sovereignty.

However, agrofuels are also associated with a range of significant negative social and environmental impacts, although these are often overlooked in the rush to develop this new and profitable industry.

The agrofuels ‘boom’ is contributing to the global food crisis as land is used to grow fuel rather than food. It can also lead to local communities and Indigenous Peoples being expelled, often violently, from their forest and agricultural lands - often on the basis that these lands are ‘degraded’ or ‘marginal’. It can also result in the destruction of biodiversity and eco-systems, as forests, savannas and fallow lands are cleared and agriculture intensified to meet new demand. To cap all this, the production and use of many agrofuels could result in levels of greenhouse gas emissions that are similar or even more than those produced by burning fossil fuels.

Yet public knowledge about these potential impacts is generally low in Africa. Even more problematically, there is a little comprehensive information about the extent of the agrofuels ‘boom’ in the continent, and official information can be extremely hard to obtain.

what happened?

Members of FoE Africa from Ghana, Togo, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Nigeria, Mauritius, Tunisia and Swaziland met in July in Accra, Ghana, to review issues that confront the African environment. A particular focus was placed on the current food crisis and agrofuels. The groups released a statement deploring the characterisation of Africa as a chronically hungry continent; and rejected the projection of the continent as an emblem of poverty and stagnation and thus as a continent dependent on food aid.

Matching these concerns, FoE Africa groups and others set out to research the extent of agrofuels expansion across Africa, through a literature review, on-the-ground observation, and interviews with government officials, community leaders, local authorities, farmers and farmers’ organizations, civil society groups and academics.

The report considers the state of agrofuels production in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It records details, where available, on incoming investment, key companies, case studies, issues relating to land and legal rights, and environmental impact assessments. It also delves into government and state policies on agrofuels promotion and energy self-sufficiency.

what was learned?

Although data was sometimes hard to acquire, this first report, ‘Corporate Push of Agrofuels in Africa’, clearly corroborates that there is a very real agrofuels ‘boom’ in Africa. To take just one example, in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and other countries, staple food crops such as cassava, corn, groundnuts, sorghum and sweet potatoes, are being used or are being proposed to be used to produce bio ethanol.

The report provides clear evidence that when it comes to agrofuels most African governments are intent on promoting the industry, and attracting foreign investment to do so, even though on-the-ground evidence shows that:

  • there is little public understanding of the issue;
  • farmers are often tied to monopolies;
  • forced resettlement, land grabbing and displacement from traditional lands are common;
  • food importing nations tend to increase their reliance on food imports;
  • ethanol production affects food prices; and
  • agrofuels production leads to deforestation and biodiversity losses.

 

what changed?

With this more detailed picture of what is really happening in Africa, concerned organizations are now able to make a much clearer assessment of the risks associated with the agrofuels ‘boom’. Local communities and Indigneous Peoples are also in a better position to engage in the debate on agrofuels, and make informed decisions about the use of their lands and territories.

what next?

This information will be used by FoE Africa groups and others to develop positions and campaigns relating to agrofuels production at the national level. Agrofuels activities are already underway, for example, in Nigeria, Togo, Swaziland and South Africa.  It will also be shared with other civil society organizations and local communities.

Additional information can be found at http://www.eraction.org/publications/presentations/The-Agrofuels-debate-in-Africa.pdf

with thanks to our funders: the dutch ministry of foreign affairs (dgis)

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