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The impacts of biofuel production in developing countries

In recent years African countries have enjoyed interest from abroad, thanks in part to a great amount of available land apparently ideal for cultivating crops for providing food security and for the production of biofuels. However, insufficient legal protection for the local population often leads to the signing of contracts that deprive these people of their source of subsistence. Residents usually have little influence on the content of these contracts, which, furthermore, are often not even available for public review. And if the locals are in fact consulted at all on the matter, they can typically count on a campaign of misinformation from the government. For example, with the cultivation of jatropha, one of the main crops hailed as a source of biofuel in Africa, it has been shown that the plant cannot be grown in dry areas as originally thought; moreover, farmers are commonly poorly informed on cultivation methods.

While the private sector dominates investment in farmland (“land grabbing”), it frequently has strong financial or other support from the local government. The main countries targeted by investors are countries in Africa, especially areas in the Sub-Saharan part of the continent. One well-known example is the Tana River Delta in Kenya, where the cultivation of crops for the production of biofuels threatens the rare local ecosystem and pollutes the river. A similar situation also occurred in the Dakatcha Woodlands in the same country.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch study, thousands of people in the Gambella region of Ethiopia were displaced due to farmland. The government’s promises of improved living conditions turned out to be hollow. Similar examples can also be found outside of Africa. Documenting the vast scale of farmland purchases and rent by foreign investors in developing countries, Oxfam International reported that since 2001 a total of 227 million hectares of land has been acquired, the greatest amount in the past two years alone. People are abandoning their source of livelihood under the threat of violence in places such as Indonesia, Guatemala, South Sudan and Honduras. For example, residents in the Polochic Valley in Guatemala were driven out by paramilitary groups so that biofuel crops could be grown on their land.

With all the negative experiences countries have had, one might expect greater caution in the trend toward cultivating biofuel crops. But this is not the case. African countries do not have enough motor fuel to cover their needs, and with rising petroleum prices, the cultivation of biofuel crops becomes increasingly lucrative. Yet, companies often keep the true state of their business affairs secret, and governments do not always guarantee an effective control mechanism. It is therefore necessary to secure the legal rights of the local residents and improve the transparency of contract compliance. The debate over the cultivation of biofuel crops should also shift from the developed world, where it has taken place for the most part up until now, to developing countries, since it is their residents that bear the brunt of the “ecological” aims.

A video shot by Damian Carrington in cooperation with the British charity ActionAid describes the negative impacts of the conduct by certain companies specialized in the production of biofuel in developing countries. Villagers in the Kisarawe district of Tanzania were persuaded to sell their land in exchange for a better life and new employment opportunities. In 2008 the firm Sun Biofuels purchased 8,000 hectares of land from local residents, promising them equipment for schools, health centres and, above all, wells and better infrastructure. The jatropha plantation was to provide 700 jobs and the opportunity to earn 3.80 pounds a day.

The residents describe the company’s real business operations. Instead of wells, the locals got dry holes in the ground; the equipment for schools amounted to portable chalkboards. Wages never reached half of the promised level, and a number of workers were harmed by chemicals sprayed on the crops because they weren’t provided protective gear (a claim the company denies). A burial ground was taken over as farmland, and the locals could no longer visit their deceased relatives or preserve their religious traditions. One of the main controversies is the fact that the residents still have not received the contracted purchase price for their land.

We can witness the powerlessness of the Kisarawe residents, who lost their only wealth – their land – without ever receiving the promised compensation. In the meantime, the company was transferred to a different investor and the cultivation of crops has been stopped. While the government shows no interest in the matter, Athumani Mkbala, the area’s deputy in parliament, does not consider the project successful and is troubled by the consequences. Nevertheless, his response does not suggest any great willingness to try to resolve the situation. At the same time, it was local government officials who persuaded the residents to sell their land. This is but one of many examples of the negative impacts of cultivating crops for biofuel in developing countries.

See the video shot (Author: Damian Carrington, The Guardian, in cooperation with ActionAid)

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