Monday, October 19, 2009


Two years ago singer–songwriter and activist Bob Geldof was so excited about biofuels he even became the special advisor to biomass company Helius. At the time, Geldof visited jatropha curcas plantations in Swaziland run by UK biodiesel producer D1 Oils. Geldof was quoted as saying that these plantations had 'life changing potential'. Since then, D1 Oils dropped out and Mr Geldof silenced. HIV/AIDS victims in Swaziland were 'targeted to plant jatropha and promised easy money', said Adrian Bebb at Friends of the Earth International (FoE) in a telephone interview with Pambazuka News. But jatropha was a cause supported by rhetoric and a science that neglected the socio-cultural impact. The perennial plant would produce inedible oil and any financial gain would depend entirely on the biodiesel plant operator, which pulled out. The crops planted in marginal lands were also unable to produce any sufficient yields. Those who worked the land were left empty-handed and considerably worse off. 

Biofuels were then and continue to be in many respects hyped as an environmentally friendly alternative to oil-based transport fuels. The United States, the EU and other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries initiated legislation to encourage its production. They also set mandatory targets. The EU set a binding target to replace 20 per cent of fossil fuels with biomass, hydro, wind and solar by 2020. Each member state is also required to replace 10 per cent of its transport fuel as well. It is this 10 per cent target that is a cause for concern and is partly conditioned on the commercial viability of second-generation biofuels. Second-generation biofuels are mainly made from lignocellulosic materials like wood and straw. First-generation biofuels are mainly ethanol from grains, sugar crops and biodiesel from oil seeds or from recycled cooking oil.[1]

Sweden, for instance, has set a 40 per cent target for 2020 and a new government bill requires its transport sector to be fossil-free by 2030. While such initiatives may be applauded, Sweden is as a result investing heavily in research and influencing EU-wide policy that provides financial incentives for companies to buy up land in Africa for biofuel production. Two Swedish biofuel companies, SweTree Technologies and SEKAB, currently sit on the industry-dominated board of the European Biofuels Technology Platform (EBTP). The EBTP have privileged access to European Commission decision-making and help shape research direction and spending of public money.[2] SweTree Technologies, for instance, is researching second-generation biofuels by genetically modifying trees for fuel conversion. SweTree’s director, Björn Hägglun, also happens to be the chief director of WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Sweden, only one of only two NGOs that has openly admitted its involvement with the EBTP. Second-generation biofuels are now mandated to produce twice as much energy compared to first-generation biofuels in meeting the 10 per cent EU-wide transport target. 

Exporting biofuels or feedstocks from developing countries to the EU will push up food prices and hurt poor consumers. Studies and countless media reports link biofuel plantations with a number of destructive conditions that directly undermine their potential, not to mention ethics. For instance, the EU has a contractual obligation to import sugar from ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) states entering into an EPA (economic partnership agreement). But there are no clear legal mandates to determine the difference between 'environmentally sound' and 'environmentally damaging' imports.[3] 

As such, European companies are scrambling for a slice of African soil. The financial incentives along with home policies drive the business fury and yet, according to a report by the European Parliament, only a tiny percentage of biofuel is imported from Africa because of high tariffs. The United Nations FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation) along with the IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development) and the IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) conducted a study that looks at the impact of land acquisition in Mali, Ghana, Sudan, Ethiopia and Madagascar. Since 2004, close to 2.5 million (ha) hectares of land – excluding land allocations below 1,000 ha – have been appropriated by foreign acquisition in these countries. Two-thirds of 3 billion people survive on around 500 million parcels of land less than two hectares in size. Most of the land claimed by foreign acquisition was already in use by local people. Women, who are the main food producers, were more easily driven out due to discrimination. In Tanzania, a sugarcane plantation for biofuel in the Wami basin displaced 1,000 farmers. The results are disheartening as people end up in over-populated urban centres and their outlying slums. 

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