"Economic Colonialism" Rears Its Ugly Head in African Biofuel Market


Land near the Rufiji River in Tanzania has been expropriated from local people for sugar cane cultivation by a Swedish company. Photo: Malangali via flickr.

This is one for those people who don't believe labor and social justice issues are intimately tied to green corporate efforts and environmentalism as a movement. As the developed world pulls out all the stops in an effort to simultaneously reduce ever-growing carbon emissions and replace increasingly dear fossil fuels with greener alternatives, Africa is becoming sketchy land-grab central.

Or at least that's what an article from Spiegel Online, reprinted in Business Week asserts. It even goes so far to use the phrase "economic colonialism" to describe what's happening. As its a well-written, descriptive article I encourage you to read the whole thing. However, here's a teaser: European, Asian Firms Eye Africa
Sun Biofuels, a British firm, has been granted 9,000 hectares of land by the Tanzanian government on a 99 year lease, free of charge on the promise that they make about $20 million in infrastructure improvements in the region. A German company, Prokon, expects to bring 200,000 hectares (an areas the size of Luxembourg) under cultivation in Tanzania. Both parcels of land will be used to cultivate Jatropha curcas, the seeds of which will be refined into biodiesel. Companies from the Netherlands, the United States, Sweden, Japan and Canada also are eyeing Tanzania.

In Mozambique, 11 million hectares of land (one-seventh the country's area) has been targeted for energy crops by foreign investors. The government of Ethiopia has set aside 24 million hectares for the same purpose. Ghana has 38,000 hectares under cultivation by Sun Biofuels.

Foreign Investment Could Bring Benefits, But It Often Doesn't
In theory this foreign investment could bring much needed funds as well as infrastructure improvements into these countries. However, as the original article puts it, its not just ideal growing conditions which are attracting foreign investment, its weak governance and rule of law.

Land Taken From Illiterate Villagers

In none of these places are the needs of local residents taken into account. In Ghana, BioFuel Africa wrested away land clearing and usage rights from a village chief who could neither read nor write. The man gave his consent with his thumbprint.

Local Elders Not Consulted
In Tanzania, while there are hopes, there is also plenty of reason to be skeptical about promises that everything will improve. In April 2006, Sun Biofuels claimed that it had received formal approval for cultivation from 10 of the 11 affected villages. At that point, however, several communities were not even aware of the plans, while others had attached conditions to their consent. A village head complained, in writing, to the district administration that Sun Biofuels had cleared and marked off land without even contacting the village elders.

Transparency and Proper Compensation Lacking
[Near the Rufiji River in Tanzania] thousands of residents are being forced to move to make way for the Swedish company Sekab's plans to grow sugarcane, a highly water-intensive crop, on at least 9,000 hectares (22,230 acres) and then distill it into ethanol. Five thousand hectares (12,350 acres) have already been approved.

The river and the wetlands along its banks are the only source of drinking water for thousands of people, especially during the dry season. Sekab also plans to tap this reservoir to irrigate its plantations. Transparency? Nonexistent. Compensation? None whatsoever. Information? A scarce commodity. When residents attending an informational event asked about compensation payments, they were told curtly: "You will get what you are entitled to."

So this is the question I want everyone one reading this to consider: Can a biofuel really be considered sustainable, can it really be considered green if the land used to produce it was acquired under conditions which would be considered grossly unethical in the country of consumption?

via :: Business Week
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Tags: Africa | Biodiesel | Biofuels | Ethiopia | Ghana | Tanzania

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