Thursday, September 20, 2007

Jatropha – not so straight forward

I blogged earlier about a new project in Tanzania to grow jatropha for biofuel.

Now I read (Pambazuka News) that the biofuel farming in Africa is not necessarily all good.

The benefits of biofuels like Jatropha are that they will help to minimize dependence on traditional fuel sources such as oil and coal by investing in renewable energy source from plants. This will ensure that carbon contained in fossil fuels remains safely stored in the earth, thereby reducing the impact to the earth's climate. Furthermore, fuel crops grown are supposed to provide a 'carbon sink' by capturing and storing carbon dioxide and assisting with balancing concentrations of the gas in the atmosphere. The global South was promised that agrofuel would lead to climate-related benefits and an increase in revenue derived from selling the crops to growing green markets.

New evidence has, however, challenged each of these presumptions. In the face of reckless new targets, large-scale land conversion for energy crops, increasing food prices and damning scientific reports, government's actions are increasingly being labeled by environmentalists as fraudulent.

A recent study published by the Africa Biodiversity Network (ABN) provides compelling evidence from Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Benin that the misguided scramble for projects could lead to an environmental and humanitarian disaster on the continent. For instance, Timothy Byakola reports that a plan is underway to convert a third of Uganda's prime rainforest reserve, Mabira Forest, into agricultural land on which sugarcane will be planted for ethanol production. According to Byakola, President Yoweri Museveni has vociferously supported this controversial project, ignoring community opposition to it. The consequences of the deforestation of 7,100 hectares of one of the key water catchment sources for the Nile River and Lake Victoria, and the implications for the communities around Mabira which depend on the forest as a source of livelihood, are potentially enormous.

All the other countries in the study report similar situations in which large tracts of arable land are being sold off to the highest bidders, with little regard for the repercussions on local populations livelihoods and food security. Furthermore, an environmentalist from Ethiopia reports that there are plans to introduce the new 'wonder' plant, jatropha, which will be grown as an agrofuel in fertile lands. Apart from emerging criticism about use of the plant as an agrofuel, this is controversial because jatropha was promoted precisely because it is a hardy plant that could grow in drier lands and minimize use of the arable land that is needed by local populations.

The ABN report also indicates that there is a lack of engagement within the countries studied on the potential impact on rural communities and on food security. In South Africa, however, the draft strategy on biofuels/agrofuels has been vigorously opposed by a variety of stakeholders who fear that rural communities will be compelled to bequeath their lands over to industrial producers of oilseed rape, maize and soy. The government is currently revising the strategy and it is due for comment again in June next year.

As with carbon trading, the agrofuels issue brings climate justice questions to the fore. In 2004 climate change activist George Monbiot warned that rising demand for biofuels will result in competition for food between cars and people. 'The people would necessarily lose: those who can afford to drive are, by definition, richer than those who are in danger of starvation.' He goes on to argue that the reason Northern governments are enthusiastic is because they don't want to upset car drivers. He argues that biofuels 'appear to reduce the amount of carbon from our cars, without requiring new taxes. It's an illusion sustained by the fact that only the emissions produced at home count towards our national total.'

In the latest UK budget announced in June, the tax rebate on biofuels was extended. From March 2008 all suppliers in the UK will have to ensure that 2.5% of the fuel they sell is derived from plants. Failure to do so will result in the imposition of a penalty of 15p (USD.30) per litre sold. The quota is set to increase to 5% in 2010 and by 2050 the government hopes that 33% of fuel will come from crops. The US is setting similar targets.

In response to such moves, both Monbiot and the organization Friends of the Earth have called on governments to halt support of agrofuels. In a recent press release Friends of the Earth argue that 'more attention should be focused on reducing energy demand and improving vehicle efficiency, as this will cost less than subsidizing inefficient new sources of supply like agrofuels.'

But this will be difficult to achieve with the market growing as it is. According to US research consultancy Clean Edge, the global market for agrofuels is set to grow from $20.5 billion in 2006 to $80.9 billion by 2016. Recent media reports in the South African press suggest that investors in Africa have already pledged billions of dollars for production plants that will derive bioethanol and biodiesel from crops like sugar, maize and soy in Africa. Talk in the North is already focusing on imposing guidelines to mitigate the problems that arise from agrofuels. Ultimately, the challenge for Africa will be to map its own path for sustainable development, and not to be swept away by the current wave of potentially ill-conceived 'green' schemes.

I hope that the new jatropha farm in Tanzania does not turn out to be ill-conceived. I wonder what provisions have been made for the families who will be relocated to make way for the new scheme?

The world is so complex. We seem to find contrary opinions to almost everything. But I don't hear any contrary opinions about the School of St Jude. No one has any doubt that providing excellent education for bright children from the poorest families is a good thing. Good for the children, good for their families and local community, and good for the country as a whole.

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