Biofuels and Biodiversity in Africa

Posted on 28 March 2008. Filed under: Energy, Environment |

You are not going to believe this but I swear, it’s a true story. Richard Leakey used to drive an old Land Rover that was powered by charcoal. There I’ve said it. I saw it, I swear, it had a massive black barrel attached at the back. On the side of the vehicle was the information that this vehicle ran on charcoal. I think it was steam powered…..if that’s at all possible. It didn’t go very fast and the idea didn’t’ catch on, but I suspect he was the first person in Kenya to begin thinking of alternative source of fuel for vehicles.

Today biofuels are the rage. Indeed, when Robert Williams offered to help WildlifeDirect with fund raising for an energy solution in the Congo he catalyzed a discussion about energy needs for internally displaced people, slums and urban people in Congo through ending charcoal.

Considering the cost and space/climate restrictions of producing biofuels in Europe and America, many firms are turning to Africa for production of their biofuels. Indeed the massive demand has sparked a green revolution in Africa and a frenzy of markets and producers of Jatropha, oil palm and other oilseed planting everywhere.

But today’s headlines are so completely confusing. African Non Government organizations are calling for a moratorium on biofuels in Africa.

Just last year we were calling Jatropha and other species miracle crops because they weren’t competing with food crops for production of biofuel . …well except one person, this writer in Zimbabwe called jatropha a red herring
and preempted the controversy about growing biofuel crops that is now raging everywhere. Even Ban Ki Moon has weighed in with a statement about food crises brought on by food shortages that are a result in part, to the land conversion for biofuels. Now that the UN Secretary General has said it, everyone is listening.

The call for a moratorium on production of biofuels in Africa may get people thinking but it just can’t work. Africa has failed to meet it’s millennium development goals, has not benefited in any significant ways from the Clean Development Mechanism and has never raised much furore over the fact that agricultural land is already being lost to erosion, pollution, the production of horticultural products and conversion of land to non edible crops like flowers for international markets.

Have any of you seen Hubert Sauper’s new documentary, Darwins Nightmare? My brother cried when he saw it. I hope he’s reading this – he’s not a wimp, I promise. The documentary reveals how the harvesting of fish in Lake Victoria is done by people who do not get to eat the fish, it’s all exported despite the fact that the local communities are suffering from malnutrition. The fish of interest are Nile perch, a species introduced by the British which has subsequently led to the extinction of over 300 native fish that the local communities depended on. You can watch a preview here and read reviews here. The film is about how people are dependent on this fish, and how the trade in the fish is responsible for so much suffering. This tragic story could just as easily be told about Jatropha.

Have we learned nothing from our mistakes? Of course not! The way I see it production of biofuel crops like Jatropha and other species will continue to expand because legislation in Africa is so behind the times that it’s not funny. To a poor traditional farmer scraping a living out in some remote region, the idea of producing crops for a big company seems lucrative, the contracts are long term, and that means cash in an otherwise subsistence existence. You can’t fault the farmers. Who doesn’t need cash nowadays?

As long as these communities are negotiating with big companies without complete information (which the brokers make sure happens) they will be cheated and I’ve seen this with my own eyes. One company came to Mombasa and offered communities what seemed like a lot of money but when calculated out it translated into a rate of about 30$ per acre per year for production of Jatropha.

These brokers are listed on NYSE and the London Stock Exchange and they have Corporate Social Responsibility credentials as long as my arm, because their only goal is to attract green investors. But it still has to be an attractive stock…so they push down the buying price of raw Jatropha, and install refineries for the oil and sell the refined products at a ludicrous profit. The farmers, who enter deals with someone who seems genuine, caring and credible. But once things are in place it all changes, it becomes a cut throat business and these farmers have converted land to Jatropha, tended it for years, and once the fruit are ripe, have no choice but to sell at very low prices – there is usually only one buyer in a particular area. Farmers have little option, they can’t eat Jatropha (it’s deadly poisonous), cant store it, or transport it – and they can’t complain because there are no real or enforceable laws protecting these farmers!

I suspect that as long as the international prices for biofuel remains at or above the price of fossil fuels, this will create a demand for production and business people will look to Africa where, lets face the truth WE ARE SO GULLIBLE it’s embarrassing. Fast talking, jargon juggling, smart suited powerpoint projecting expatriate brokers can boggle your mind and exploit local communities and befriend corrupt governments to win outrageous deals. I know of one guy who claims he has the state sanctioned monopoly on refining of Jatropha in Kenya! What a CAKE!

The fact that the land conversion to biofuels leads to hunger, diseases, land degradation or biodiversity loss is not a concern to alternative energy companies, they have PR people to talk their way out of it, they only care about maximum profits. After all, it drives up the price of shares and company value. It’s ironic then, that the same green investors who study the stocks and purchase shares in an effort to invest in clean air, are actually unwittingly contributing to the impoverishment and degradation of Africa.


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2 Responses to “Biofuels and Biodiversity in Africa”

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I would like to thank you for this post uncovering the difficulties and disadvantages of biofuel production in Kenya and Africa as a whole. While there are certainly benefits to the “green revolution” that has sparked the production of various alternative biofuel technologies, it is important to understand the potential repercussions of these actions. While I am not exactly sure to what extent a “moratorium on biofuels” in Africa, which as you mentioned was suggested by African Non Governmental organizations, would be an appropriate or correct choice, I understand the necessity to protect both the African people and the environment from those who wish to usurp and exploit their its resources. I particularly appreciated the parallel you drew towards Darwin’s Nightmare and the issue of the Nile perch in the local fishing communities of Lake Victoria. After having spent a semester studying on the Kenyan coast last fall, I certainly heard a great deal of discussion concerning the fishermen living in Kisumu, and that point encompassed a great deal of personal resonance and perspective for me. I found the point you raised concerning the loss of land to non edible crops like flowers for international markets intriguing, and I was curious as to what source that information is stemming from, as I would like to broaden my understanding of the agriculture market in Kenya and Africa as a whole. I have also read from other blog postings and news sites about the issue of sugar-based ethanol farming in Kenya and the controversy surrounding that particular concerning nomadic herdsmen and their concern over sufficient grazing lands for their cattle. Do you have a stance of this issue as well, and do you believe that this is yet another cause for critique concerning biofuel production in Africa? Additionally, there is certainly a lot of discussion concerning the rise of biofuel production and the rising cost of food, which you reference in regards to the article, “The New Face Of Hunger” by Ban Ki-Moon. I think this is an important point to make, and certainly the most significant disadvantage to biofuel production. It is discouraging to that these lands are being converted in vain and are merely contributing to a crisis that is already so substantial internationally. I would love to know more about Jatropha and these other species “miracle crops”, as I know very little about the variety of crops employed in the hopes of producing a viable energy source. While I do believe that the detrimental effects of these particular agricultural efforts for biofuel production need to be dealt with effectively and avoided in the future, I do not feel the answer lies in a widespread halt in the search of new energies. The inspiring stories of certainly point to the possibilities of small-scale and sustainable innovation for new energy technologies, and hopefully we will see more of them in the future. Again, thank you for this post and for shedding light of the controversies surrounding African biofuel production.

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    A blog created to cover environmental and political information in Kenya with a view to promoting POVERTY ALLEVIATION through creating awareness of the Millennium Development Goals


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