It seems like some biofuel businesses are enviously eying Africa for land to support the western world’s thirst for alternative fuels. Some of their offers are quite ludicrous and sound almost like modern day Panama Canal deal (except with the Africans reaping none of the benefits).
A little history, the reason we have a Panama Canal (and not the Nicaraguan Canal) was our Government decided to help stage a little revolution to create the newly formed (and friendly) Panamanian government that was willing to sell us the land we needed for the canal. This was all bought for $10 million (roughly $250 million, adjusted for inflation) with an annuity of $250,000. Was this wrong? Eh, from what I can tell it was a fairly bloodless revolution but I will let smarter people decide that. What I do know is that Panama got a fortune for letting us “exploit it” compared to what the African people will get.
Take a look at this (emphasis added):
The Tanzanian government has granted the British firm the use of 9,000 hectares (22,230 acres) of sparsely populated farmland, or enough land to cover about 12,000 soccer fields, for a period of 99 years—free of charge. In return, the company will invest about $20 million (€13 million) to build roads and schools, bringing a modicum of prosperity to the region.
Sun Biofuels is not alone. In fact, half a dozen other companies from the Netherlands, the United States, Sweden, Japan, Canada and Germany have already sent their scouts to Tanzania. Prokon, a German company known primarily for its wind turbines, has already begun growing jatropha curcas on a large scale. It expects to have 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres)—an area about the size of Luxembourg—under cultivation throughout Tanzania soon.
A gold rush mentality has taken hold—not just in East Africa but across the entire continent. In Ghana, the Norwegian firm Biofuel Africa has secured farming rights for 38,000 hectares (93,860 acres), and Sun Biofuels is also doing business in Ethiopia and Mozambique.
Kavango BioEnergy, a British company, plans to invest millions of euros in northern Namibia. Western companies are turning up in Malawi and Zambia, where they plan to produce diesel fuel and ethanol from jatropha curcas, palm oil or sugar cane. Foreign investors have their eye on 11 million hectares (27 million acres) in Mozambique—more than one-seventh of the country’s total area—for growing energy plants. The government in Ethiopia has even made 24 million hectares (59 million acres) available.
Now will this be a good thing? This could be the thing that Africa needs to set up some infrastructure. However, as you may already be aware, I’m wholeheartedly against any biofuel that takes agricultural land. Therefore, companies using this land, even if it is “only sparsely populated farmland,” is very disheartening. Combine this with the following paragraphs from the story and you will know why I am very skeptical of these investments.
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.
Seventy kilometers (43 miles) farther south, on the Rufiji River, 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.
At this point of the story, I’m getting pretty mad to be honest. This is Africa people, a mostly third world continent, where things are about as corrupt as you can get. I have very little faith in the governments to uphold their ends of the agreements even if the companies plan on keep their promises.
But that is even besides the point, the real problem is why they plan on growing a crop like sugarcane in Africa. If I remember correctly, Africa is a fairly parched continent with a premium put on water. This brings up another issue I have with crop based biofueld: they use needed freshwater for crops or, in this case, drinking water even.
If you’re getting fairly mad by now, I can completely understand, but try to hold it together until after you read the next part.
But Brennan’s rosy predictions do not reflect opinions in East Africa. A study on energy plants in Tanzania, conducted by the German Agency for Technical Cooperation, lists a host of negative side effects. What is more, this is not the first time that white investors have promised prosperity for Tanzania.
With similarly enticing promises, small farmers were talked out of their land several decades ago to make way for coffee plantations. In the 1990s, foreign mining companies arrived in Tanzania to dig for gold. “They promised us jobs, new roads, new wells and schools,” says journalist Joseph Shayo. “And what happened? No schools, no wells and few jobs, which were low-paying jobs, to boot.” To make matters worse, large mining zones were fenced off and became inaccessible to the original residents.
In a recently published study on the “Biofuel Industry in Tanzania,” journalist Khoti Kamanga of the University of Dar es Salaam warns against the side effects of energy plantations. The population, Kamanga writes, is usually uninformed, while the cultivation of energy plants usually goes hand-in-hand with forced resettlement. According to Kamanga, it is very likely that ethanol production will also affect food prices in Tanzania, with the country’s dependency on food imports growing even further.
Alright, so we got companies having a history of breaking their promises, forced resettlement, and higher food prices. Wow, If you take away the food part, this could practically be what the American government did with the Native American tribes here: breaking treaties and forcing Native Americans on reservations.
Looks like Africa is following our example, just the wrong one.
A note: I’m not against businesses investing in Africa. The potential for these businesses to help change the quality of life in these thirdworld countries is definitely there. However, exploitation, what this sounds like, is completely unacceptable. In Africa, having access to land is essential. Depriving people of this is dispicabl.