Biofuels vs Food in Africa – An Email Reader

For anyone interested in genetic engineering in Africa, the must-be-on list is GM Free Africa. From their bourn comes a reader about biofuels, and the harm they’re already causing. Props to Teresa Anderson for compiling all this. Here’s her introductory note, followed by links.


Dear Friends and Colleagues,

This year has seen the beginning of what promises to be the next new large-scale threat to Africa’s food, land, environment and farmers – Biofuels.

The reality of Climate Change has now been accepted by world governments and industry, and with it, acceptance that Carbon Dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels is responsible for heating the planet’s atmosphere and changing weather patterns.

Everyone agrees that CO2 emissions must be reduced, but one of the solutions proposed is likely to create more social and environmental problems, and probably more CO2, than they claim to solve. As Europe in particular looks to alternatives to fossil fuels such as oil and coal, Biofuels from crops such as maize, sugar, soya and palm oil, are being promoted as the new “green” solution.

However, Europe does not have enough land to grow its fuel needs. For example, even if the UK were to turn over all of its land to growing biofuels instead of food, it would need 4 times the amount of land to make enough fuel to meet its current needs. Europe is therefore looking to Africa to provide the land that will grow the fuel.

Already, we hear of large-scale biofuels projects mushrooming across Africa, with the supports of governments keen to believe that this is the economic boom of Africa’s future. Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa, Zambia, Ghana, Benin and other countries are at the forefront of the new Biofuels Boom.

However, the negative stories follow these projects just as quickly. Protests, riots and arrests broke out in Uganda last month over the government’s plans to degazette Mabira Forest, the largest rainforest area in the country. The forest was to be handed over and cut down for sugar plantations – some of which would go to producing biofuel ethanol. Other news shows that land grabs, deforestation and increasing food prices come about as a result of growing fuel instead of food.

Using land to grow fuel instead of food, rising grain prices, and the displacement of rural communities will lead to greater food insecurity in Africa. Any environmental benefits from using biofuels instead of fossil fuels will be cancelled out as forests, peatlands, mangroves and protected areas are cut down, burned, and converted to farmland. And the GM industry intends to use this as an opportunity to promote GM biofuels, to gain a foothold into Africa where there has been hard-fought resistance to GM contamination of food.

While campaigns in Europe against increased biofuel targets are just starting up (see, African farmers, communities, civil society and governments also urgently need to wake up and raise awareness about the threats. We need to act before the land is given away, the forests are cut down, and the food priced out of the reach of the poor.

Best wishes,


1. Rural Communities Express Dismay: “Land Grabs Fuelled by Biofuel Strategy.”
Statement from South African Civil Society. Date: March 2007
2. Biofuels Boom Spurring Deforestation
Article from Inter Press Service. Date: 22 March 2007
Stephen Leahy
3. Biofuel Demand Makes Food Expensive
Article from BBC. Date: 23 March 2007
Nils Blythe
4. The Next Genetic Revolution?
Article from The Ecologist. Date: 29 March 2007
Robin Maynard and Pat Thomas
5. If We Want to Save the Planet, We Need a Five-Year Freeze on Biofuels
Article from the Guardian. Date: 27 March 2007
George Monbiot,,2043724,00.html
6. Biofuel Crop Rejected
Article from Cape Times. Date: 28 March 2007
Melanie Gosling

1. Rural Communities Express Dismay: “Land Grabs Fuelled by Biofuel Strategy.”

Statement from South African Civil Society. Date: March 2007

More than sixty people met in Durban on March 5th 2007, to discuss the South African government’s Draft Industrial Biofuels Strategy, which is open for public comment until the end of March. The undersigned NGOs, individuals, farmer organisations and rural communities from KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Mpumalanga who attended the workshop, express our extreme disquiet and consternation with the strategy.

We believe that both the Biofuels strategy and the associated public consultation process are fundamentally flawed. As affected rural communities and organisations, we are astounded that we have not been properly informed and consulted about the strategy. What makes it all the more unforgivable is that the anticipation of a subsidised Biofuels industry is precipitating massive “land grabs” of municipal commonages and traditional communal and tribal land in the former independent homelands. While the DME pays lip service to developing Biofuels to meet local energy needs, deals have already been struck for large-scale plants to export Biofuels to the European Union. In the process rural farming communities are coerced into signing over their land for a pittance for industrial plantations of canola, maize and soya[1].

We note that the draft strategy aims to contribute to South Africa’s development goals through job creation, transformation as well as reducing the negative impacts of energy consumption on the environment, but find little detail in the strategy on how this will be achieved. Instead we have found the strategy to be preoccupied with economic instruments that will facilitate large corporate involvement in Biofuels with trickle down economic benefits to the poor at best, and potentially disastrous consequences due to the expansion of industrial agriculture into new areas.

We call on government to redraft the Biofuels Strategy in its entirety, including full participation of potentially impacted communities so that a new strategy emerges that emphasises the development needs and priorities of poor communities, particularly in rural areas.

In particular, we suggest that the Biofuels strategy should aim at:

· addressing energy poverty within a context of integrated energy planning and rural development, with the genuine participation of rural communities, particularly women;

· adopting an integrated energy planning approach, which must include “true green Biofuels” such as biogas and ethanol gel and so forth;

· making an unequivocal commitment to improving public transport systems with a view to reducing South Africa’s dependence on fossil and now, liquid fuels;

· Providing the economic enabling environment for decentralised, community-owned Biofuels plants based on biodiverse and organic agricultural production that ensure rural energy and food security;

· Ensuring that economic instruments (subsidies, levy reductions and tax incentives) are targeted specifically to create small and cooperative Biofuels enterprises premised on best social and ecological practice;

· Including strategies to improve infrastructure, training, technical support, marketing and access to the Biofuels market in rural areas for rural communities; and

· Specifically excluding the use of staple food crops, large industrial plantations of monocultures, genetically engineered organisms and prime agricultural land in the production of Biofuels in South Africa.

We further call on government to place an immediate moratorium on large-scale bio fuels projects and to stop the “land grabs”.

1 ACUSO Project
2 African Centre for Biosafety
3 Biowatch
4 Buyambo Seed Bank
5 Centre for Civil Society (Environmental Justice project), University of KwaZulu-Natal
6 Diakonia Council of Churches
7 Earthlife Africa eThekwini
9 Intuthuko Yesiziwe
10 Institute for Zero Waste in Africa (IZWA)
11 Kwa-Ngwanase Farmers Association
12 Sigidi Trust – Bizana
14 Lindizwe Help Group
15 OR Tambo Farmers Association
16 OR Tambo Youth Farmers Association
17 PCD Vreyheid
18 Siyakha Project
19 Syazama Youth
20 Tafuleni Co-op Project
21 Timberwatch
23 Ubuhle Project, Justice and Peace
24 Uvuyo Holdings
25 Wildlife and Environmnet Society of South Africa (WESSA)
26 Women in Agriculture Rural Development
27 Women’s Leadership and Training Project (WLTP)
28 Zamukuphila
29 Zululand Economic Development Agency

Individuals: Peter Gilmore – Durban, Atul Padalkar – Durban, Mdimadi Mathenywa – Makhatini Flats, Fi Mntungwa – Underberg, Penny Zeffertt – Kroondal

Additional South African support:
1. Ekogaia Foundation
2 Farmers Legal Action Group – South Africa
3 Safe Food Coalition
4 South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA)

International support:
1. Edmonds Institute
2 Gaia Foundation, UK
3 Stop BP-Berkeley

[1] For instance in the Eastern Cape, the Provincial Biofuels Task Team and Eastern Cape Development Corporation, revealed plans to plant canola on 500,000ha of the most arable non-irrigated commonage and communal land in the former Transkei and then process it into bio-fuel at a plant in the East London industrial development zone. R1.5 billion will be spent on fencing and liming this land to prepare it for monoculture. Furthermore, while local communities forego their existing diverse food gardens and communal grazing lands, multinational companies like Monsanto will collect on government agricultural subsidies through the Massive Food Production Programme by providing seed, chemical inputs and even mechanisation on the farmer’s behalf. The EC Premier’s State of the Province Address for 2007 confirms that an initial 70,000 ha of irrigated land in the Umzimvubu valley is to be placed under canola monoculture in the next season.


2. Biofuels Boom Spurring Deforestation

Article from Inter Press Service. Date: 22 March 2007
Stephen Leahy

Nearly 40,000 hectares of forest vanish every day, driven by the world’s growing hunger for timber, pulp and paper, and ironically, new biofuels and carbon credits designed to protect the environment.

Workers load palm oil fruits onto a lorry at a plantation in Kuala Lumpur March 13, 2007. Vast tracts of forest in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and many other countries have been cleared to grow oil palms. REUTERS/Zainal Abd Halim (MALAYSIA)

The irony here is that the growing eagerness to slow climate change by using biofuels and planting millions of trees for carbon credits has resulted in new major causes of deforestation, say activists. And that is making climate change worse because deforestation puts far more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the entire world’s fleet of cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships combined.

“Biofuels are rapidly becoming the main cause of deforestation in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil,” said Simone Lovera, managing coordinator of the Global Forest Coalition, an environmental NGO based in Asunción, Paraguay.

“We call it ‘deforestation diesel’,” Lovera told IPS.

Oil from African palm trees is considered to be one of the best and cheapest sources of biodiesel and energy companies are investing billions into acquiring or developing oil-palm plantations in developing countries. Vast tracts of forest in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and many other countries have been cleared to grow oil palms.

Oil palm has become the world’s number one fruit crop, well ahead of bananas.

Biodiesel offers many environmental benefits over diesel from petroleum, including reductions in air pollutants, but the enormous global thirst means millions more hectares could be converted into monocultures of oil palm.

Getting accurate numbers on how much forest is being lost is very difficult.

The FAO’s State of the World’s Forests 2007 released last week reports that globally, net forest loss is 20,000 hectares per day — equivalent to an area twice the size of Paris. However, that number includes plantation forests, which masks the actual extent of tropical deforestation, about 40,000 hectares (ha) per day, says Matti Palo, a forest economics expert who is affiliated with the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica.

“The half a million ha per year deforestation of Mexico is covered by the increase of forests in the U.S., for example,” Palo told IPS.

National governments provide all the statistics, and countries like Canada do not produce anything reliable, he said. Canada has claimed no net change in its forests for 15 years despite being the largest producer of pulp and paper.

“Canada has a moral responsibility to tell the rest of the world what kind of changes have taken place there,” he said.

Plantation forests are nothing like natural or native forests. More akin to a field of maize, plantation forests are hostile environments to nearly every animal, bird and even insects. Such forests have been shown to have a negative impact on the water cycle because non-native, fast-growing trees use high volumes of water. Pesticides are also commonly used to suppress competing growth from other plants and to prevent disease outbreaks, also impacting water quality.

Plantation forests also offer very few employment opportunities, resulting in a net loss of jobs.

“Plantation forests are a tremendous disaster for biodiversity and local people,” Lovera said.

Even if farmland or savanna are only used for oil palm or other plantations, it often forces the local people off the land and into nearby forests, including national parks, which they clear to grow crops, pasture animals and collect firewood. That has been the pattern with pulp and timber plantation forests in much of the world, says Lovera.

Ethanol is other major biofuel, which is made from maize, sugar cane or other crops. As prices for biofuels climb, more land is cleared to grow the crops. U.S. farmers are switching from soy to maize to meet the ethanol demand. That is having a knock on effect of pushing up soy prices, which is driving the conversion of the Amazon rainforest into soy, she says.

Meanwhile rich countries are starting to plant trees to offset their emissions of carbon dioxide, called carbon sequestration. Most of this planting is taking place in the South in the form of plantations, which are just the latest threat to existing forests.

“Europe’s carbon credit market could be disastrous,” Lovera said.

The multi-billion-euro European carbon market does not permit the use of reforestation projects for carbon credits. But there has been a tremendous surge in private companies offering such credits for tree planting projects. Very little of this money goes to small land holders, she says.

Plantation forests also contain much less carbon, notes Palo, citing a recent study that showed carbon content of plantation forests in some Asian tropical countries was only 45 percent of that in the respective natural forests.

Nor has the world community been able to properly account for the value of the enormous volumes of carbon stored in existing forests.

One recent estimate found that the northern Boreal forest provided 250 billion dollars a year in ecosystem services such as absorbing carbon emissions from the atmosphere and cleaning water.

The good news is that deforestation, even in remote areas, is easily stopped. All it takes is access to some low-cost satellite imagery and governments that actually want to slow or halt deforestation.

Costa Rica has nearly eliminated deforestation by making it illegal to convert forest into farmland, says Lovera.

Paraguay enacted similar laws in 2004, and then regularly checked satellite images of its forests, sending forestry officials and police to enforce the law where it was being violated.

“Deforestation has been reduced by 85 percent in less than two years in the eastern part of the country,” Lovera noted.

The other part of the solution is to give control over forests to the local people. This community or model forest concept has proved to be sustainable in many parts of the world. India recently passed a bill returning the bulk of its forests back to local communities for management, she said.

However, economic interests pushing deforestation in countries like Brazil and Indonesia are so powerful, there may eventually be little natural forest left.

“Governments are beginning to realize that their natural forests have enormous value left standing,” Lovera said. “A moratorium or ban on deforestation is the only way to stop this.”

This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists.

© 2007 IPS – Inter Press Service


3. Biofuel Demand Makes Food Expensive

Article from BBC. Date: 23 March 2007
Nils Blythe

Wordpress Social Share Plugin powered by Ultimatelysocial