Saturday, February 16, 2008

Methinks we've perhaps gone 'round the bend on the biofuels bandwagon

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Across Africa NGOs and scientists are increasing their calls for a moratorium on new biofuels projects as millions and millions of acres of prime agricultural land in sub-Saharan Africa are switched from food production to biofuel production.

African governments, wooed by the prospect of a "Green Opec" and encouraged by their counterparts in industrialized nations have taken the bait; hook, line and sinker.

The prospect of being a part of a "green revolution," complete with promises of exports, job creation and energy security has seen countries converting prime cropland at breakneck speed - on the least food-secure continent on the face of the earth - has prompted African civil society groups to call for a time-out on further crop-switching for the near term. "We need to protect food security, forests, water, land rights, farmers and indigenous peoples from the aggressive march of agrofuel developments," reads the call for a moratorium.

In reality, the switch to biofuels crops has forced small farmers off the land, led to rising food costs and provided minimal benefits for local populations.

In Mozambique last week food riots erupted as government efforts to control the prices of bread and fuel failed, collapsing under the strain of soaring prices for oil and all food staples - driven in part for demand for biofuels.

"Africa is a wide open continent and the energy industry wants to take advantage," said the renowned Nigerian environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey. "This is a flashback to colonial plantations." Mr Bassey is part of the African Biodiversity Network, an umbrella group who met to discuss the crisis this week in South Africa.

Rich nations concerned with future energy security and climate change have begun to seek alternatives to fossil fuels that won't carry the political costs of calling for consumer restraint. In the US this has meant an epic extension of subsidies for big agricultural interests to switch corn production to ethanol. The European Union has committed itself to switching 10 per cent of all transport fuel to biofuels by 2020 with the shortfall in what can be grown inside the 27-nation bloc to be made up with imports from the developing world.

From the savannahs of west Africa to the rainforests of Congo, the plains of Tanzania and the wilderness of Ethiopia, governments are handing over huge tracts of fertile land to private companies aiming to convert biomass grown on large plantations into liquid fuels for export markets. African leaders like Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade are predicting a "green revolution" and looking eagerly to lucrative exports.

And isn't timing just everything?

Just as the Africian countries throw their lot in behind a biofuel revolution, the scientific community is saying "well, lets not be so hasty here..." Last week, the journal Science published a study that concluded that biofuels production contributes to climate change as the environmental cost of converting land to biofuel crops generates more carbon than it saves.

The rush to convert to biofuel crops in sub-Saharan Africa comes in spite of clear consensus that Africa will be the biggest loser as climate change leads to changing weather patterns, desertification, rises in sea levels and decreases in the availability of fresh water. The production of maize, the primary staple of southern Africa, is projected to drop by as much as one third in the next 20 years.

Last week the UN's two leading food agencies issued dire warnings that demand for biofuels could cause the poor to suffer hunger. Josette Sheeran of the World Food Program put it bluntly - "We're seeing many people being priced out of the food markets for the first time. For the world's most vulnerable, it's extremely urgent." On Wednedsay the Food and Agriculture Organization said that some 100 million tons of cereals are being diverted to biofuel production each year.

Caution is being advised even among organizations that have not joined the call for a moratorum. "There's a lot of concern about land grabs and displacement," said Bill Vorley, a senior analyst at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London. "Big plantations are back with the help of the 'green revolution' steamroller. It feels like we are back to the bad old days again."

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