Biofuels Watch: African Land-Grab Deals Questioned

Despite widespread research indicating that growing biofuels on Africa's 'idle' lands could help to starve the continent, the practice remains rampant, according to a new study.

The report is the work of the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a research center funded by 64 governments, private foundations and global organizations.

Researchers revealed that foreign companies are buying or leasing vast chunks of land in Africa and elsewhere for their own use. In fact, up to 50 million acres have been sold off or soon will be. That's equivalent to about 25 percent of all the farmland in Europe.

Much of that land is being bought by emerging nations to raise crops for their growing populations. These countries – China, India, South Korea and oil-rich Gulf states – have land and water constraints at home. They got burned by last year's global food crisis and are turning to Africa as a food security blanket.

The rest of that land, a quarter or more, will be used by foreign companies to grow first-generation biofuels from crops, such as palm oil and jatropha.

The problems with these energy plants are well known.

Growing biofuels was supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It turns out that many biofuels over their lifespan produce more emissions than petroleum does. They were also the dominant reason for last year's increase in grain prices and the subsequent global food crunch, as rich governments, mainly the U.S., diverted their food harvests to making fuel. (In that sense, biofuels are also to blame for the above-mentioned land grabs by governments in emerging markets.)

In Africa, things are supposed to be different. The biofuels bonanza is happening on 'unproductive' or 'underutilized' lands, say investors. Except for one thing, explains IFPRI:

In most instances, there is some form of land use, often by the poor for purposes such as grazing animals and gathering fuelwood or medicinal plants. These uses tend to be undervalued in official assessments because they are not marketed, but they can provide valuable livelihood sources to the poor. Large-scale land acquisitions may jeopardize the welfare of the poor by depriving them of the safety-net function that this type of land and water use fulfills.

Even if the lands are underused, rising food prices, surging populations and global warming are expected to put pressure on local governments to convert them for agricultural use.

As SolveClimate reported in March, Africa could suffer production losses of up to 29 percent from climate changes by 2020. That's on a continent where agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for an estimated 65 percent of the population.

Knowing this, selling massive hunks of land to foreign entities to grow energy crops is myopic policy. On the part of foreigners, it's at best morally questionable.

These figures from the EU Observer suggest that it may be late to stop it:

China has acquired seven million acres in the Democratic Republic of Congo to grow the world's largest palm oil plantation for motor fuel. It is also negotiating for five million acres in Zambia to grow jatropha.

Britan's CAMS Group has bought 112,000 acres for jatropha in Tanzania. Sun Biofuels, also of the UK, has bought 13,500 acres in Tanzania for the same purpose. Trans4mation Agric-tech has secured 25,000 acres in Nigeria. 

Sweden's Skebab has purchased 247,000 acres in Mozambique.

Germany's Flora EcoPower has lined up 32,000 acres in Ethiopia.

A recent article in Der Spiegel claims that foreign investors have their eye on a full 27 million acres in Mozambique – more than one-seventh of the country – for growing energy plants. Even larger tracts of land have  been bought up in Russia and the Ukraine.

And on and on...

FPRI is not an anti-biofuels group per se. But part of its mission is to help "to improve the food security of low-income people in developing countries." The latest large land acquisitions will have the opposite effect.

The problem, writes FPRI, is in the "scale, the terms, and the speed" of the land sales. Combined, they're leaving local people dangerously food-insecure.

Their solution is an internationally accepted code of conduct with "teeth." This code would respect existing land rights and force foreign investors to end food exports when there's an acute local drought. They envision an institutional arrangement that could be modeled after the international business laws adopted in the past 10 years to prevent corrupt practices in the context of foreign direct investment.

That's great. But it won't help to cool the biofuels boom at all. Strict world standards are needed.

Recently, other scientists' groups have called on governments to ban first-generation biofuels, at least those on productive land. Last June, Oxfam International called for a freeze on all government biofuel mandates. Just last month, researchers in India found that jatropha plantations there are "not sustainable" and called for an immediate five-year moratorium.

The reason for the urgency is clear. In the competition for food between cars and people, the world's poorest people – in Africa and all over the planet – will necessarily lose.

See also:

Africa's Agriculture Vulnerable to Breakdown Under Climate Change

New U.S. Rules Look at Biofuels' Global Impact

Report: Burning Down Tropical Forests for Biofuels Spurs Climate Change

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