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Agriculture - Nutrition | Human rights

African NGOs call for moratorium on biofuels

African Future, 20 February - Uproar is slowly spreading among African civil society organisations and scientists, fearing that the biofuel revolution will bring more food insecurity, higher food prices and hunger to the continent. A petition calling for a "moratorium on new agrofuel developments in Africa" has so far been signed by over 30 NGOs all over the continent.

Biofuels have already revolutionised agriculture in the US, Brazil and parts of Asia, and if EU energy commitments are lived up to, soon will do so in Europe. Now, foreign investors are queuing at African government offices to realise giant biofuel projects on this fertile continent, promising a new "green revolution", greater independence from the oil market and even fuel export possibilities.

And they are successful. So successful that the petitioners fear a quick negative impact on African food security, which is already endangered by rising world market prices for basic foods. "Investors are rushing to privatise our land for their plantations, while our governments willingly allocate millions of hectares from the 70% of Africa’s land that is still communally owned," the petition warns. "Jatropha" is being pushed as one of the new miracle crops for African small farmers to produce fuel, and the impact is already being felt around the continent.

In Tanzania, thousands of farmers growing rice and maize are already being evicted from fertile areas of land with good access to water, for biofuel sugar cane and jatropha plantations on newly privatised land. Villages are being cleared, but families have been given minimal compensation or opportunities for their loss of land, community and way of life, according to the petitioners.

Millions of hectares in Ethiopia have been identified as suitable for biofuel production, and many foreign companies have already been allocated land from farmland, forests and wilderness areas. Even protected areas are not safe from the spread of biofuels. One European investor has been granted 13,000 hectares of land in Oromia state; 87% of which is the Babile Elephant Sanctuary, a home to rare and endangered elephants.

In Zambia, jatropha cultivation is booming without privatisation. Foreign investors are using contracts with a large number out-growers that last up to 30 years. The petitioners fear that the out-growers have been tricked: "These contracts serve to transfer control over production from the farmer to the company, through a system of loans, numerous extra charges and service payments, and prices determined by the company. Under such a system of dependence, farmers are likely to increase their indebtedness to the company, until they may be obliged to hand over their land altogether."

In West Africa, jatropha is already being grown in Togo, Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Niger. Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade has placed fuel crops at the heart of an agriculture renewal programme in his country. In Ghana one company is planning to plant one million hectares of jatropha with support of the government, while in Benin another company has obtained permission to plant a quarter of a million hectares of biofuel crops. Farmers in Benin and in many other countries in the region have, on the average, no more than 1 hectare to grow there products and the biofuels are expected to make a serious dent into their food production.

The petitioners therefore hold that the biofuel revolution is "geared to replace millions of hectares of local agricultural systems, and the rural communities working in them, with large plantations. It is oriented to substitute biodiversity-based indigenous cropping, grazing and pasture farming systems by monocultures and genetically engineered agrofuel crops." In agreement with several new scientific analyses, they hold that "the current push for agrofuels exacerbate, rather than solve, the problem of climate change."

"Among Africa’s many challenges, food security is one of the most serious. A full car tank of ethanol uses the same amount of grain that can feed a child for a year. We do not understand how our governments can willingly take our food, land and water to meet the fuel luxuries of the wealthy in the North, when we already face problems of food security and environmental destruction at home," the petition reads.

The call for a moratorium on new biofuel developments in Africa is in line with warnings from the main UN agencies involved in agriculture and food aid, WFP and FAO, registering that the increased acreage used for biofuels is already contributing to higher food prices and may lead to more hunger in the world. Indeed, already in October last year, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, in his annual report called for a world-wide 5-year moratorium on building biofuel manufacturing plants that use food stocks.

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