Saturday, May 16, 2009


Dyer: African land grab will be tenuous at best

Gwynne Dyer


14 May 2009

In the past two years, various non-African countries -- China, India, South Korea, Britain and the Arab Gulf states lead the pack -- have been taking over huge tracts of farmland in Africa by lease or purchase, to produce food or bio-fuels for their own use. Critics call them "neocolonialists," but they will not be as successful as the old ones.

The scale of the land grab is truly impressive. In Sudan, South Korea has acquired 1.7 million acres of land to grow wheat. The United Arab Emirates, which already has 74,000 acres in Sudan, is investing in another 959,000 acres to grow corn, alfalfa, wheat, potatoes and beans. In Tanzania, Saudi Arabia is seeking 1.2 million acres.

Even bigger chunks of land are being leased to produce bio-fuels. China has acquired 6.9 million acres in the Democratic Republic of Congo to create the world's largest oil-palm plantation (replacing all that messy rainforest and useless wildlife with tidy lines of palm trees), and is negotiating for 4.9 million acres in Zambia to grow jatropha. British firms have secured big tracts of land in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria and Tanzania.

Why Africa? Because that's the last place where there are large areas of good agricultural land that aren't already completely occupied by local farmers. There are usually some peasants scratching a living from the land, but they are few and poor, and they can easily be bought or driven out.

For the foreigners, the lure is

profit, or food security, or both. For those who are investing in bio-fuels, there are real profits to be made, at least in the short term. But for those seeking food security, the new African food resources will probably become unavailable just when they are needed most.

It was the surge in grain prices in 2007-2008 that drove many countries that depend heavily on imported food to start acquiring African farmland. The immediate reason for a doubling or tripling of the price of wheat, rice and corn was a couple of local crop failures and the diversion of large amounts of American corn into bio-fuel production, but the underlying cause was that the global food supply is falling further and further behind demand.

Since 1945 the world's population has tripled, and so has its food production, growing at an average of about 3 percent annually through the 1950s, '60s, '70s, '80s, and most of the '90s. But for most of the past decade grain production has essentially flatlined, while the global population has gone on growing.

By 2006, just before the prices soared, the world grain reserve (the amount that is left in the storage bins each year just before the new harvest comes in) had shrunk from 116 days of food for everybody in the world in 1999 to only 57 days. Last year's generally good harvests brought prices back down, but the outlook for this year is dire, with drought in about half of the world's main grain-growing areas.

So wouldn't it be nice if you didn't have to compete for scarce stocks of grain at inflated prices on the international grain market when prices soar? Wouldn't it be great if you could rely instead on your own food supply, even if it isn't located in your own country? That's why it's mostly countries that depend heavily on food imports that are involved in the current land rush in Africa -- but they are forgetting two things.

The first is that sovereignty trumps contractual obligations every time. If the African countries that are leasing their land fall into difficulties in feeding their own populations, as they are likely to do if world grain prices rise sharply, the first resource they will turn to is the foreign plantations on their territory. Governments that cannot feed their populations face overthrow, and will break contracts without the slightest hesitation.

The second is that when things really get tough -- when climate change starts to bite, grain yields are falling in most places, and what remains of the international grain market cannot meet demand at any price -- Africa is not the place to be sourcing your emergency supply of grain. Almost the entire continent lies in the tropics or the sub-tropics, which is where food production will be hit worst.

The "neocolonialists" will make some money in the short term, and they may even enjoy a false sense of security for a while, but they will not get much for their investment in the long run.

Trouble is, Africans will not get much out of it, either, although some of their leaders certainly will.


Why Ghana is attracting investments in biofuels?


Ghana has become a major centre of attraction for the cultivation of biofuels in Africa for a number of reasons, even though some of these reasons are hard to tell.

Currently, the country features prominently on the radar of alternative energy interests, especially in the cultivation of the non-food plant jatropha for the production of biofuels.

Ghana, Thailand and Uruguay have been identified by a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies in 2007, as becoming the leading producer countries of the emerging renewable fuel known as biodiesel.

One of the factors that put Ghana among the leading league of nations with a high potential for biodiesel production is the fact that large volumes of the product can be produced at low cost.

Overall, the study ranked Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia, Uruguay and Ghana as the developing nations most likely to attract biodiesel investment, not only because of their strong agricultural industries, but also due to their relative safety and stability, lack of debt, among other economic factors.

Ghana is ranked high in Africa as a politically stable country, with a growing culture of democracy. Labour is also believed to be cheaper in Ghana than in most African countries, even though some investors disagree on that score.

One investor in the biofuels sector in Ghana argues that the cost of labour in Ghana is not cheap after all, because in his view, “the Ghanaian worker is not efficient as compared to the Chinese worker.”

While an employer might be paying a Ghanaian worker what is estimated to be low wages, the Ghanaian worker is proverbially known “to pretend to be working, while the employer pretends to be paying him.”

Indeed, this is not only a notion but a fact, because most employers in Ghana pay very low wages, irrespective of qualifications, experience or job description. Most Ghanaian workers are therefore, not motivated to give off their best. Substandard work performance has become a norm in Ghana.

Ironically, however, this belief that wages are low in Ghana also makes the country a choice destination for industries, especially the biofuels businesses.

There are companies from Brazil, Italy, Norway, Israel, China, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and India investing in the area in Ghana.

They are cultivating fields in the Volta, Brong Ahafo, Ashanti, Eastern and the Northern regions of Ghana. The main non-food crop that these companies are planting is jatropha.

Jatropha seeds

Jatropha has oil-rich seeds that can be used to produce biodiesel.

While its supporters argue that it can be grown on semi-arid land and so poses less of a threat to food output than other biofuel feedstocks such as grains and vegetable oils, its opponents argue that investors are taking away productive agriculture land from poor local farmers for the purpose.

Currently, there is an ongoing debate, accusations and counter-accusations of land grabbing between NGOs, Action Aid and FoodSPAN on one hand and Rural Consult, a consultancy firm on biofuels on the other.

One of the companies, Agroils of Italy is currently cultivating jatropha on 10,000 hectares of land in Yeji in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana for biofuels.

Israeli company, Galten has acquired 100,000 hectares of land and an Indian company is requesting for 50,000 hectares of land from the Ghana Investment Promotion Council (GIPC), to cultivate jatropha.

A company from the Netherlands has started a pilot project on 10 acres in the northern region and the Chinese are also doing a pilot project.
Gold Star Farms Ltd., is cultivating five million acres of land to plant jatropha for the production of biofuels for export.

A Norwegian company ScanFuel Ltd., has started operations outside Kumasi in the Ashanti region to produce biofuel. The company aims to start initial cultivation of jatropha seeds on 10,000 hectares of land.

The company which has a Ghanaian subsidiary, ScanFuel Ghana Ltd., says its Ghanaian unit has contracted about 400,000 hectares of land, with up to 60 percent reserved for biofuel production, “not less” than 30 percent for food production and the remainder for biodiversity buffer zones.

Another Norwegian company, Biofuels Africa Ltd., the only one among the about 20 biofuels companies cultivating jatropha to receive an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) permit from Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which covers 23,762.45 hectares of its project area is operating in two locations.

Steinar Kolnes, CEO, Co-founder and director of BioFuel Africa Limited has told by email that the company is currently operating in two locations in Ghana. The company has a 300 hectare test farm in Sogakope in the Volta region and a 10,696.32 hectares in Yendi in the Northern region.

According to him, the company has planted a total of 660 hectares of jatropha on its projects.

One of the complexities that might confront the growing biofuels industry in Ghana is the challenge of land acquisitions. There is a plurality of land tenure and management prevailing in Ghana.

There is the state/public system and the customary system. These systems have been poorly articulated over the years leading to increasing conflicts associated with land.

Public lands in Ghana fall into two main categories: land which has been compulsorily for a public purpose or in the public interest under the state lands Act 1962 (Act 125) or other relevant statute; and land which has been vested in the President, in trust for a landholding community under the Administration of Stool Lands Act, 1962 (Act 123.)

While government is working to streamline the land tenure system in the country, there are some advocating for a land bank system to make land acquisition smoother and beneficial to all.

Ghana is certainly attractive for investments, especially in the biofuels sector.

But the question some observers of the biofuel sector are asking is why is the country so enthusiastic about biofuels when it has found oil in commercial quantities?

Others are also asking why an agriculture country where only 16 per cent of arable land is used for food production would not rather concentrate on developing the food crop sector, but is diverting resources and labour in agric for the cultivation of non-food crops for biofuels.

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi




Across the world biofuels/Agro fuels are being promoted as an alternative to fossil fuels and an answer to climate change. They have however started to generate intense controversy by leading to land conflicts and rise in food prices.

Navdanya released its study on the social, economic and ecological impact of Jatropha cultivation for bio diesel in India "Biofuel Hoax: Jatropha and Land Grab" at a press conference on 27th of November 2007. The study authored by Dr Vandana Shiva and Manu Sankar is based on field work in the three states of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

India plans to cultivate Jatropha in 11 million hectares. In a land starved country this diversion of land has serious consequences for rural livelihoods and rural eco systems. The Companies involved in the gold rush of Jatropha in India are D1 Oil, Godrej Agrovet Ltd, Tata Motors, Indian Oil Corporation, Kochi Refineries Ltd, Biohealthcare Pvt, The southern online Biotechnologies Ltd, Jain irrigation System Ltd, Natural Bioenergy Ltd and Reliance Energy Ltd.

In Chhattisgarh, a predominantly tribal belt, agricultural crops of tribals have been destroyed to plant Jatropha. To promote jatropha plantations, the tribals are being denied their inherent right to make decisions about land use for which the local community (Gram Sabha) is the highest competent authority . This is a violation of the legal recognition of collective rights and Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. The study also has details of the villages in Chhattisgarh which have faced land conflicts because the people have opposed the cultivation of Jatropha plantations.

Chhattisgarh is the center of diversity of rice and according to Dr Richaria, India's eminent rice scientist it was the source of more than two hundred thousand rice varieties. Planting Jatropha monocultures in place of the indigenous diversity of tribal crop lands is not just a destruction of the food security and livelihood of the tribals, it is also a threat to India's biodiversity.

Two Biaga tribals whose crops have been damaged by the Government for Jatropha cultivation were present at the press conference.

Santhoshi, from Daiharibagh village, Kota block of Bilaspur district, " the forest department forcefully planted Jatropha on our paddy land. They told us if u don't allow us to plant jatropha you will go to jail. We have send our plea petitions to the chief minister, District collector and BDO but of no avail. At last we had to uproot the jatropha plants that were planted in our agricultural land".

Dharam singh, from Pandripani village, from Kota block of Bilaspur village, said "the gram sabha in my village did not give the permission for the forest department to plant Jatrophas in our agricultural land. But they planted it by force and issued court notices to 10 people including me to vacate our agricultural land".

Instead of recognizing the rights of the tribals as required by the PESA Act of 1996 and the recognition of the Forest dwellers Rights Act of 2004, the government is using jatropha plantations to undo the constitutional safeguards that tribals have to their right to land and livelihood.

Jatropha is not just leading to Land grab, it is also leading to Biopiracy

Dr Sunil Puri, who used to be the head of Department of Forestry at the Indira Gandhi Agricultural University in Raipur had illegally taken 18 elite varieties of Jatropha from the University collection. A week later he joined the company. Local protests followed and a report by a state government inquiry into the affairs concluded that Dr puri, and D1, by accepting the plants without the necessary authority, had breached India's new biodiversity laws, designed to protect the country's bio resources from foreign exploitation.

In Vidarbha, Maharashtra the company involved does contract farming with the farmers . They have taken advantage of the failure of Bt cotton crops and have lured farmers into cultivation of Jatropha. The corporates have been successful in inducing the farmers into Jatropha on the false promise that the plantations will give them immense returns after three years. The Government is also providing subsidies to the farmers who plant Jatropha. Govind Chithuji Jungare, a farmer of Buldana who shifted from cotton to Jatropha has committed suicide in April 2007, because of the Government's inability to provide with the promised subsidy.

Rajasthan, a desert state is also seeing the destruction of village commons and grazing lands (referred to as "Wastelands" in colonial revenue categories) by the imposition of Jatropha plantations. On 7th of May 2007, The Government of Rajasthan passed rules under its powers conferred by Section 261 of the Land Revenue Act of 1956 to create a new law called "The Rajasthan Land Revenue (Allotment of wasteland for biofuel plantation and biofuel based industrial and processing unit) Rules, 2007". The Rules allow 1000 ha - 5000 ha of village common lands (called "wastelands" in the colonial revenue category) to be transferred for 20 years from the village community to biofuel industry. The land allocation is for biofuel plantations, especially Jatropha, and biofuel based industry and processing units.

Village community pastures are the common resources in Rajasthan, having potential for equitable accessibility to all classes for the rural population. Rajasthan has 1.94 million hectares of common pasture lands and more than 70% of the total geographical area are under the common lands. The Jatropha cultivation is severely limiting the ability of the commons to support rural livelihoods comprehensively and thereby harming the ecological services they render. Livestock is the major source of livelihood for the poor and they are heavily dependent on the common pastures for the grazing of their cattle. By planting Jatropha the fodder availability of the cattle will be directly affected.

The destruction of the livelihoods of pastoralists and livestock herders such as Gujjars have already led to major riots in Rajasthan. The transfer of commons and grazing lands from providing fodder to livestock in the local economy to providing fuel for automobiles of the rich will further erode rural livelihoods and increase social tensions.

The poor live in a biomass / biodiversity based economy. Diversion of land to industrial biofuels will also divert biodiversity / organic matter from basic needs of the poor and maintenance of ecological cycles. It will create total destitution and collapse of rural agro-ecosystems as biodiversity and water are diverted by industry for biofuel.

Dr Vandana Shiva, Director, Navdanya has described the mad rush for Jatropha plantations, a recipe for ecological, economic and social disaster.


1. The industrial biofuel policy is not a solution to the climate crisis or an answer to peak oil. The massive infrastructure of fossil fuel based production and transportation systems cannot be maintained by converting food to fuel, and plants to oil for cars. The heavy infrastructure of automobiles and power generation needs to be adapted to the limits of the planet. The planet should not be further plundered and the poor should not be further burdened to uphold a non-sustainable system for a few years more.

2. The village commons need to be protected by and for local communities - to provide for their basic needs of food, fodder, fuel, medicine etc. Rejuvenation of village commons through biodiversity that maximizes production for local needs should be immediately taken up under rural employment guarantee schemes and environmental programmes. Their transfer to industry for jatropha or other plantations must be immediately stopped to avert ecological and economic catastrophe. The Rajasthan biofuel law must be withdrawn immediately. The colonial policy of characterising village commons as "wastelands" must be immediately revised.

3. To protect rural livelihoods and food and energy security of the rural poor, agriculture policy must shift from chemical / industrial / corporate farming to biodiversity ecological farming. The village commons play a vital role in providing inputs to the agrarian economy. Integrated and sustainable sylvi-agri-pastoral systems need to be protected and strengthened to adapt to climate change. Decentralised food and energy systems are vital to enhance climate resilience and reduce climate impact. Land must be used for the food and energy needs of the people, not the fuel demands of industry. The biological produce of commons must first go to meet local needs.

4. Decisions about the use of Village commons should be made by the village community (Gram Sabha). In the Scheduled areas anyways this is a constitutional obligation. Local communities should be given absolute rights over the land use decisions for enhancing their livelihood and ecological security.

5. Instead of displacing tribals by imposing jatropha plantations the government should implement the new law recognizing the rights of the tribals.

6. Legal action needs to be taken to stop jatropha biopiracy. D1 company should immediately return the stolen germ plasm to India.

To read the entire report on biofuels, please click on the title link above.

For more information, please contact

A-60 Hauz Khas, New Delhi – 110 016
TeL: 2653 2124 / 2696 8077,


With GreenFuel’s demise is algae still viable?

By Susan Wilson


May 15 2009

GreenFuel, one of the best funded biofuel companies using algae has gone belly up. Was it the credit crunch or the technology that did them in? It is difficult to tell if GreenFuel’s inability to get Round 3 funding for its process was the fault of the current economy or problems with the technology, either way it does not bode well for other algae companies.

Greentech Media announced GreenFuel’s demise this morning. So far the company has not issued a press release or made any comments on its web page. GreenFuel had received the most funding to date for companies using algae to generate biofuel. The process that the company used was growing algae in bioreactors. Tubes filled with microbes and algae that used photosynthesis and CO2.

EcoGeek added that GreenFuel had suffered some technical glitches that caused the company to miss delivery on its first contract. Whether that missed deadline hastened its demise is still unclear.

That is where the viability of other algae biofuel companies comes into question. There has been an explosion of biofuel companies and algae companies in particular. Several of the companies had adopted GreenFuel’s bioreactor approach to producing fuel from algae. It is those companies right now that are most in jeopardy.

There are companies that use different methods. Solazyme grows its algae in dark vats. The process is more expensive because it requires feeding the algae sugar rather than using free CO2 and sunlight. There are some companies that are using different versions of bioreactors. Whether those will work better than GreenFuel’s is yet to be determined.

An undisputed fact is that “algae is more productive per acre” than other sources of biofuel like corn, palm, jatropha and other plants. “Algae advocates claim that they should be able to get 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of feedstock per acre per year. 16,000 square miles of pond space (or the equivalent) would be enough to supply the U.S.”

Whether algae produced biofuel will actually make it to the pumps is a crapshoot right now. Statistically it looks great on paper but will any of the processes in use now be able to provide biofuel in sufficient quantity or low enough price to make it viable?