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Experiment With Biofuel Production in Senegal Raises Concerns


A Senegalese experiment with biofuel production will start within the coming weeks, as part of President Wade's plan to reduce oil imports and to revive the rural economy. Where biofuel supporters see a green solution to their growing energy crisis, critics worry about the problematic - and possibly dangerous - tradeoffs in the rush to exploit environmental cash crops. Phuong Tran files a report from the West African Bureau in Dakar.

Biofuel production will soon began in the southern Senegalese towns, Kolda and Tambacounda.

Working in partnership with the Brazlian company Tecbio, the Senegalese government plans to produce crops on 50,000 hectares of land that can then be changed into biofuels, or renewable fuels created from agricultural crops.

The environmental group Global Forest Coalition calls biofuels a disaster in the making. Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian environmentalist, is one of its members.

"If people do not look at it critically, then the immediate response is 'yes let's go for it'," said Nnimmo Bassey. "Biofuels at a limited level as a supplement, community energy - no problem at all. When we are talking about using it as a major energy source, it is a wrong direction."

President Wade has said that he wants to replace the more than 30,000 barrels of oil the country consumes each day with renewable fuels.

Mr. Wade's "Return to Agriculture Program" positions biofuel production as a way to revitalize the sagging rural economy - giving small-scale farmers a new cash crop to export.

This is a trend that Maryam Niamir-Fuller has seen in developing countries. She is a technical advisor for the Global Environment Facility, which helps developing countries' environmental programs.

"What is happening with this massive demand coming up, many many countries see this as the new cash crop that countries can try to get foreign exchange fund for their economies," said Maryam Niamir-Fuller.

Niamir-Fuller is worried that, in the rush to cash in on biofuels, increased demands on the land may lead to food security problems.

"Some people are using the term food or fuel," she said. "Does the small-scale farmer focus on enhancing their own food security or do they convert everything to a cash crop, such as a biofuel?"

The Senegal Ministry of Energy's technical advisor for renewable energies, Alassane Niane, says there does not have to be a choice between food and fuel.

He says that that some of the crops that may be grown to be converted to biofuels can also be consumed, such as sugar cane and wheat - that there is not a dichotomy like critics claim.

Nigerian environmentalist Bassey disagrees.

"Those who believe that biofuel production will not harm the already precarious situation of food in Africa are just being too optimistic," he said.

Niamir-Fuller raises a second concern about potential land degradation.

"How will the move to biofuel production affect land use? What impacts that might have on land degradation? Whether it's overuse of chemical fertilizers, and pesticides or converting land that isn't suitable. Kind of like mining the land to produce biofuels," she said.

Her third concern is the effect this plan will have on small-scale farmers.

"In a situation in many countries, where land tenure is very insecure, this demand for biofuel production can very easily result in expropriation of land from small landholders," said Maryam Niamir-Fuller.

Senegal's technical partner to help it develop biofuel production capabilities is the Brazilian company Tecbio. One of its directors, Jose Neivas Santos, dismisses concerns about environmental and economic tradeoffs of biofuels.

Santos says that the technology to set up biofuel conversion plants costs less than what the Senegal currently spends to cover its oil needs. He says that the use of biofuels can cut carbon dioxide emissions and reduce the use of non-renewable oils. He also says that there are almost no disadvantages of the technology used to produce biofuels.

During the oil crisis of the 1970's, Brazil's state-run and subsidized alcohol fuel program was set up to reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern petroleum.

After decades when the popularity of the program sunk because of high sugar prices and lower oil prices, the use of biofuels is picking up again in Brazil because of government incentives and the rising price of oil.

Niamir-Fuller with the UNDP, cautions Senegal as it embarks on its biofuels experiment.

"Yes, it can be a panacea, but it has got to be done right," she said.

The first phase of biofuel production in Senegal will plant jatropha plants, which is a wild plant largely available throughout Africa.

It has been touted as an oil-rich plant that can be planted on marginal lands with little need for water or fertilizers, reaping returns once converted to biofuels.

But analysts caution over-optimism, saying that more testing about the plant's yield and suitability needs to be conducted.

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