News / Africa

Africa Biofuel Investment Under Scrutiny

A field of jatropha plants, a source of biofuel (File Photo)
A field of jatropha plants, a source of biofuel (File Photo)
Gabe Joselow

Energy companies around the world have been buying up land in Africa to grow crops that can be converted into fuel. While these biofuels have been touted as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, more environmental groups want the investment curbed - warning that biofuels are causing more harm than good.


When an Italian-owned energy company proposed to buy land in the woodlands of eastern Kenya to grow jatropha trees to make biofuel, they promised jobs, development and money to the communities living there.

But the rights group ActionAid says when the deal was being signed, the people most affected had not been told the truth.  ActionAid team leader in Kenya's Coast region David Barissa Ringa says plans to co-opt some 20,000 hectares of land for a jatropha plantation would have displaced some 20,000 people.

“They were really enraged about what happened, because if anything, you can imagine having to leave your farm, having to leave your homestead and destroy everything and move and nobody has promised you any new land where you can actually relocate and continue your daily life,” said Ringa.

The case is now being reviewed by Kenya's Environmental Management Authority, while the company has already agreed to scale back the project to a 2,000 hectare pilot program. Legally, it appears neither the company nor the local authorities who signed the deal had done anything wrong. It was all in line with Kenya's existing constitution.

Benefits questioned

Rights groups are concerned that, legal or not, the push for biofuels has had a negative impact on local communities in Africa. Ringa, of ActionAid, also questions the environmental benefits.

“The whole essence why people go into biofuel production and greener fuel sources is that we cut down on carbon emissions," he said. "But if you cut down trees, if you have to bring down a whole forest and displace thousands of people from their homestead, I think it doesn't really make any sense.”

In a report earlier this year, a consortium of environmental groups called Friends of the Earth, said European energy companies had bought more than five million hectares of land across Africa, an area larger than the size of Denmark, for biofuel investment.

The report said European Union targets to use 10% biofuel for transportation by 2020 has spurred land grabs.

ActionAid Senior Policy Analyst Marie Brill says her group is pushing for changes to these policies at the United Nations Climate Conference in Durban, South Africa.

“And we'll come to Durban also with a real call that governments come together and commit to drop incentives and mandates and targets for biofuels which has really spurred this push for land and land-use change and threatened food security - not only has threatened food security but also has been dangerous for our environment,” explained Brill.

Tool kits

While environmental groups have made the case against biofuels for years, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says the industry can still bring benefits.

“Our conclusion - the basic message is that biofuels are not good or bad per se, it all depends on how you grow them, how you manage them,” said Olivier Du Bois, FAO senior natural resources officer.

The FAO has created tool kits to advise governments and investors setting out on biofuels projects, to help ensure they are environmentally and socially responsible.

DuBois says an important consideration is that the crops grown to create fuel do not compete with those meant to grow food.

"We did some work on cassava for example in Tanzania at the request of the government and we found out that if you increase the yield of cassava enough and if you grow it on land that can be used for other export crops then it doesn't compete with food," said DuBois. "On the contrary, it may actually promote the development of a yield increase which also benefits food production.”

While the merits of the industry may be up for debate, the demand for biofuels has shown no signs of slowing down.

The Bloomberg news agency reports prices for ethanol - a fuel that can be made from sugarcane and corn - have risen to record highs on high demand from Brazil and Europe.

Meanwhile, airlines from the United States to Australia have begun experimenting with biofuel-powered planes. And producers are making plans to ramp up production to meet the growing need.

You May Like

800-Pound Man Determined to Slim Down

Man says he was kicked out of hospital for ordering pizza; wants to be an actor More

Australia Prepares to Resettle 12,000 Syrian Refugees

Preference will be given to refugees from persecuted minorities, and the first group is expected to arrive before late December More

S. African Miners Seek Class Action Suit Against Gold Mines

The estimated 100,000 say say they contracted the lung diseases silicosis and tuberculosis in the mines More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs