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Environmental Group says EU Biofuel Targets Create Land-Grab in Africa

Michael Onyiego

An international coalition of environmental groups says European demand for biofuels has driven local communities off their land in Africa and curbed the production of staple foods. 

In an effort to protect communal land in Africa, Friends of the Earth, an international network of environmental groups, is criticizing the European Union for driving land acquisition by foreign companies across sub-Saharan Africa.

Report: Africa land for sale

According to a report released by the group last week, entitled "Africa: Up for Grabs," more than five-million hectares of land across Africa, an area roughly the size of Denmark, has been sold to European companies in recent years to meet a growing demand for biofuels.

Companies have been moving into African markets in recent years to produce palm oil, sugar cane and other crops that can be used as alternative sources of fuel in developed countries.

The group warns the increasing demand for biofuels has diverted land from food production, straining already limited food supplies and raising food prices in the region.  

While Friends of the Earth has described the acquisitions as "land-grabbing," the group told VOA that many of the purchases are legal.

Despite living on farming plots of land for generations, many communities in Africa do not officially own the land they use.  According to the report, governments desperate for agricultural investments are often willing to sell large tracts of land without consulting the communities that inhabit them.

Some doubt promises

Agrofuels campaign coordinator for Friends of Earth Europe, Adrian Bebb, says foreign companies often promise the development of biofuel crops will create jobs and reduce poverty, but do not deliver for the local communities.

"It all sounds well meaning, but on the ground what is really happening is that we are seeing people who losing their land for food use.  And then we are seeing people whose land has been owned by their family for generations is suddenly disappear and the ownership is swapping across to European countries," Bebb said. "It might be legal on paper, but there are some definite ethical questions that need to be asked about whether or not this is a good way of using land and whether or not people should be more involved in how their land is used."

According to the report, this trend has been driven in large part by European environmental policy.  In an effort to combat climate change, the European Union has committed to raise the amount of transport vehicles powered by biofuels to 10 percent by 2020.

Bebb said Europe does not have the land to meet this target and has turned to Africa to increase the fuel supply.  But Friends of the Earth says the policy is shortsighted.

According to the report, fuels made from food crops produce no real reduction in emission, while contributing to deforestation and water shortages.  The Friends of the Earth network has called for Europe to lift its targets for biofuel consumption or risk food shortages in already impoverished areas.

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