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Biofuels Information Plan Launched in West Africa

An environmental group has launched an initiative to ensure that communities in West Africa are informed about the possible negative impact that the production of biofuels could have on the region.

The environmental group Wetlands International has joined forces with the organization Action Aid and 30 Senegal-based groups to ensure that communities in West Africa are aware of the impact of biofuel development programs.

The initiative will inform rural and urban communities about the issues surrounding biofuels, including food security, energy supply and environmental sustainability.

Alex Kaat of Wetlands International is one of those behind the program. He says local communities are not always given enough information about the advantages and disadvantages of biofuels.

"The relationship between biofuel production and the livelihoods of communities is quite complex. You have winners and losers. Often, it's not seen that if you start large-scale production upstream that you affect the people who live downstream; the people downstream are often only losing from the large-scale production," he said.

A significant proportion of the world's biofuels are grown in South America. Kaat says he expects West Africa to become more attractive to biofuels producers as development in the region increases. Because agro-crops like sugar cane must be processed one-to-two days after harvesting, good roads and access to factories and harbors are crucial.

But experts say biofuel production also poses food security risks for poor communities in West Africa. When food crops become fuel, they note, the cost of feeding a family increases. The World Bank says biofuels have forced global food prices to rise by 75 percent.

Again, Alex Kaat of Wetlands International. "It also increases the food prices in a certain area when there's a big shift towards those products, those agro-fuels that are used in Europe and North America. So the people without land, the urban poor, are losing when there's a large-scale shift towards biofuel production," he said.

Other threats include diminished biodiversity and restricted access to freshwater for washing. Most biofuels companies rely heavily on pesticides, which enter water sources upstream and threaten people, animals and fish downstream.

Kaat says it is important to present a balanced view to communities. As the biofuels industry grows, more jobs will be created across West Africa. He says there are opportunities for countries like Senegal. But at the same time, he notes there are potential problems with natural resources like water and land.