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Ghana Debates Viability of Biofuels

Africa is central to the worldwide growth in biofuels, with Dutch, American, Swedish, Japanese, German, and British firms all competing for farmland to grow the next generation of energy producing crops. Some farmers in Ghana are concerned about what biofuels mean for food security.

Ghana has made itself a focal point of biofuel growth in Africa.

As host of this year's World Jatropha Summit, the government in Accra is seeking greater investment in the hardy plant whose seeds can be crushed into an oil that is processed into high-quality biodiesel.

Jatropha curcas can yield four times more biofuel per hectare than soybeans and more than 10 times that of corn.

In Ghana, seven private companies are currently farming about 50,000 hectares of land for biofuels.

The non-governmental organization Food Security Policy Advocacy Network studied the impact of multinational jatropha production in the Volta, Eastern, Central, and Ashanti regions. The survey, conducted with ActionAid Ghana, found what it said were serious threats to livelihood and food security

Kingsley Ofei Nkansah is general secretary of Ghana's Agricultural Workers' Union.

"Ongoing land grabbing is taking place in parts of the country where the populations are largely farming populations," said Kingsley Ofei Nkansah. "Land is a major social and political issue, very explosive and very much inclined to provoke a lot of conflict in different parts of the country. Again we believe that the land grabbing business is in actual fact taking vital resources away from farmers."

With hundreds of farmers not planting traditional food crops this season, Nkansah believes there is a real risk that the shift to biofuels will result in food shortages.

"How would we justify an essentially agrarian country importing most of the food that it eats and then using our lands to produce something else that we don't eat? Which country is doing that in the world and why should Ghana do that? We have the capacity to produce the food that we eat," said Nkansah. "Why should we be encouraged to lease large tracts of land for bio fuel production that we are not eating to make money and use that money to import food?"

Ghana's Agriculture Ministry says private sector farmers are free to do what they like with their land. The ministry's chief director, Joseph Boamah, says government officials have seen no evidence that biofuel growth is threatening food production.

"This has not come to our notice," said Joseph Boamah. "In fact we are widespread. Our District Directors haven't brought this news, extension officers are not complaining, nobody has gone to complain. You know that farming is a private sector activity. Investors have the right to go and negotiate with farmers."

Ghana's land tenure system permits owners to lease their land to investors for any purpose. Odame Larbi directs Ghana's Land Administration Project at the Minister of Lands and Forestry.

"Many of the lands are under customary arrangement and depending on the specific area where the land is being acquired the specific customary arrangements in that area would apply," said Odame Larbi. "The Constitution of Ghana says that the management of stool lands shall be done by the owners of the land. So generally it is the chiefs who have been managing these lands and entering into negotiations with the investors who area acquiring land for biofuel production."

Nkansah says the government has responsibilities greater than land tenure.

"We cannot sit down as a people and say that the constitution says this in one part," said Nkansah. "The constitution in other parts say that the government has responsibility in ensuring that the people are protected and those rights include livelihood rights. It also includes the right to food which is a fundamental right contained in the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights. The government has ratified that covenant, so it has the responsibility to ensure that people are not denied their right to food."

Civil society groups are calling on President John Atta-Mills' government to draw up a comprehensive biofuels policy to reconcile these issues.

Ghana's Energy Commission has been working on a biofuels policy since 2005. The government says it will now work with a new umbrella organization called the Civil Society Coalition on Land to push ahead on land rights issues including biofuels, environmental management, and sanitation.