Ghana: European biofuel company meets resistance after clearing forests (by Bernice Agyekwena,in Tamale, Ghana)

| July 13, 2009

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Amidst the forests of Northern Ghana, one area looks very different. Twenty six hundred hectares of land has been stripped of natural vegetation. A Norwegian biofuel company hoped this would be the start of the largest jatropha plantation in Africa. But locals were alarmed by the deforestation. With the help of a local NGO, they are fighting to preserve their forests.

Jatropha curcas is the scientific name of a crop that is processed into biodiesel in many parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa. It’s been praised for its ability to grow in semi-arid conditions. For this reason, it’s sometimes cited as an answer to the fuel crisis.

According to the Regional Advisory and Information Network Systems, or RAINS, the clearing of forests in Northern Ghana proves that foreign interest in jatropha poses a threat to African communities.

RAINS is an advocacy group based in Tamale, Northern Ghana. Bakari Nyaari is a board member of RAINS. He has been on the forefront of the struggle to ensure that BioFuel Africa’s activities do not jeopardize rural livelihoods. He says the vegetation cleared includes trees vital to the economic subsistence of rural communities.

Mr. Nyaari explains that a Norwegian company called BioFuel Africa approached the chief of Kusawgu, who does not read or write, with a document. They asked him to sign it with a thumbprint. The chief did not have a chance to negotiate or seek a second opinion.

With this disputed contract in hand, BioFuel Africa laid claim to more than 30,000 hectares of land. The contract specified that the company would pay an annual rent of two Ghanaian cedis (about 1.3 American dollars or 0.95 Euros) per hectare for land under cultivation.

But according to RAINS, the contract is not valid. The NGO has rallied the community to learn about BioFuel Africa’s plans. With the support of RAINS, the community has challenged the legality of the company’s claims.

Mr. Nyaari states that Biofuel Africa had neither a planning permit from the District Assembly nor a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency at the time it cleared 2,600 hectares of land. The company has been directed to stop clearing land until it has carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment Plan and fulfilled all other requirements.

In other parts of Northern Ghana, BioFuel Africa is establishing jatropha plantations without resistance from local communities. Mohammed Baba is Senior Supervisor of BioFuel Africa. He said the company has leased 1,000 hectares of land at Kpacha, near Tamale.

But much of the land is either waterlogged or rocky, making it unsuitable for jatropha cultivation. Mr. Baba says that BioFuel Africa has built three dams near Kpacha. As part of their social contract with the community, the company has also built a medical clinic and a grinding mill.