2. Liberia: New life for old rubber trees (IRIN)

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Tonia Johnson owns a 40 hectare rubber farm on the road between Monrovia and Buchanan, in Liberia. She watches happily as mechanical diggers arrive to uproot her unproductive trees. “My trees were … perhaps 38 or 40 years old. To replant was too expensive for me. Now in another seven years I will have rubber, so I thank God.”

Small-scale farmers such as Ms. Johnson, as well as plantation owners, are selling their unproductive rubber trees to a Canadian renewable energy company, Buchanan Renewables.

The company offers farmers a deal. It buys the trees for two American dollars a tonne. In exchange, it replants the land with new rubber trees. The company plants cash crops such as groundnuts in between the saplings. The farmers also get the roots and smaller branches to burn for charcoal or sell as firewood. The deal helps farmers survive until the new trees produce latex.

Ms. Johnson had been thinking of making charcoal with the trees. But felling the trees and clearing the land is backbreaking labour. It also costs money. She is now one of thousands of Liberian rubber farmers to benefit from the company’s initiative.

For Buchanan Renewables, the dying rubber trees are an almost limitless supply of fuel for power stations. Its huge diggers uproot the trees. Another machine – a giant mincer – grinds up the trunks, spewing out a growing pile of wood chips. The chips are then trucked to the port of Buchanan and exported to Europe. The company plans to operate on a 30 year cycle of clearing and replanting trees.

Liam Hickey is the general manager of Buchanan Renewables. He believes the project has huge benefits. The farmers get their land cleared and replanted, Liberia gains a new source of export revenue, and power stations are assured of a source of sustainable fuel.

“These trees are not producing anything,” Mr. Hickey says. He knows farmers can’t get the small loans they need to start operating again. “… How do they take down all these trees, buy all the seedlings, plant and wait for seven years?” he asks.

Buchanan Renewables has been operating in Liberia for two years. But it is not only Europe which will benefit from this alternative fuel source. The company will build a new wood chip-burning power plant in Monrovia. They first need to agree with the government on the price of fuel for the consumer.

Mr. Hickey says, “We are interested in sustainable development, and you can’t have sustainable development with zero returns.” He promises that any profits from the new power plant will be invested back into Liberia.