Nelly Bassily | September 6, 2010
According to a new report by Friends of the Earth Europe, around five million hectares of land in Africa has been acquired by foreign investors to grow agrofuel crops. While official information on land acquisitions is scarce, the NGO contends that “…many of the ‘land grabs’ for agrofuel crops involve land previously used for agriculture.”
Friends of the Earth are concerned that non-edible crops are replacing food crops on fertile land. Agrofuel companies are competing with farmers for access to land. Friends of the Earth maintain that “Farmers who switch to agrofuel crops run the risk of being unable to feed their families.” Their report states that demand for agrofuels is driven by the European Union. The EU aims to produce 10% of its transport fuel from agrofuels by 2020.
The report lists the companies which have acquired land to grow agrofuel crops in eleven countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Jatropha is a common agrofuel crop. Sugarcane, cassava and sweet sorghum are also grown for fuel.
Friends of the Earth is particularly concerned about the rights of the people who depend on the land for their livelihood. They believe these rights are often overlooked by large companies. For example, in Ghana, a Norwegian company called BioFuel Africa acquired 38,000 hectares of land in 2008. One farmer told reporters that he first learned of the change in ownership when he went to his plot and discovered other people working there. The chief had signed away the land with his thumbprint. The procedure was later ruled to be illegal.
BioFuel Africa say of their operations in Africa, “We operate under the principle that production can only be sustainable if it is low cost, provides a solid return, and enhances and enriches the lives of its workers and surrounding communities.”
Josam Ndaabona, a farmer from Zambia, says that the situation with jatropha reminds him of cotton. A large company arrived, promising farmers lots of money if they grew cotton. Mr. Ndaabona says, “We stopped growing our maize to make more money from cotton. But when the time to sell it came we were paid very little. We went hungry because we had neglected growing our traditional crop maize.” Similarly, farmers in Mozambique who grow jatropha have reported slow growth rates and low yields.
Many gave up after one year. They did not have time to tend jatropha as well as their food crops.
Many African countries have welcomed investment in their land, hoping it will lead to jobs in rural areas. But in the report, Friends of the Earth argue that Africa’s natural resources are being exploited to provide fuel for Europe, stating, “The result threatens food supplies in poor communities and pushes up the cost of available food.”
Friends of the Earth want communities to participate in decisions to sell or lease local land. The organization recommends that Europe scrap the 10% target for agrofuels, and reduce its fuel consumption. They further recommend that African states suspend investments in agrofuels and invest in food sovereignty and ecological agriculture instead.