The UK’s target of 5% biofuels in transport fuel really is having a disastrous impact on Africa, in spite of policy makers’ wishful thinking. As the now-disbanded Renewable Fuels Agency admitted in January, less than a third of UK biofuel imports are currently meeting standards that are supposed to ensure “sustainability”. Thirst for biofuels is leading to an inevitable land grab, impacting on communities and ecosystems in Africa and around the world.
The UK’s targets are based on several myths. The first is that you can have “sustainable” biofuel targets. If targets require vast amounts of biofuel, that fuel needs to be produced on land. That land must come from somewhere, and displace some kind of activity, whether it is farming, grazing, forests, or other ecosystems. There is just not enough free land on the planet to produce biofuels on a huge scale, and for it to be sustainable.
A second myth is that Africa has plenty of marginal land, going spare, waiting for development into biofuels. This assumption fails to acknowledge that land that is often described as “marginal” is in fact critical to the survival of the most marginalised communities. Governments often conveniently classify all sorts of lands as marginal – including those used by nomadic and pastoralist communities for grazing, small-scale farmers, indigenous peoples and women. Critical forest, peat and grassland ecosystems are often classified as “marginal” or “idle” if they are perceived as not contributing sufficiently to economic development.
A third myth is that biofuels can grow on “marginal” or dry lands. But evidence shows that biofuel crops need plenty of water and fertile, nutrient-rich land. Biofuel companies know this. They talk of using marginal lands, while targeting fertile and well-watered areas where they know that their biofuels will grow.
Back in 2007, as biofuel targets were being discussed in Europe, many African governments declared their own targets for biofuel production. Governments opened the doors to the rush of foreign investors, keen to cash in on a guaranteed European market.
But governments and investors have run into the practical, social and environmental challenges brought about by the fact that most of Africa’s land is already largely occupied and used by farmers, indigenous peoples or valuable ecosystems.
For example, in Ethiopia, in the densely populated and food insecure region of Wolaita, companies were allocated thousands of hectares of agricultural and grazing land. And in Ghana, one company invited an illiterate chief to put his thumbprint on a document, then declared that he had handed over 38,000 hectares for their jatropha plantation.
Instead of bringing climate and development benefits, biofuels are wreaking environmental and social destruction in Africa. While on one hand, European governments talk hypocritically of the need for Genetically Modified crops to supposedly “solve hunger in Africa”, by declaring biofuel targets, they are taking away the very land that Africa’s people need to grow their own food. Believing that the UK’s biofuel targets are sustainable is clearly oxymoronic.
The Department for Transport’s biofuel consultation ends tomorrow. Act now against biofuels before it’s too late.
This article first appeared in a series of blogs by biofuel experts for Action Aid UK’s biofuel campaign. All 12 articles can be viewed at the links below: