Biofuels and neo-colonialism
Seif Madoffe, Salim Maliondo, Faustin Maganga, Elifuraha Mtalo, Fred Midtgaard and Ian Bryceson
2009-06-04, Issue 436
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We are currently witnessing a new and massive land-grabbing scramble in Africa, unprecedented since the fall of colonialism. The ‘justification’ for this land-grabbing is supposedly that global climate change is threatening the entire world and that therefore huge tracts of land are required for the planting of biological crops which produce ‘biofuels’ which should replace ‘fossil fuels’ so as not to add net carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
But this ignores the underlying fact that the vast majority of carbon dioxide is being produced by rich countries in the North who do not want to reduce their excessive fuel consumption and wastage levels. It is postulated by the proponents of ‘biofuels’ that enormous areas of unused (or under-used) land supposedly exist in Africa, which can be bought (cheaply) by commercial enterprises from the rich countries in the North. The logic is that rich countries can thus ‘buy’ their way out of a situation wherein they would otherwise have to drastically reduce their carbon dioxide production if indeed they really are serious about the threats posed by such emissions.
We shall explain why we consider these neo-colonial proposals for biofuels to be a new form of neo-colonialism – ‘climate colonialism’.
Several questions arise – are there really enormous areas of unused land? No, this is a myth. Should the re-incorporation of carbon into plant material happen where the carbon was emitted originally, or could it be ‘exported’ from one country to another? This raises problems in the context of unequal power relations and unfair commercial deals. Should one make ‘renewable’ carbon in places where it has serious negative impacts on poor people and tropical forests that will be cut down to create space for ‘carbon fields’ in monoculture plantations? Furthermore, should this be done by taking over large tracts of agricultural land in poor countries, using huge quantities of water and polluting the soil, the rivers and coastal ecosystems – for example, giant plantation projects owned by European or American corporations, subsidised by ‘development assistance’ funds?
This scenario requires urgent consideration because European companies – some with foreign aid money support – are rapidly establishing enormous carbon monoculture fields in tropical countries. In Tanzania alone, there are ambitious proposals put forward by more than twenty European companies to establish several sugar, Jatropha and palm-oil plantations in order to produce biofuels. We will elucidate this by examining one such sugar-ethanol example from coastal Tanzania.
In Tanzania, Saadani National Park is situated at the coast, and it serves as an important connection between the coastal environment of the Indian Ocean and inland areas. This National Park is an area with unique fauna and flora. Nearby, in the Zaraninge Forest reserve in Bagamoyo district there is a proposed sugarcane plantation site between the two major rivers of the area, Wami and Ruvu. These rivers provide fresh water to large tracts of natural land and are situated close to the coast adjacent to coral reefs, mangroves and other biologically diverse marine environments. There are several villages inhabited by many thousands of farmers and pastoralists. An enormous 22,000 hectares of this area has been leased by a Swedish company, SEKAB, for the production of ethanol for Sweden, supposedly to make Sweden more ‘eco-friendly’. SEKAB furthermore aims to expand to 400,000 hectares or more to include also areas in Rufiji.
What are the values found in the area that will be destroyed and what are the ecological and social consequences of this, both in Tanzania and in Europe?
SEKAB’s project is one of several that are intended to be located near the coast so that ethanol or vegetable oil may be easily exported by sea. The plantations are also placed where there is good availability of fresh water, and in places remote enough to make it ‘easier’ to marginalise local villagers and move them out of their traditional areas at a low cost to the rich corporations (if indeed any compensation is paid at all).
When a corporation wants to undertake such a huge change in an area, as for instance converting it from tropical forest to sugarcane monoculture, an assessment needs to be done (called ESIA, environmental and social impact assessment) as well as seeking approvals from different levels of the government in the country in question. Such assessments are usually done by consultant agencies, which are often from the same country as the corporation proposing the project.
The ESIA report for SEKAB’s proposed project has been prepared by the Swedish consultant company ORGUT. The report states that the projected plantation area is situated between the two major rivers, Wami and Ruvu, and that the plantation will extract water from Wami. ‘The Wami River is one of the major rivers draining the Eastern Arc Mountains’. The Eastern Arc Mountains are geologically old mountain ranges with unique flora and fauna with exceptionally many endemic species (species that are only found there). It is clear that the amount of water required by SEKAB from the Wami River to irrigate the 22,000 ha sugarcane farm will mean drying up and severe pollution of the Wami River. Most important, animals in the Saadani National Park depend on the river, as do mangroves and fishery resources which will suffer serious impacts due to water shortage and pollution from sugar-cane farming and ethanol processing. The routes used by the animals to approach the sea for salt licks will also be blocked. ORGUT’s report states that: ‘There is incomplete information on the amount of water available in the Wami River’. But the report does not mention the various serious scenarios for the National Park and forest reserve bordering the proposed plantation, the red listed animals there, or the coral reefs, mangroves and fisheries along the coast.
ORGUT’s report is quite extraordinary in its description of flora and fauna in the area which will become a sugarcane plantation. In addition to the Saadani National Park, the Zaraninge Forest reserve, part of Eastern Africa coastal forests which is one of the globally important biodiversity hot spots in East Africa, is located nearby and will be affected if the sugarcane plantation and biofuels factory are established. The area SEKAB wants to acquire consists of a number of forest types from woodlands with African ebony, Acacia and Terminalia, to mangrove forest on the coast and tall forest in the northern part with valuable tree species: ‘Afzelia quanzensis, Pterocarpus angolensis and Dalbergia melanoxylon that are found in the northern part of the Razaba area are valuable timber species and products from these species have a very high market value. However, the species are also threatened by both local and international demand and the abundances of these species in Tanzania have declined dramatically’. The report further states that many rare and endangered tree species occur in the area: ‘Such species include the endemic Encephalartos hildebrandtii (Cycad tree) and important timber trees such as Dalbergia melanoxylon (African ebony) and Trichalysia sp. which are threatened by unsustainable harvesting’.
The value of the timber on the land which has to be cleared for sugarcane production is high. Even before a final decision has been taken by the ministry on whether SEKAB will get a concession, timber is being cut. The sustainable Community Based Forest Management of the area, built up by the villagers, and which used to contribute considerably to the village economy, will now cease. It is unclear how significant the income from this timber is, compared to the future value of the sugarcane production. However, in several other cases, the companies must get a significant amount of money from the timber harvesting alone. In some cases it is likely that it will exceed the future biofuel income from the same areas.
With respect to fauna, ORGUT’s report states that: ‘The project area is potentially rich in wildlife and shares many species with the adjacent Saadani National Park’. The report further states that: ‘The area has high diversity of both resident and migratory bird species with composition and abundance of species changing with seasons due to inter-Africa and Palaearctic migrations. The importance of Makurunge area (also in Bagamoyo district) for bird conservation is indicated by the high abundance of birds observed during the EIA survey’. According to the report, many large mammals are found in the area earmarked for the sugarcane plantation: Lion, leopard, cheetah, sable antelope, wild dog, warthog, duiker antelope, Sykes monkey, black and white Colobus monkey, yellow baboon, elephant, hippo, wild pig, buffalo, reedbuck and others. ORGUT’s report further states that: ‘At least 34 species of mammals occurring in the project area are threatened according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list’.
According to the report, the area in question has been used by local hunters, small-scale farmers and fishermen for at least 1500 years. There are currently 3 villages in the area with a total of close to 6,000 people (probably an underestimate). A large number of pastoralists also live here, with a cattle population of between 10,000 and 50,000. All these will now be forced out and have to find new grazing lands. We consider their population estimates to be on the low side.
The report further states that ‘HIV/AIDS prevalence is still minimal’. Later in the report, when discussing the consequences of importing workers from the city to the plantation, it is stated that there will be an ‘increase in the risk of communicable diseases (e.g. HIV/AIDS) and (decreased) human health due to increased population of workers and social interaction’.
The energy needs of the local people are met almost entirely by firewood. This will of course become more difficult to collect when large areas have been converted into sugarcane plantations. Homes and livelihoods will be destroyed to give way to ethanol production for the European market. The displaced communities will be forced to clear other woodland areas for settlements, farming, fuelwood and grazing. This kind of deforestation is known as ‘leakage’ in GHG (Green House Gas) terminology, and increases Tanzania’s ‘C debt’ (carbon debt). In addition to this deforestation, organic matter in the soil will also be transformed into carbon dioxide.
All in all, production of biofuels also results in a lot of carbon emissions. Firstly, of course the machinery needed requires a lot of fossil fuel to be produced, transported to Tanzania, to be used in Tanzania. Transport of biofuels to Europe also necessitates the burning of fossil fuel. Secondly, the whole process of producing biofuels involves emission of a lot of GHG. Before harvesting, sugarcane fields are burned to remove litter, leaves, debris, snakes, and rats. This produces not only a lot of CO2, but also other more aggressive GHGs in great amounts. The harvested canes are then pressed and the remaining fibres are burned, producing further GHG. After fermentation, the molasses will most likely be poured out in the Wami River causing a severe pollution problem. The whole process of producing biofuel ethanol this way will cause severe pollution by GHG. Estimates vary (depending on how refined the process might be), but per unit ethanol produced, they range between 17 to 840 times more GHG released into the atmosphere than the amount of GHG that is reduced. Production of biofuels in the way intended by the Swedish company will therefore cause Tanzania to be in a possible carbon debt and thus violate international agreements, such as the Kyoto agreement. Sweden, on the other hand, will be better off because the reduction will happen in Sweden while the increase happens in Tanzania. The actual estimates will depend upon how SEKAB actually practices its use of fuels – they will probably claim to use biofuels to a large extent, but there will still be excessive carbon emission in Tanzania, and ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ may not be the same especially when fossil fuel prices are relatively low, as they are now.
The sugarcane plantation will also be fertilised with enormous amounts of artificial fertiliser. Considerable quantities will leak out into the ocean and will influence life in the coral reefs. Poisonous pesticides will also be used which will subsequently seriously affect harmless and beneficial insects, birds, marine organisms, and also impair human health. We need to remind ourselves that this plantation is placed in the middle of a National Park and a Forest reserve and is near the seashore. The estimated amounts mentioned in the ORGUT report – 3,400 tonnes of di-ammonium phosphate and 5,100 tonnes of urea used on the start-up area of 17,000 ha – will influence the surrounding environment considerably. Soil acidification and atmospheric warming due to emitted nitrous oxide gas are serious pollution impacts. As mentioned above, pre-harvest burning of sugarcane will add tons of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide to the atmosphere. The pollution of the air during sugarcane harvesting in other countries and in similar settings is known to have caused an increase in respiratory health problems among the surrounding communities.
The potential impacts on fisheries along the coast, on the coral reefs and on the whole ecosystem in the adjacent National Park and other areas by an enormous sugar-cane plantation with massive water consumption and leaking of fertiliser and poisonous pesticides have been poorly investigated. If a harbour or pipeline for transporting the ethanol to Sweden is built on the coral reef, it will also add to the negative environmental effects. Reduced fish resources in the polluted water will seriously affect the livelihoods of the fishing communities.
Based on this information, and a lot more throughout ORGUT’s report of 155 pages, what would be the conclusion of the Swedish consultant agent? Well, they state: ‘Although there are some limited negative environmental implications of the project, the project will have significant socio-economic and environmental benefits to the people surrounding the project, Bagamoyo District and the Nation’. This illogical conclusion is a blatant apologist ‘green washing’ attempt.
SEKAB reportedly hopes to acquire 400,000 ha for sugar-cane plantations in Tanzania. The prospect of a Swedish corporation owning and controlling so much land for the benefit of rich Swedish investors, with serious deleterious environmental impacts and at the expense of poor rural people in Tanzania smacks strongly of neo-colonialism. When one considers that the total arable land in Tanzania is a mere three million hectares, SEKAB will have control of more than one tenth of the available land. If each of the 20 biofuel projects already scheduled get even half of the land allocated to SEKAB, it is clear that the Tanzanian rural population will be condemned to eke out their livelihoods in the badlands of the country.
At a workshop organised by HakiArdhi with Oxfam in Morogoro last year, the director responsible for energy in Tanzania was asked by participants whether the government had a policy on biofuels. He informed participants that there was no such policy and that his appearance at the workshop was part of efforts to get input towards the formulation of a Biofuels Task Force that would develop such a policy. Everyone present was shocked that the government, through the Tanzania Investment Centre (TIC), had already allocated massive tracts of land and apparently signed contracts for biofuel production without any policy support. This serious omission is bound to have significant and far-reaching adverse socio-economic impacts on Tanzania, compounded by the environmental impacts identified above. Evidently the assignment of land delivery duties to the TIC without clear policy guidelines on such foreign investments has aggravated the problem. One may also wonder how the biofuels ‘bandwagon’ fits in to the bigger picture exemplified by the Vision 2025, Mkukuta/Mkuza and Mkurabita strategies for poverty eradication in Tanzania. When TIC and a foreign company have identified a particular area for biofuel production, an application for lease of land has then to be approved by the government. In the case of areas less than 100,000 ha, this may be done at the level of Ministry of lands and human settlement. Larger areas would have to be approved by the president. However, companies may write a series of smaller contracts that add up to a larger total. But areas even very much smaller than 100,000 ha are still very huge indeed and we think it is very unwise to allow one company to control such a big area. It is currently unclear what has actually been approved at the ministry level of the proposed contracts with foreign companies.
There is a set of draft guidelines for biofuels for Tanzania under development. Unfortunately, these guidelines mainly focus on biofuels as a substitute for fossil fuel in Tanzania – which is not what is happening. Foreign companies want to grow biofuels in Tanzania for export (for the reasons mentioned above). The development of these guidelines, and other biofuel frameworks, are supported by 20 million SEK ($3 million) by the Swedish government through SIDA (the Swedish Development Assistance Agency). Who are they assisting: The Tanzanian people or the Swedes? Not surprisingly, these guidelines focus on the possible positive side of liquid biofuels only.
The question is whether it is right for SIDA to support the development of donor-dependent parallel institutions to govern issues of biofuel policy in Tanzania. Shouldn’t existing institutions be supported to strengthen their legitimate roles instead? Is this a sophisticated form of neo-colonialism couched in ‘innocent’ donor platitudes?
‘Eco-friendly’ ethanol fuel for big 4WD Volvos and racy Saabs in Sweden that replaces Tanzanian coastal forests with Swedish-owned sugar plantations, that consumes huge quantities of scarce water, that pollutes soil and coral reefs, and that violates the traditional land-rights of poor people and threatens their food security – what is this if it is not a violation of human rights? Is this a new era of climate colonialism?
During the February 2009, following the exposure of an initial draft of this article on the Swedish Radio website and interviews on Swedish Radio P1 with Ian Bryceson on 28 January 2009 about the SEKAB project, several debates have followed in various Swedish media, as well as an article on ‘Klimakolonialismen’ (Climate colonialism) by Tor Arve Benjaminsen and Ian Bryceson in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet (also published on 28 January 2009). The case has also been exposed in several Tanzanian media by other authors. SEKAB has now announced their withdrawal from Africa in a press release on 2 February 2009, referred to in an article in The Sunday Citizen (010309) in Tanzania.
* This article first appeared in the maiden issue of CHEMCHEMI, Bulletin of the Mwalimu Nyerere Professorial Chair in Pan African Studies of the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the Editorial Board of CHEMCHEMI.
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