Africa and agrofuels (biofuels is a big misnomer)

Column # 648   Agrofuels Threaten to Worsen Hunger in Africa  03/12/07

Despite the fact that slavery had an immense impact on North Americans historically, and still has lingering effects today, most of us know very little about the continent that was the source of that horrific trade. Though the impacts in Canada were not as profound as in the U.S., slavery here ended only 33 years earlier than it did there. Today, we are again home to tens of thousands of Africans who come to Canada as immigrants and refugees.

Slavery was not the only problem Europeans and their descendants brought to Africa. Colonialism was part of the same era, and did not end in Africa until well into the mid-Twentieth Century. The effects linger today. The African continent is home to most of the poorest countries on earth, and political instability is widespread. Modern day colonialism means the developed world still sees Africa as a source of wealth to be extracted and taken elsewhere, whether it be oil, diamonds, gold or food.

Food is indeed the Achilles heel of much of Africa. It is estimated that one-third of Africa's nearly 900 million people are hungry. The result is that a continent that was more than self sufficient in food 50 years ago, is now a massive food importer. Hunger, of course, accompanies poverty. Half of Africans live on less than $1 a day; while fully 80 percent live on less than $2 a day.

Western countries, in contrast, are swimming in food. In an effort to beat down what is seen as a surplus, we recently began turning food, mainly corn and oilseeds, into liquid fuels to fill our insatiable gas tanks. The rest of the world has noticed this and has jumped on the agrofuels bandwagon. For those with this product to sell, there seems to be no limit to the demand. Even in food deprived Africa, some national governments are embracing the rush to keep our SUV's on the road.

This new gold rush is controlled by the same multi-national companies that control agriculture and food world-wide. They are taking over Africa's land at an incredible pace, and bringing about disastrous socio-economic and environmental impacts on communities, food security, forests and water resources. This land grab is made possible by the fact that as much as 70 percent of Africa's land is still communally owned. Governments controlled by the country's elite are anxious to cash in and local subsistence and small farmers are thrown off their land to enable the transfer to foreign investors. Production of agrofuels could replace millions of hectares of local agricultural systems, and the rural communities in them, with large plantations. In just one example, a European investor has been granted 13,000 hectares of land in Oromia state in Ethiopia. Eighty-seven percent of this area is the Babele Elephant Sanctuary.

Some defenders of agrofuel production in Africa argue that these crops represent a chance for small farmers to sell a product in high demand at good prices. This short-sighted argument ignores the fact that the development will not occur, and is not occurring, in a benign fashion. Plantation style growing of crops like jatropha, sugar cane and palm oil will push smallholders off their land, with the blessing of many governments. These displaced farmers will be forced to become the new workers on the plantations while their own families go hungry. A food-insecure continent can ill-afford to export food as fuel, only to have to import expensive food from elsewhere.

Thirty non-governmental organizations in Africa recently called for a moratorium on agrofuel production there. They stated their case this way: "A full car tank of ethanol uses the same amount of grain that can feed a child for a year. We do not understand how our governments can willingly take our food, land and water to meet the fuel luxuries of the wealthy in the North, when we already face problems of food security and environmental destruction at home."

Whether we like it or not, Canadians are participants in this problem. Our hunger for energy and our enthusiasm over agrofuels has impacts we are only beginning to understand.

(c) Paul Beingessner   (306) 868-4734 phone    868-2009 fax    beingessner@sasktel.net