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Land grabs: the unintended consequences of biofuels

Access to land is one of the oldest sources of conflict. It’s written deep into Britain’s history through the enclosure acts and the seizing of the commons – a process that shaped the landscape, drove people into the cities, and through the industrial revolution, changed the world forever. It’s an injustice that’s never been corrected, and 70% of Britain’s land is still owned by just 1% of the population.

That story is being told time and time again across the world. For the nobility and the crown, read corporations and local elites, but otherwise it’s a similar tale. Many recent incidences have been driven by rapid expansion in the markets for key cash crops, and one of the fastest growing markets has been biofuels.

While some countries have used biofuels for decades (Brazil put in place a biofuels policy in response to the oil crisis of the 1970s) it’s a relatively new approach for many others. In particular, the US and the EU have biofuel targets, and mandatory percentages in the fuel mix and subsidies for biofuel production. The targets are in place to lower carbon emissions and improve energy security, but of course they’ve also created a booming market for biofuels.

That has had unintended consequences, such as the rise in food prices as an increasing slice of grain harvests are channeled into fuels. It’s also provoked a rash of land grabs to plant new plantations of jatropha or oil palms. It’s a rather sorry side-effect of a policy that doesn’t even work in the first place – most biofuels are no more environmentally-friendly than fossil fuels.

ActionAid are currently highlighting the experiences of a community in Tanzania, and it makes an interesting case study in how this process has been playing out in developing countries. Sun Biofuels arrived in Kisarawe, in Eastern Tanzania, in 2006. They were looking for land to plant jatropha, and managed to secure a 8,200 hectares – an area the size of 11,000 football pitches. Local people were promised compensation for the land, and the company promised to build wells, roads, clinics and schools.

Five years later, none of that promised infrastructure or services has been delivered. Most people have not been compensated, and those that have were unable to negotiate a fair price. Unable to access former water sources, but without the promised wells, Halima Ali explains the position the locals have been left in:

13 year old Mariam Shabani shares what this means to her, how this has affected her way of life and her education:

To make matters worse, Sun Biofuels has gone bankrupt, so those that were able to get jobs on the new plantation have now lost them. The land has been sold to a mysterious company registered in the tax haven of Mauritius. The local people are unable to return to their land, and Ramadhani Athumani Lwinde explains, there is nobody to take their complaints to either.

Kisarawe isn’t the only place facing these sorts of biofuels gold-rush misadventures. There are at least two more plantations in Tanzania, owned by other companies, and an investigation by the Observer found a string of such cases in 15 African countries. Many of these cases seem to end in bankruptcy, and a tangled web of ownership agreements. It suggests either businesses in a hurry to capitalise on market expansion and failing to do due diligence, or companies that have been set up to attract investment capital with little intention of running an actual plantation.

Either way, all of these incidences are driven by the rush to biofuels. While there is nothing wrong with biofuels if they can be shown to be low-carbon, the targets and subsidies have run ahead of quality control and market regulation. The result has been socially disastrous and environmentally useless. Click here to sign the petition to end Britain’s perverse biofuels targets.

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