Biofuels may meet development needs of Sub-Saharan Africa

BOGOR, Indonesia (3 October, 2011)_Biofuel expansion has enormous potential to stimulate rural development in Sub-Saharan Africa, but ensuring local community benefits and adequate protections for food production and forests will require strategic policy interventions and close collaboration among stakeholders.
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BOGOR, Indonesia (3 October, 2011)_Biofuel expansion has enormous potential to stimulate rural development in Sub-Saharan Africa, but ensuring local community benefits and adequate protections for food production and forests will require strategic policy interventions and close collaboration among stakeholders, according to a new study by the Center for International Forestry Research.

“Africa has a huge land resource greater than all of Europe, North America and China combined,” said Graham von Maltitz, researcher for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa and lead author of the study.

“Biofuel feedstock production is a land-intensive and potentially labor-intensive process- factors that would seem to make it well suited to the African situation.”

Assessing Opportunities and Constraints for Biofuel Development in sub-Saharan Africa examined the possibilities for biofuel expansion as a catalyst for development in an African region where three quarters of the population live on less than US$2 a day.

While biofuel production in subSaharan Africa is still in its infancy and has had very limited success to date, recent increases in oil prices are beginning to revive interest in biofuel development. Biofuels have been touted as a ‘green’ alternative to fossil fuels, however critics of biofuel production argue that the expansion of biofuel development can often contribute to deforestation.

Moreover, increasing land acquisition for biofuel expansion rather than food production in Africa could undermine food security and exacerbate a number of underlying social issues.

Most biofuel production projects, the study found, are large-scale operations that negatively impact local communities. “Large-scale land acquisition poses one of the greatest biofuel-related threats to Africa,” said von Maltitz. “Tracts of land ranging from hundreds of hectares to hundreds of thousands of hectares are being granted to investors. This results in displacement of local communities and local livelihoods.”

Local ownership of biofuel initiatives are also critical for ensuring the improvement of the livelihoods of the people living in areas targeted for biofuel expansion. To aid in directing positive benefits to local communities, the study recommends prioritizing local residents for jobs on biofuel projects; acquiring prior consent from land users and all affected parties; and compensating individuals for loss of livelihood opportunities.

The study urges for increased collaboration between government and the biofuel industry which, von Maltitz hopes, will ensure that biofuel development can enhance livelihoods by bringing in urgently needed investment in the agricultural sector that would result in improved infrastructure and increased cash income in impoverished rural areas.

Biofuel development may help promote a healthier food production sector,” said von Maltitz. “Both the biofuel industry and government need to take appropriate steps to ensure a synergistic outcome where both food and fuel production takes place to the benefit of local communities.”

Certification requirements for biofuel sales to EU markets are also a powerful incentive for biofuel companies to ensure their operations enhance local livelihoods. The study suggests that stringent legislation, especially regarding tenure and labor issues, may help to reduce not only the social but also environmental impacts of biofuel expansion.

“In some instances biofuels will lead to deforestation, but Africa is responding rapidly to environmental and social challenges related to biofuel development,” said von Maltitz. Certification requirements in the European Union are a powerful disincentive to cutting forests for biofuel production, he added, but urged a limitation of biofuel production to non-forest areas and allocation of already degraded lands for biofuel plantations.

The most common biofuel projects in Africa involve the cultivation of jatropha (Jatropha curcas), a shrub-like plant whose seeds can be processed to produce a high-quality biodiesel fuel. Most jatropha projects are newly established and will take five to seven years before mature yields are reached, but initial indications from the few operational jatropha plantations have so far produced only small volumes of oil.

“Jatropha-based projects have been extremely disappointing, with jatropha not living up to many of the early claims,” said von Maltitz. “Clearly a lot more research is needed around jatropha before it can be widely distributed as a biofuel crop.”

While a number of African countries are now developing new policy frameworks to deal with biofuel expansion, they must ensure that development takes place in a manner most beneficial to the needs of the environment and the people living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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