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Many farmers who were duped into growing crops for biofuels have nothing to show for their investment. As well, the biofuels craze is behind land grabs in Africa

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Mahatma Gandhi once remarked.

The 2007/8 sharp food price rises and associated riots by citizens sent panic across the food security corridors. The rise has been linked to increased speculation and a shift to biofuels crops for energy. These crops range from jatropha, cassava, sweet sorghum, sugar cane, sugar beet, maize, soybean to oil palm and others. In this scandal of growing food for engines instead of stomachs, the Jathropha plant has become a scandal within a scandal.

Jathropa plant is an oil-bearing shrub, a castor bean bush. At beginning of 20th century, Henry Ford used ethanol his Model Ts with ethanol. The plant was used in the Second World War, in Benin and Madagascar as surrogate for biodiesel. In parts of South Africa and Australia jathropha plant is banned for commercial production, an invasive plant. In Kenya, it has been planted in the Dakatcha woodlands of Kenya’s coastal district of Malindi.

Promotion of jathropha plant in Kenya wasn’t grounded on evidenced derived locally. Gains for poor smallholder farmers were never thought of. For a long time in Kenya, the plant was considered a weed and used by farmers in farm fencing, only until 2000 when some actors promoted it as an economically viable plant that was going to drive out poverty.

The plant has been mistaken as best suited for drier areas and a viable source of green energy. On the contrary, it comes with many tribulations. Small holder farmers who have planted jathropha have faced mountains of predicaments ranging from lack of returns on investment, limited market for jathropha seeds, environmental destruction to loss of biodiversity. The crop’s diseased nature has frustrated the poor farmers. The crop was perceived to do well in arid areas, yet it requires a lot of water for cleaning the plants, the seeds and as an evaporative coolant.This beats the logic that it’s a magical crop for the poor communities living in drier areas, as it can easily amplify the conflict over water resources. The plant has resulted in change of land use and land use management, through emitting between 2.5 and six times more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. Biofuels have a lower energy output than fossil fuels, high cost associated with developing manufacturing plants, increased carbon emission throughout its entire cycle.

In 2008, an estimated 120,000 hectares of Africa grew the jathropha. These figures are widely believed to have increased since then.

By 2022, the 2007 US Energy bill will have quintupled the biofuels to 36 billion gallons. The current EU law calls for a 10 percent of transport energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. EU and US targets of achieving bio fuel, and green energy. This has sparked a wild rush to Africa by foreign governments and multinationals, using the ‘unequal power’ tools arm-twists the weak African governments for lands. The end result has been forceful eviction of the poor powerless and voiceless communities from their lands, to the horizons of seclusion, misery, hopelessness and cycle of poverty. Thus the massive violation of human rights and the cementing the cycle of poverty.

What about exploring better alternatives? Instead better targets could be achieved such as use of electric cars, to allow channeling of food into the stomachs rather than the engines. Why not focus on reduction of energy consumption after all?

The protect the poor communities requires participatory development process across policy frameworks, laws and measures to counter land grabs associated with biofuels, eliminating ‘biofuel energy targets’, exploring other viable energy sources and safeguarding of citizens human rights in context of food and energy sectors. Let’s not embrace bio-fuels; it’s a threat regional food security.


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* Cheruiyot Collins is a Pan Africanist working in Nairobi as a Policy Advocacy Adviser for the Horn and East African Region .The views expresses here are personal.