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January 09, 2008

DR Congo has huge biofuels potential: UN expert

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of Africa's most promising biofuels producers due to its vast amount of farmland suited to a range of crops from palm oil to soybeans, a top UN economist has said.

Dr. Josef Schmidhuber, senior economist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said the DRC had 80-115 million hectares of unused arable land, 4 million of which could be irrigated."The DRC and many of the African countries have an enormous agri-ecological potential," Schmidhuber said. "They have production potential for more than (sugar) cane: palm oil, maize, jatropha, cassava even soybeans -- whatever is suited to tropical and highland conditions."

Many countries seeking to produce biofuels have run into problems over the use of land, and environmental campaigners have accused palm oil growers in Indonesia, for instance, of cutting down rain forests to make room for feedstock.

Schmidhuber said this need not be an issue in Congo, home to the world's second largest rainforest, given the substantial amount of arable land outside precious rain forest areas. "The normal perception is that biofuels destroy the environment, particularly palm oil on existing rain forest land, but that doesn't have to be the case."

Schmidhuber added that using land for energy crops should not necessarily be at the expense of food production. In fact, producing bioenergy from domestic agriculture could boost productivity, as a lack of energy is a key factor holding back agricultural productivity and food production.

DRC, in central-eastern Africa, is rich in natural resources with a land area the size of western Europe but years of civil war have hindered economic growth and inward investment.

Schmidhuber said it would be difficult to produce biofuels for export and Congo would benefit most by providing fuel for domestic consumption. "You have to bear in mind barely 1 percent of the rural population has access to electricity ... There's a need for empowerment and to be sufficient in energy and not just food."

He said capital investment in the sector from abroad depended on the scale of demand, referring to China's well-established interest and investment activity in Congo. "Domestic support seems to be there, there is a government programme that essentially stresses that one should try to explore energy options with the objective to produce motor-fuel and electricity," Schmidhuber said. Latest World Bank figures show $402 million of foreign direct investment went to Congo in 2005.

Other countries with similar potential to supply themselves with biofuels were Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, Schmidhuber added.

The Guardian

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