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November 19, 2008

Struggling Ethiopian farmers regret opting for biofuel crops over food crops

by Aaron Maasho Sodo

With a slight reeling in his gait, Ashenafi Chote ventures into his small plot of land and shakes his head, his eyes full of regret: "I made a mistake."

For the last 10 years, his plot in southern Ethiopia had kept his family of four alive by supplying enough food to eat and even surplus to sell, in a region often ravaged by drought and food shortages. But since swapping from a subsistence to a biofuel crop several months ago, his once treasured source of income has dried up and, worse still, he and his family are now dependent on relief from aid agencies.

"I used to get four quintals (100 kilograms, 220 pounds) of maize from my land from every harvest and earn more than 2,400 birr (240 dollars). But now, I have lost my precious source," the 25-year-old father of two said. I shouldn't have accepted their offer," he added.

In the sprawling farmlands surrounding Wolaytta district, 350 kilometres (215 miles) south of the capital Addis Ababa, the thorny foliage of castor bean stalks is slowly replacing the swaying maize fields most locals depended on.

As impoverished and landlocked Ethiopia was choked by high oil prices, the government allocated more than 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) for biofuel crops development as part of a national strategy enacted last year. Its development was, and still is, highly encouraged, with foreign companies given incentives and a relatively easy process to start up production ventures.

The Horn of Africa nation's vast land expanse of more than a million square kilometres (386,000 square miles), of which only 18 percent has been cultivated, is attracting an increasing amount of foreign suitors involved in the industry.

"It is considered a very important area to develop. The balance of payment (spent on petrol) is very high and we want to decrease this burden by encouraging private investment," said Melis Teka, deputy head of energy regulation and biofuel development at the ministry of mines. "There is no possibility that arable farmland will be allocated for its purpose," he insisted.

But in Wolaytta, where nearly half of the two-million population do not have enough to eat, several thousand farmers like Ashenafi are complaining that they have been duped into growing biofuel crops on fertile land at the expense of maize, cassava and sweet potato, the region's staples.

Farmers say Global Energy Ethiopia, an American-Israeli subsidiary which initially acquired 2,700 hectares to grow castor beans -- a toxic plant whose seed provides castor oil, lured them with false claims of continuous harvests and financial incentives.

"Experts who told us we could have up to three harvests a year and they would pay 500 birr (50 dollars) in labour costs," 45-year-old Borja Abusha, a father of eight, said. "But it has now been six months without a harvest and they haven't respected their promise to cover costs. We are left with nothing."

Borja said even if he changes his mind, he will have to wait for several months to reap yields from food harvests.

The rising demand for biofuels in Western countries with dwindling oil resources and a new environmental conscience has been blamed as a key factor in the food crisis that sparked riots this year in several poor nations.

Over 9,500 farmers are now growing the crop in Wolaytta, of which a significant amount are using very arable plots.

"It is unbelievable. Castor plots have so rapidly expanded that they are even depriving us of space for graveyards," environmentalist Gebremedhine Birega said.

Yanai Man, CEO of Global Energy, disputed such allegations, however. "We don't even allow farmers to grow the beans on more than a third of their land. So we are not lowering food production," he said in a phone interview.

Man said the company had so far invested nearly two million dollars for its projects in the region, and planned to provide education and medical services to impoverished locals as well as take steps to protect the environment.

However he admitted that none of the farmers had received payments, saying it was due to a delay in receiving bank loans his company applied for.

So far, the authorities in the region are giving companies the benefit of the doubt, assessing potential benefits if they ever come. But experts are urging farmers not to use the crops.

"We are campaigning for farmers who have planted castor seeds to uproot. It's not acceptable to undertake such practices in food insecure areas," Gebremedhine said.

A small number have already been convinced.

"I asked myself about the long-term benefits and then decided not to grow castor. I would rather not dare to risk losing food to eat for myself and my family," said Abraham Tona.


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