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September 19, 2010

Biofuel demand driving Africa "land grab," threatens food security-report

Biofuel demand is driving a new "land grab" in Africa, with at least 5 million hectares (19,300 sq miles) acquired by foreign firms to grow crops in 11 countries, a study by an environmental group has said.

The contracts by European and Asian companies for land to grow sugar cane, jatropha and palm oil to be turned into fuel will involve clearing forests and vegetation, taking land that could be used for food and creating conflicts with local communities, Friends of the Earth said in the study.

Proponents of biofuels argue they are renewable and can help fight climate change because the growing plants ingest as much carbon dioxide from the air as the fuels made from them emit when burned.

Critics say there is a risk of the crops infringing on land that could be used for growing food and that destruction of rainforests to make way for palm oil and sugar outweighs any carbon benefits gained from the use of such fuels.

"The expansion of biofuels ... is transforming forests and natural vegetation into fuel crops, taking away food-growing farmland from communities, and creating conflicts with local people over land ownership," Mariann Bassey, a Friends of the Earth Nigeria activist, said in a statement.

The report said Kenya and Angola each had received proposals for the use of 500,000 hectares for biofuels and there was a similar plan to use 400,000 hectares in Benin for palm oil.

Rice farmers had been forced off their land for a sugar cane project in Tanzania, it added.

"The competition for land and the competition for staple food crops such as cassava and sweet sorghum for agrofuels is likely to push up food and land prices," the study said.

Other studies have suggested biofuel expansion would not be harmful and could even be beneficial for African agriculture.

Last month, researchers from Britain's Imperial College, carbon trader CAMCO, and the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) said biofuels would boost investment in land and infrastructure.

They said this could have a positive effect on food production, and if properly managed would not mean destroying natural forests.

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