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March 23, 2011

Kenyans fear biofuel expansion in woodlands area

by Will Ross

Sitting in the shade of a tree beside his thatched mud hut in in Kenya's Dakatcha Woodlands, Joshua Kahindi Pekeshe is defiant.

"We are not going to let this land go even if it means shedding blood," he said. "Land is very important to us. We farm and get our livelihood from it. On this land we bury our dead."

He is one of the many people opposed to the creation of a large biofuel plantation in the area, about an hour's drive inland from the coastal town of Malindi.

It is an arid area and home to some 20,000 people as well as globally threatened animal and bird species. Ambitious goals

An Italian company has asked the authorities for permission to lease 50,000 hectares there to grow jatropha, whose seeds are rich in oil that can be turned into bio-diesel.

This plant, originally from South America, has long been grown in Africa as a hedge to keep out animals - goats stay well away as it is poisonous. The area affected is community land which is being held in trust by the local council.

Kenya Jatropha Energy Ltd is 100%-owned by the Milan-based Nuove Iniziative Industriali SRL.

It has leased almost a million hectares in Africa; jatropha oil from a plantation in Senegal is being supplied to the Swedish furniture retailer Ikea. Other companies have leased land for the same purpose in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Ghana, as well as in India.

This expansion has been spurred by the European Union, which has set ambitious goals for lowering greenhouse gas emissions and reducing its reliance on imported oil. The 27 EU nations have signed up to a directive which states that by 2020, 20% of fuel should be from sustainable sources.

Why is Africa affected? Because it is difficult to find 50,000 hectares of available land to grow a biofuel crop in, for example, the UK or Italy. But campaign groups have labelled some of the projects in Africa "land grabs" with dire consequences for the often voiceless African communities.

Some ask: "Why 'feed' a car in Europe when hunger at home is still a reality?"

"Our future is no longer in our hands. We have been told we have to move because they want to plant jatropha here," said 27-year-old Merciline Koi, a mother of two, who added that there had been no offer of compensation for leaving her home in Dakatcha Woodlands.

Kenya Jetropha Energy Ltd says the negotiations are over - the government has given the green light for a pilot project to start with 10,000 hectares and all it is waiting for now is the final documentation.

The company says hundreds of permanent and thousands of seasonal jobs will be created and it denies that anyone will be displaced by the project.

"We want to protect the houses and the private property. We will farm around the houses," Kenya Jatropha Energy Ltd head Girardello Adriano told the BBC from Milan.

"We are helping these people. They are very happy for this project. No-one will be moved." How green are biofuels?

According to the Kenyan government's environment watchdog, the deal has not yet been sealed. It turned down the initial 50,000-hectare request citing concerns over the impact on the environment and the sustainability of the project.

The report shows that EU policies are foolish policies” Chris Coxon ActionAid

"We were recommending 1,000 hectares... We have told them to justify if the number has to change and that is why we haven't approved the project up to now," said Benjamin Malwa Langwen, of the National Environment Management Authority (Nema).

However, there are now fresh calls for the Dakatcha project to be scrapped as new research casts doubt on whether jatropha is really a greener alternative to oil.

The anti-poverty campaign group ActionAid and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) commissioned a report to investigate just how green the jatropha project in Kenya's Dakatcha woodlands would be.

The study by the consultancy group North Energy found that jatropha would emit between 2.5 and six times more greenhouse gases when compared to fossil fuels.

This is partly because large amounts of carbon are stored in the woodlands' vegetation and soil but the plantation would mean clearing the land of this vegetation.

"The report shows that EU policies are foolish policies because they are not reducing greenhouse gas emissions as the EU is proclaiming," said ActionAid's Chris Coxon.

"The proposed biofuel plantation will devastate the woodlands, driving the globally threatened Clarke's Weaver bird to extinction and depriving thousands of local people of their livelihoods," said Helen Byron of the RSPB.

In response, the EU Commission defended its energy policy as "the most comprehensive and advanced sustainability scheme for biofuels anywhere in the world". Unorthodox methods

At the remote Mulunguni primary school, which lies within the Dakatcha Woodlands, several new classrooms and pit latrines have just been built. They were part funded by the European Union - the very organisation which is now accused of pushing policies which locals fear could see the school closed down.

"My worry is the displacement of the community. It is not good to build a classroom and then send the pupils away," said the deputy head Godfrey Karissa. "Yes we need jobs. But a farm without a home is not good. You need to have a home before you go to your job."

There are clearly concerns on the ground that once the lease is signed, the population will be at the mercy of a profit-driven company.

Ikea says it will not source jatropha oil from Kenya until it can be sure that this will not contribute to the conversion of natural habitats.

"This switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy must never be at the expense of people or the environment," Ikea said in a statement.

The woodlands are also a rich source of material for traditional medicine.

If they feel let down by the government and the local authorities, residents just may turn to unorthodox methods in a bid to keep the land.

"If all the elders come together for one objective, then it is very easy to remove him with our medicines," said Barova Kiribai, a traditional healer, referring to the owner of the Italian biofuels company.

The fate of the people here is in the hands of the Kenyan government and Malindi's municipal council.

It is not surprising they are worried.

Kenya's politicians do not have a good track record when it comes to working in the interests of the people.


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