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April 05, 2011

Ghana: Jatropha biofuel push faces protests

by Suleiman Mustapha

In Ghana, whether the biofuel crop jatropha will pluck rural farmers from poverty and reduce carbon emissions or displace farmers and gobble up land that could produce food depends very much on who you ask.

For Iddrisu Issifu, who recently handed over his 10 acres to Norwegian-owned Biofuel Africa Limited for jatropha cultivation, the arrival of this drought-resistant tree that produces an oil that can be made into diesel represents a break from constant battles against the vagaries of maize production, particularly as weather patterns shift in response to climate change.

The crop switch also promises greater financial stability for his children, the 43-year-old said, since the Norwegian company has promised to buy the jatropha he cultivates.

But jatropha has arrived rather more ominously in the life of sorghum farmer Salifu Kongom. He says his local chief ordered him off his eight acres of communally-owned land at Kpatcha to another spot nearby after striking a land deal with the same Norwegian company.

“I have been farming there for several years now. How can I just leave and go and start again all over at another place? This is not fair!” the 38-year-old farmer fumed in an interview in the capital, Accra, where he gathered with other anti-jatropha campaigners to describe his experience.

Ghana is set to host one million hectares of jatropha plantations under existing agreements between the government and foreign-owned companies. The plant, grown from Brazil to the Philippines, produces an oily seed that can be crushed and the oil used to make diesel fuel. The remains of the crushed seed can then be used for fertilizer or animal feed.

Growing biofuels like jatropha is seen as a way to curb fossil fuel emissions, limit climate change and boost farmer incomes.

But the mixed reactions among farmers in Ghana parallel a wider debate about the crop’s value, particularly given recent reports suggesting it is not as hardy, climate-friendly and food security-neutral a crop as once hoped.

The latest report, from Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, ActionAid and Nature Kenya, suggested this month that biofuels made from jatropha grown at a proposed plantation in Kenya’s Dakatcha Woodlands could generate between two and a half to six times more greenhouse gases than a similar amount of fossil fuels.

That is because trees will have to be cut to make room for the crop and because of other emissions from the jatropha production and consumption process, the report said.

Promoters of jatropha say the plant can withstand tough, arid conditions not tolerated by food crops, so can be grown on land unsuitable for food production. But critics say it is temperature sensitive, requires fertilizer to thrive and generates a relatively low yield when grown on marginal lands. Such problems have dented its former image as a biofuel wonder crop.

The problems are one reason a noisy anti-jatropha campaign in Ghana by trade unionists and activists is gaining ground, even as investors say that backing away from jatropha would be to the country’s own economic detriment, particularly with the European Union planning to double its use of biofuels by 2020.

Steinar Kolnes, the Norwegian co-owner of Biofuel Africa, says he came up empty-handed after a recent search for European investors in his Ghanaian jatropha enterprise. He has resorted to planting maize, rice and vegetables – crops that are experiencing worldwide price hikes - on some of the land his company bought for biofuel production.

He said civil society organizations in Ghana had scared away investors with “unfounded allegations” about how the land was acquired.

“We have not taken anybody’s land by force,” he said in a telephone interview. “We buy the lands from the chiefs and the real owners based on transparent negotiations.”

He said his company has 660 hectares (1,631 acres) of jatropha under cultivation. But, faced with opposition to the company’s plans in Ghana, he has used some of the remainder of land acquired for jatropha to instead plant maize and other cereals. He said the company planned to plant 2,550 hectares (6,300 acres) of maize, rice and soybeans each year, and expected to generate between 6,000 and 8,000 tons of food a year.

Environmental activists say they fear growth in jatropha production will rob Ghana of biodiversity by reducing the number of crops grown, and will lead to greater use of farm chemicals.

“We are apprehensive of the danger associated with … land acquisition for large-scale plantations, especially jatropha for bio-fuel production in the country, said David Eli, chairman of Ghana’s Food Security Policy Advocacy Network (FoodSPAN).

"This trend is not healthy for the fight against food insecurity, environmental degradation and poverty in the country,” he said.

Similarly, representatives of Ghana’s General Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU) worry that the sale of 10,000 hectares of maize cropland to Biofuel Africa Limited at Jimle/Kpacha, in the Yendi District of Ghana’s Northern region, will dent the country’s food production and entice more chiefs to sell farmland for biofuel production.

GAWU General Secretary Kingsley offei-Nkansah said Kusawgu in the Central Gonja region and Makango in the Gonja East district, also were at risk of losing arable land to biofuel production at a time of rising food prices. Both regions are in the north of Ghana.

Campaigners see the recent creation of jatropha plantations in Togo, Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast and Niger as a threat to food production in the region generally.

“We do not understand how our governments can willingly take our food, land and water to meet the fuel luxuries of the wealthy in the North, when we already face problems of food security and environmental destruction at home”, said Anna Antwie of ActionAid Ghana.

Ghana’s push into biofuels presents a risk that indigenous crop and grazing systems will be lost to jatropha monocultures, she said.

Farmers, however, remain divided about the benefits of jatropha production, suggesting the debate in Ghana is far from over.

Even as Kongom, a communal farmer, protests the loss of his land, Issifu, who sold his land, is celebrating the end of his food-producing years and a move into jatropha production thanks to foreign investors.

“Nowadays, we do not get good prices for our farm produce,” he said. That makes jatropha a more attractive option, he said.


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