Biofuel Sustainability and International Land Grabs
Are the scales of justice blind? Not when there are Jatropha plantations to irrigate.
NGO-supported microenterprises (Mulondolwa Jatropha Industry pictured here) have helped create a limited market outlet for failing large-scale outgrower schemes.
Biofuels are enjoying a bit of a renaissance after public backlash against first generation biofuels led to a reexamination of public policy. Getting a significant boost from the United States’ RFS2 and LCFS, as well as the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, advanced biofuels derived from Jatropha and other non-food crops in particular are starting to get traction.
In addition to making headway towards commercialization, advanced biofuels are beginning to penetrate the aviation biofuels and biochemical markets. The number of Jatropha, Camelina, and algae-powered commercial flights is accelerating every week. The picture above shows soap made from large-scale Jatropha growers.
But at what cost?
Despite a concerted step towards ensuring sustainability, it appears well-intentioned policies in the West are failing to compel all corners of the biofuels industry to comply. For the past several years, organizations like the Oakland Institute, which recently released a study examining biofuel land grabs in Africa, and researchers, including Tim Searchinger, have attempted to show that the biofuel industry has a dark underbelly despite its claims of environmental utility.
In the Tana Delta region of Kenya, villagers are fighting for their plots of land as the government forces them out to make way for water-thirsty sugarcane and Jatropha plantations. These so-called biofuel evictions are often shrouded in secrecy as they often take place in far off corners of the globe. The Tana Delta region, which is already stricken with draught, is just another target of biofuel geopolitics as firms in the West seek cheap, arable land abroad:
The delta’s people are trying to fight their own government over the huge blocks of land being turned over to companies including the Canadian company Bedford Biofuels, which was granted a licence this year by the Kenyan environmental regulator for a 10,000-hectare jatropha “pilot” project. A UK-based firm, G4 Industries Limited, has been awarded a licence for 28,000 hectares.
In many cases, the contracts supporting these acquisitions lack adequate protections for the environment and the people living in it. It’s bitter irony when you consider the fact that UN’s Environment Program (UNEP) is located a short distance away in Nairobi. I wrote in The New Energy Geopolotics: the biofuel-land nexus:
Backed by investments from national governments, private companies acquiring land abroad are resisting a global code of conduct that would ensure transparency as well as facilitate emerging sustainability certifications…Although international standards to protect the marginalized poor are elucidated by international organizations, including the United Nations, and corporate social responsibility standards offer some protection against the worst abuses from multinationals, a sufficiently binding regulatory framework compelling investors to account for local populations’ interests has not yet developed.
But maybe all this is good for biofuels over the long-term? While the industry needs to produce to attract investors and gain momentum to further expand, it also needs to protect its public image or risk being maligned by questionable business ethics.
Exposing the industry’s social and environmental shortcomings could serve it well by forcing it to focus more on the energy security benefits it provides rather than continuing to expand under the guise of ecological irreproachability.
Image: Flickr/Jeff Walker/CIFOR