Africa’s Green Gold Rush

Spiegel Online covers a green energy phenomenon currently occurring all over Africa, companies vying for farmland to produce biofuel from the “Jatropha curcas” plant, which has a high energy and oil content:

The Tanzanian government has granted the British firm Sun Biofuels the use of 9,000 hectares (22,230 acres) of sparsely populated farmland, or enough land to cover about 12,000 soccer fields, for a period of 99 years — free of charge. In return, the company will invest about $20 million (€13 million) to build roads and schools, bringing a modicum of prosperity to the region.

Sun Biofuels is not alone. In fact, half a dozen other companies from the Netherlands, the United States, Sweden, Japan, Canada and Germany have already sent their scouts to Tanzania. Prokon, a German company known primarily for its wind turbines, has already begun growing jatropha curcas on a large scale. It expects to have 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) — an area about the size of Luxembourg — under cultivation throughout Tanzania soon.

Biofuel production becomes profitable as soon as the price of a barrel of crude oil exceeds $100 (€69) on the world market. A barrel currently goes for just over $100.

Whenever foreign investors tap Africa, there’s some degree of human rights outcry
. The Spiegel article lists several concerns:

-Biofuel crops will take away from the food supply
-Companies are cheating illiterate tribal leaders by making them consent to written contracts that they can’t understand
-Other companies, such as mining concerns, have made infrastructure promises in the past and never delivered
-Biofuel crops will force people to resettle

These concerns are valid, but not terribly original. Counterpoints:

-The plant can grow in the desert, so I doubt it will compete with food crops.
-No matter how they sign contracts, tribal leaders are still giving up their land in exchange for much-needed money. It’s not like the companies are seizing land with mercenary armies.
-Many companies *have* delivered on their infrastructure promises in the past.
-African leaders, many of whom are corrupt, aren’t looking out for peoples’ rights in the first place.
-Many African farmers are subsistence farmers who use unsustainable slash-and-burn methods when growing new crops. The food supply is not only limited, but often terribly inefficient. If companies pass on growing knowledge, they could actually help the farmers.

The article pretty much decries the green growers as evil, but in this case, I think they’re wrong.

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  • Back it up

    “African leaders, many of whom are corrupt, aren’t looking out for peoples’ rights in the first place.”

    So that makes it okay for foreign investors to take advantage? I think not.

  • rakau

    The old argument, african leaders are corrupt! well if you dangle a money in front of poor people one is bound to be tempted – entrapment?