Colonialism, Redux: European Companies Grab African Land in Bid for Biofuels

One continent’s environmental victory could be another’s downfall.



One continent’s environmental victory could be another’s downfall. Take, for example, the European Union’s biofuels
target (20% of liquid transport fuels must come from renewable sources by
2020), which is prompting European companies to participate in African land grabs that threaten to increase food scarcity. Even worse, the deals are often made without consent from local communities, reports Monga Bay.

A recent report (PDF) from Friends of the Earth claims that a third of all land sold or acquired in Africa is meant for fuel crops (i.e. jatropha, sugar cane, oil palm, cassava). In many cases, pressure on farmland has triggered companies to clear forests in the name of agrofuel plantation. FOE recounts one particularly disturbing case where land inside an Ethiopian elephant sanctuary was cleared to make way for biofuel crops. The situation, is according to FOE, a “form of ‘neo-colonialism’ with the rich buying up land to secure access to food and fuel.”

Of course, not all African countries are experiencing land grabs at the same rate. The hardest hit include Mozambique (over 183,000 hectares allocated for jatropha), Benin (400,000 hectares of wetlands to be converted to oil palm crops), Sierra Leone (Swiss company Addax Bioenergy purchased 26,000 hectares for sugarcane), and Ghana (over 800,000 hectares purchased by international biofuel companies). These unlucky countries are subject to a range of problems–soil degradation, loss of arable land for food, increase in food prices, and water depletion, among other things.

There is little that can be done besides calling out the companies involved. And in fact, FOE suggests that this might work–Swedish company Skebab, one of Europe’s largest biofuel producers, recently pulled out of Africa because of controversy over its operations in Tanzania. We can only hope that other companies follow suit.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more