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Biofuel demand and Africa: threat to wetlands and forests


Bonn, 26 May Africa is expected to produce a relatively small but still substantial part of the global biofuel demand. Millions of hectares will be turned into large scale biofuel plantations. This will hardly take place in current agricultural areas. Especially natural areas of wetlands and rainforest – the hotspots for biodiversity - are vulnerable for this development.

These are the main outcomes of the study ‘Biofuel production in Africa’ (1), today presented by Wetlands International at the Convention of Biological Diversity in Bonn. The report describes the expected impact of biofuel production on African wetlands and their values in 2020.

Little risk for African wide food production

Africa wide food production is not directly at risk being pushed away by biofuel production. Although millions of African hectares might be turned into biofuel production, this will largely take place outside existing agricultural areas. The African share of biofuel production for EU and North American and upcoming Asian markets is expected to remain relatively modest in the coming decades (an assumed 5% in 2020).

Major consumer markets (US, EU) will preferably support their own agricultural sector to produce feedstocks for biofuels. Countries like Brazil will remain better equipped to extend its biofuel production and to serve the world markets with low production costs.

Increasing agricultural prices

A large and increasing share of European and American agricultural production is turned into biofuels. As a result, African food prices too will rise. This creates opportunities for farmers but also jeopardizes the position of the landless and urban poor when foodprices rise.

Promising crops cause wetland loss

The most promising crops are sugar cane for ethanol and palm oil for biodiesel; and sorghum and cassava at a later stage. Jatropha will only be attractive for smallholders, for local use; not for global markets. Oil palm fruits and sugar cane are very perishable and need processing within one or two days. This demands huge plantations of thousands of hectares in the proximity of a mill. These crops also use lots of water, usually much more than rainfall provides.

These two factors make natural wetlands and rainforests with uninhabited or communal lands very attractive areas for biofuel production: enough water and little problems with land rights when establishing huge plantations at once. Even with a modest share at the global level, African biofuel production for the Northern markets and for domestic African use will demand millions of hectares in Africa.

The areas at risk, with low population densities and enough fresh water are also the most important ‘hotspots’ for African biodiversity. Similar trends are visible in South-east Asia where complex land rights in populated areas make peatswamp forests popular for palm oil plantations. The first examples in Africa (like the Tana wetlands in Kenya, Tanoé swamp forest Ivory Coast) confirm this expectation.

Impact on people locally

In addition to the loss of natural areas, biofuel production has negative local impacts on people downstream of the plantations. Biofuels like sugar cane consume large quantities of water, cause erosion and demand fertilizer and pesticides.

Especially in Africa, this will affect many people as many directly depend on water quantity and quality of nearby wetlands such as rivers and marshes. Locally, food production might be at threat by the establishment of biofuel plantations.

The need for rapid processing of feedstocks make farmers dependent on the owners of the mills. This makes exploitation of farmers more likely than for other cash crops, with little opportunities for smallholders.

Opportunities for Africa

While biofuel production for EU and USA markets are expected remain relatively modest, according to the study there are promising opportunities for African countries to shift their fuel demands to biofuels. Currently, African countries spend around 10 to 20% of their import value on fuels. This is increasing due to high oil prices. Biofuels can provide better energy security, improved trade balance and create added value.

Wetlands International sees major threats but also opportunities for biofuel production in Africa. The NGO calls for global biodiversity and social criteria to apply in consumer countries, producing countries and within product sectors and for donor policies to guide this major development. Wetlands International is working on an early warning system of wetland conversion.

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