Africa mulls biofuels as land grab fears grow
By Simon Akam
YAINKASA, Sierra Leone (Reuters) - Farmers in this iron-roof village in Sierra Leone say they didn't know what they were getting into when they leased their land for a biofuel crop they now fear threatens their food harvests.
Addax Bioenergy, part of privately-owned Swiss Addax & Oryx Group, says it went through long consultations with locals when it won a lease for around 50,000 hectares (123,600 acres) for ethanol sugarcane in the poor West African country's centre.
Despite that, a land dispute has flared up, one that highlights a major obstacle to efforts to tackle climate change by growing fuel in some of the world's poorest places.
"We were tricked. We feel the way we're being treated is not in line with our agreement," said rice farmer Alie Bangura, 68. "They promised things when we gave up our land that didn't happen."
Addax says a large share of a competitive $12 per hectare goes directly to farmers, rather than via landlords or officials, and that a development programme to help farmers improve yields will ensure all villages have enough to eat.
Proponents of biofuel crops in rural Africa say they will help fight climate change, meet Africa's own chronic energy shortages and give badly needed income from under-used farmland; critics say they take food out of hungry mouths by turning arable land over to feed cars, stoking tension with communities.
As environment ministers gathered in the Mexican resort of Cancun on Sunday for U.N. talks aiming for agreement on steps to slow down global warming, biofuels are likely to get little attention as doubts grow about whether they are realistic.
By one estimate, satisfying the EU's biofuel targets alone will require an additional 4.5 million hectares of land by 2020, an area the size of Denmark. Continued...