Large scale oil palm plantations for agrofuel
The race for agrofuels has reached Benin.
With heavy support from the government and forming a key part
of the “agricultural revival strategy” promoted by the IMF restructuring
programme, millions of hectares of agricultural and forest land
are to be turned over to agrofuel production for export, with
no discussion or concern for the impacts that this will have on
the Beninese, their food production and their environment.
The research undertaken by Josea Doussou
Bodjrenou of Nature- Tropicale exposes how the discussion about
new agrofuel developments has clearly been about production for
export and maximising profit. Information about specific development
plans, land targets, or deals with foreign companies and governments
have been difficult to obtain, and there is a virtual vacuum of
legislation in which these developments are going ahead.
Benin’s Agricultural Revival Programme
will entail significant palm oil developments, as well as the
scaling up of biodiesel from Jatropha, peanuts, and bioethanol
from sugarcane, manioc and other crops.
Oil palm is native to the wetlands of
Western Africa. There are already a number of palm tree monoculture
plantations in the South of Benin, but these should only serve
as a warning against future developments, due to the complications
and difficulties experienced by communities attempting to sell
their palm products. The community cooperatives that coordinate
the palm sales with government have been plagued by a history
of corruption and conflict. Into this scenario, private companies
have stepped in, offering to buy the oil directly from the communities,
at a higher price. But when the communities switched over, and
gave their products to the industries, the companies failed to
pay. Benin palm oil cooperatives found themselves in trouble,
but without sympathy or help from government.
Now, the government aims to find 300,000-400,000
hectares of land in the humid Southern Benin areas of Oueme, Plateau,
Atlantic, Mono, Couffo and Zou for oil palm plantations. This
zone hosts 50% of the country’s population on only 7.7% of the
national territory. This suggests that agrofuels will be competing
with food production in the prime agricultural lands of Benin.
Much of the food crops will also be used for agrofuel production.
Industrial companies will be supported to obtain land for these
initiatives. Although policy is not clear on where, or from whom,
this land is to come, it is likely that small scale farmers will
be excluded where their interests conflict with industries.
Looking at demographic growth rates
in Benin, especially in urbanised areas, it is obvious that maintaining
food supply will call for an increase in food crops, especially
root crops. But it is clear that the production of biofuels will
drive farmers to allocate less land to food crops, leading to
food insecurity. In Northern Benin, in the Banikoara region, farmers
abandoned production of food crops for cash crops: cotton and
peanuts. Today, food insecurity is rife. Where once they fed themselves,
the World Food Program (WFP) and the Catholic Relief Services
now feed populations. Most of the population’s purchasing power
is very low, and the increase in food prices due to decreased
stocks, will favour imports and distribution of poor quality foods,
food aid dependency, and possibly GMOs.
The government of Benin is not openly
admitting that they will destroy any ecosystems for biofuel production.
But it is obvious that encouraging large-scale industries as well
as small-scale farmers to find hundreds of thousands of hectares
of land to grow agrofuels, will involve huge increases in land
under cultivation, for both food crops and agrofuels as well as
expansion into the remaining wetlands, sacred and communal forests,
fallow lands and rich biodiverse ecosystems in Southern Benin.
Josea Doussou Bodjrenou notices in his
research that Benin differs from some of the other countries in
Africa, in that the discussion about biofuels has barely touched
on the idea of meeting national energy security needs. Instead,
the government is clear that this is about maximising profits
for both state-owned and private companies. However, those profits
are unlikely to filter down to the rural poor of Benin.
The areas of land that are being talked
about are enormous. Although it is not easy to know what portion
of the proposed new land in the agricultural revival programme
will be for agrofuels, it is planned that 3 million hectares of
new land will be found for the scheme by 2011.
The scale of the plans for biofuel production
in Benin leave no room for doubt that enormous pressures will
threaten the food security, land rights, and ecological habitats
of the Beninese. In a country already struggling to cope with
the exploitation and poverty brought about by a focus on cotton
production for export, a large-scale conversion to agrofuels can
only exacerbate the problems facing Benin’s rural poor.
Article based on: “Biofuel case study:
BENIN”, summary of research undertaken by Josea Doussou Bodjrenou
of Nature-Tropicale for the report “Agrofuels in Africa –The impacts
on land, food and forests”, African Biodiversity Network, July