Third World Land Grabs:Demand for Renewable Energy Drives Trend

The thirst for bio-energy is leading to a shortage of bio-mass. Will First World countries repeat the colonial exploitation they inflicted through mineral mining? By Jeremy Torr. 

London, UK. 27 January 2012. According to a new report by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), rising demand for the dominant form of renewable energy worldwide – wood – could drive increased  acquisitions of land in developing countries. The report warns that where food insecurity is rising and land rights are weak major international players can step in and scoop up valuable and irreplaceable natural resources. 

As this map illustrates, ever larger amounts of third world land are coming under the control of foreign entities, national and commercial, for agri-business purposesIIED researchers warn this new trend needs greater public scrutiny and debate. They point out that wood accounts for 67% of global renewable energy supplies, and many countries in the global North are increasing their use of it both to reduce their reliance on costly fossil fuels and to mitigate climate change. But it needs raw materials.

“All eyes are turned to food and biofuels, but tree plantations for biomass energy may soon become an important driver in the global land rush,” says Dr Lorenzo Cotula, a senior researcher at IIED and co-author of the paper. Western countries are setting ambitious targets for using renewable energy, including biomass. But with demand for wood set to outstrip supply by up to 600% in some places, and high tree growth rates in the tropics, investors are beginning to look outside their own regions. New tree plantations in developing countries (like West Africa’s smaller states and nations such as Cameroon and Liberia), that will be harvested to export wood could spell good news in terms of jobs, investment, climate change and conversation — if they are managed well.

Reduce hunger, more than likely - but possibly cut biodiversity and promote corruption too, says Cotula

But there is also a risk that massive plantations will displace poor and marginalised communities from land they have tended to for generations but have no formal claim over.

“Imagine you live in a small village in Africa. You and your family cultivate a small plot of land, graze livestock on village land and collect fire wood from a nearby forest – just as your grandparents and great grandparents did,” explains Cotula. Then, one day, everything changes. A big car arrives in the village with company officials and the chief district officer. Villagers are told that the company and the government have signed a lease that gives the company a large area of land. The visiting officials are upbeat – there will be jobs, a village school and a clinic as result, says Cotula.

“But you stand to lose all that you have – the land that feeds your family and that you belong to. All for an uncertain future,” asserts Cotula. It’s not an theoretical scenario, It is happening in many countries today. Villagers will ask : “Will the jobs materialise? Will I get one? Why should I give up my farm to work on somebody else’s plantation?” And the answers, according to many, are not positive.

According to various assessments, up to 123.5 million acres of African land -- double the size of theUK -- has been snapped up or is being negotiated by governments or wealthy investors. Ethiopia alone has approved 815 foreign-financed agricultural projects since 2007.

A prime spot for gigantic palm oil plantations . . .

The IIED paper, aimed at policymakers in both developed and developing countries, warns that rising demand for wood could harm food security and the livelihoods of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people if governments lease large areas of land for fuel wood plantations.

Senior researcher and co-author of the report, Duncan Macqueen, adds that wood is a vital renewable energy source. “Countries in the South should develop it for local energy security, not export it to fuel Northern energy deficits at the expense of their own people,” he adds.

For the full report:

Photos : Internet, IIED