Biofuels - The world is on a chopping trip to Africa

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Already, there are numerous cases of indigenous forests being destroyed all over the world - and including Kenya -  ostensibly to make way for biofuel production.

Jatropha curcas is often the agro fuel of choice, and there are vigorous commercial groups “getting inside the ears” of  policy makers and winning long-lease permission to clear forests (with immediate windfall profits from harvesting existing timber) to plant their wonder crops.

The rationale is superficially compelling - the certain efficacy of biodiesel as a readily useable and renewable energy in great demand, the fuel security and economy of grow-your-own, the national and global benefits of carbon recycling, the offer of international investment in the production enterprise,  the potential for a new, large and national energy business,  the immediate harvest...

These are all benefits deserving serious consideration;  but so too are the benefits of indigenous forests -  clearly the destruction of a natural resource that takes many hundreds of years to grow should be considered only when it is preceded by and based on the most robust research and evidence.

However, Jatropha-type plantation projects are evidently going ahead without environmental impact assesments (EIAs) and when based on very fragile science...and often on very fragile soils.

Nature Kenya, representing the East Africa Natural History Society, recently published an open letter urging governments to stop it!  They cited a specific project, but the principles of their case have wide application which all have reason to know and understand.

The planting of the wrong species in the wrong place can make a rich and biodiverse area providing a livelihood for many communities barren and uninhabitable;  it can destroy water catchments, cause erosion and poison soils.

Jatropha, in particular, is not indigenous, and NK’s understanding is that it  can become invasive, its residues are poisonous to humans and livestock, and if the crop fails that land is no longer viable for other agriculture for many years.

NK note that the forest cutting and monoculture planting has begun without proof that Jatropha curcas  is viable in terms of either growth or oil production in a specific area, and state that a number of opportunist ventures have abandoned Jatropha growing on the basis of non profitability. Indeed, they state that “there is no single large-scale commercial growing of Jatropha that has succeeded in East Africa - despite clearing of large areas for cultivation”.

Fortunately, in this instance, there is an organisation with the interest and scientific authority to demand responsible conduct. Further, Kenya has recently declared at the very highest policy levels that all the country’s major indigenous forests must be preserved “for all people for all time”.

Not all situations will be automatically well monitored or defended, so general vigilance is required. Every organisation in any sector shares a responsibility towards the environment, the AA has made the environment one of the three pillars of its purpose, and automobile clubs and their members have a special connection with biodiesel in particular:  it is motorists  whose demand for plentiful and cheap fuel provides the technical excuse and the political springboard for biofuel projects - good or bad.

All organizations and clubs in any way related to motoring, fuels and/or the environment  do therefore have a very clear and particular responsibility to keep abreast of this issue and any national activity in this sphere, and to ensure that their members, the public and policy makers make decisions on the basis of full and proper understanding of the long-term implications of what they are doing.

There is a particular imperative in Africa where control systems are not best assured, and where a fuel-hungry world sees “porous” policy institutions and land.

-  Naturalist and Motorist , Nairobi

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