NGOs slam ‘biased’ consultations on biofuels strategy

A group of South African citizens and non-governmental organisations have declared the country’s Draft Biofuels Industrial Strategy flawed after finding government consulted extensively with industry on the document while not giving them the same opportunities.
Issue Date: 30 March 2007

A group of South African citizens and non-governmental organisations have declared the country’s Draft Biofuels Industrial Strategy flawed after finding government consulted extensively with industry on the document while not giving them the same opportunities.

At a recent workshop in Durban, civil society, academic, rural community and government representatives found there is insufficient information and public debate concerning the possible consequences of SA engaging in biofuel production. Workshop organisers – the African Centre for Biosafety, the for Civil Society, Timberwatch, GRAIN and the Third World Network – said while the Department of Minerals and Energy had been holding stakeholder consultation processes on the draft strategy, there had been very little notice of this process or any attempt to build capacity on the issue in potentially affected communities. “Vulnerable communities and small- and medium-scale farmers have had little opportunity to discuss and formulate viewpoints on the biofuels agenda with regards to land rights, industrial agriculture, implications for food security and access, and environmental degradation,” said Vanessa Black of Earthlife Africa.
 
“We want to be included in biofuels production, but small and simple systems must be designed for us to do this,” one community representative said. “ Government must regulate the biofuels industry so that indigenous communities can also benefit from the process, and we must be granted access to land and full tenure so we can actively participate in the production of crops for biofuels,” he added. “What must also be asked is what will happen if South Africa’s biofuel crops industry is hit by droughts or other problems?

Will the maize go towards food for the people, or will it be diverted to sustain the biofuels production sector?” asked Annie Sugrue of Citizens United for Renewable Energy and Sustainability. Sugrue added that small-scale farmers cannot benefit in any way from the current Draft Biofuels Industrial Strategy. “Although touted as a ‘green fuel’ there are a number of issues relating to biofuels that should still be debated by South Africans,” said Black. These, she said, included the impact on the price of staple foods and the ability of the industry to create jobs, given that mass biofuel production is likely to increase the area of crops grown with industrial agricultural methods.

Mariam Mayet, founder of the African Centre for Biosafety, said it is “unforgivable” that the draft strategy does not consider the environmental and socioeconomic consequences of expanding the country’s planted area of genetically modified maize and soya if the target of 8% ethanol and 2% biodiesel blends are to be met. “The drafters of the strategy naively believe that stockpiles of maize will suffice,” she said. Mayet said she believed maize stockpiles would fluctuate, depending on maize prices for food and fuel, on weather conditions and on available surpluses. She added it was likely that a parallel market for maize would be created – one for food and the other for fuel – with the market for fuel maize fetching higher prices and diverting that intended for food to meet fuel demands.
 
“The biofuels strategy appears to be heading in the direction of benefiting the seed, fertiliser and chemical industries, while having negligible impacts on total food production and food security, and also further marginalising African rural areas,” Mayet told delegates. Sugrue said rising global maize prices are a concern. “Commercial farmers in South Africa tend to export their produce and not produce enough for the rural poor. Maize is the staple diet of many rural people, and in countries where it is used for biofuel production the costs of food maize are skyrocketing. “In Mexico, the maize price has gone up by 400% in recent years because most of that country’s maize is being exported to the US for biofuel production. We do not want this situation to happen in South Africa.”
 
Meanwhile, more concerns about flaws in the draft document were heard at a recent public consultation meeting in Midrand, Gauteng, reports Wilma den Hartigh. I ndependent consultant Tony Ashdown said the draft makes no mention of the effects of climate change, and doesn’t contain enough detail on technology. He also asked government to explain why jatropha cannot be planted in SA for use in biofuels production. E rhard Seiler, CEO of the South African Biofuels Association, said, “Agriculture in South Africa is problematic. The biofuels sector may be the only option to help agriculture flourish again.” – Lloyd Phillips