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Global biofuel land grab conjures up ‘C’ word

queen-victoriaAs in “colonialism.”

It’s a word being used more and more as developed nations, large corporations and large consortiums increasingly eye — and buy — lands in developing countries to grow food or biofuels, or to tap the sun’s energy for their own needs.

Just last month, a group of 12 European companies — including insurance giant Munich Re — announced they were coming together to launch the DESERTEC Industrial Initiative (DII), a massive solar-power installation to be built in the deserts of North Africa. While the proposed installation would generate electricity for the producer nations in Africa, it is also intended to eventually meet up to 15 per cent of Europe’s energy needs.

Then there’s Norway-based BioFuel Africa Ltd, which aims to produce biofuel by growing the oil-rich jatropha tree — 1.7 million of them, eventually — on lands in Ghana. One activist in Ghana has complained the company’s methods conjure up the “darkest days of colonialism,” according to a recent article in The Independent, but BioFuel Africa CEO Steinar Kolnes says his firm follows a “Food First Principle” that ensures local farmers and communities benefit from the company’s presence there.

Other companies based in countries like the UK, Germany and the US have also bought up land in places like Ethiopia and Tanzania to grow biofuels. In fact, The Independent article reported, about 20 per cent of the international land deals taking place are for the cultivation of biofuels rather than food.

The land-grab trend is also accelerating: while countries eyeing new sources of food or fuel bought up 10 million hectares in poorer nations last year, another 20 million hectares were purchased in the first half of this year alone, according to The Guardian.

It’s a trend with compelling implications for the UK, where the security of both food and fuel supplies is emerging as an ever-more pressing issue for the near future. Just yesterday, in fact, Hilary Benn, Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that Britain needs a “radical rethink” of its food systems, both in terms of production and consumption.

So what do you think? Are we setting out on a path leading to new colonialism … or is the accelerating “land grab” a way in which developed and developing countries can both solve their problems — poverty, food security and energy security — together?

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