Enterprises from western countries currently cultivate more than three million acres of African soil with plants suitable for producing biofuels. A business promoted by EU standards for low-grade Co2 blends, where Italy is in second place after Great Britain. A very promising market but also questioned by humanitarian organizations.

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Imagine Switzerland completely covered by plantations to fuel cars and thermal electric power stations: 4 million hectares. It’s the total amount of land exploited by western powers in Africa to produce biofuels. This is what we learn from our investigation.

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UK is on top of the list, reaching 1.600.000 land hectares grants, followed by Italy, Germany, France and North America. Competitors bet on what was forecasted by Copernicus Institute, Amsterdam, in 2004: if bioenergy market is supposed to grow, the continent having most and cheapest arable lands will be the biggest producer worldwide.

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The figures pointed out by the International Energy Agency are promising: 807 million hectares of African primary lands are 15 times more than necessary to meet biofuel needs over the next 20 years.
Moreover, the EU legislation made the demand in biofuel skyrocket. By 2011, all petrol stations in Member States shall gradually increase their percentage of low carbon fuels, namely bioethanol to be mixed with gasoline and biodiesel with diesel fuel. The ultimate goal is to reach 10% by 2020. A threshold placing Italy in the top ten list of biofuels importer countries. The new regulations aim at reducing both greenhouse emissions and dependence on oil, by replacing it with biofuels. The question is that Europe has no land enough to grow biofuel plants.

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According to the Institute for European Environmental Policy based in London, the ambitious 10% goal will make agro-fuels imports increase threefold. The current supplies from Asia and South America will be no more sufficient. That’s why Africa will become the new green oil Eldorado. It’s an oil extracted mainly from jatropha: an original Central American plant whose seeds contain oil with which ecological diesel is produced.

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We have mapped around ninety projects carried out in over 20 African countries from 55 companies, mostly European. About 2.8 million hectares, more than two-thirds of the total, are intended for the cultivation of the jatropha. It is surprising that four years ago WWF projections predicted that an extension of only 2 million hectares would be reached in 2015. The fact that biodiesel will account for 71% of EU agri-energy imports in the future accelerated jatropha’s proliferation. This is due to the progressive “dieselization” of road transport.

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Several investors in Africa are already on the list to obtain the environmental sustainability certification of their jatropha oil, as required by the European Renewable Energy Directive. Certification to which our country adapted only last January.

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Nine of the ten Italian investors that we found bet on the jatropha, except for ENI, which aims to produce palm oil, also destined for biodiesel. Foreign competitors have already targeted our desirable country. “We are thinking to export to Italy, Germany and Norway, where buyers offer higher prices than in the UK,” says Clive Coker, A. D. of the English company Jatropha Africa.

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The total in hectares we calculated is simply the tip of the iceberg. It does not take into account local projects and the vast concessions obtained by China, thirsting for renewable energy to support its rapid economic growth.

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In addition to the People’s Republic are also added the Brazilian and Malaysian agro-energy giants: all in pole position in Africa and ready to export to the Old Continent as soon as the raise in oil price and the abolition of EU duties on local agricultural products will make highly competitive agro-fuels.

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To cut down customs barriers are also the United States imposing a 15 percent mix by 2017 and are present in Africa with various companies and projects funded by Usaid, the US cooperation agency. Foreign expansion is encouraged by most African governments. There are already twelve people who have signed the paper of the so-called “Green Opec”.
The initiative promotes local production and use of biofuels in order to reduce expensive oil imports. The goal is to generate huge savings to be reinvested in the strengthening of agriculture and food self-sufficiency.

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Great logic, in theory. The absence of effective public policy risks, however, to vanquish it in practice. “In our country there are no plans to build refineries to transform vegetable oil into biodiesel, nor do obligations for foreign investors to reserve part of production to the domestic market,” comments Jamidu Katima, chemistry professor at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. A case among many demonstrating that push for investor exports and local development goals are in a collision course.

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From this step, Africa would end up giving West lands and biofuels in exchange for miserable royalties from corrupt local rulers. And she would miss the opportunity to feed her over 200 million malnourished people. According to a report released last year by the International Land Coalition international network, 66% of Africa’s land acquisitions are aimed at producing only about 15% of biofuels for food production. The total area occupied by the agri-culture would reach 19 million hectares, according to the same document.

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The replacement of food and energy crops worldwide has contributed to the drastic rise in commodity prices during the famine in 2008. What was enough to expose the cross-fueled agri-energy of humanitarian organizations.

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It grows easily in the arid areas of the planet, unproductive to agriculture. A quarter of these under-utilized land is located in Africa where intensive jatropha cultivation would then be possible without starving the poor. However, Fao studies, experts and field experiments demonstrate that jatropha is less prodigious than proclaimed. It requires more water than expected to support large commercial production for export. Produces that often take the place of forests, becoming environmentally unsustainable. To save reputation and contain the economic risks, many investors point to local projects waiting for better export times. “Following the financial crisis, most of the large monopoly of jatropha has lost appetites and sponsors.

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The EU should take advantage of it to fund smaller-scale projects in its energy support program for Africa, “says Meghan Sapp, Secretary General of Brussels-based Partners for Euro-African Green Energy. “Extensive commercial plantations deprive rural communities of their lands,” says Lorenzo Cotula, a researcher at the International Institute for the Environment and Development of London, “Instead self-managed production and sale can offer energy at lower costs, new opportunities Employment and additional sources of income for people in less-favored areas “.

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Nora McKeon, co-ordinator of the Italian Land New Zealand and the EuropAfrica initiative, however, points out: “It is essential that even small community projects are promoted and controlled by local beneficiaries and not by international business circles that generate economic assurance”.