CONGO: President backs biofuels revolution

Monday, October 22, 2007

President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, where oil is the leading raw material, has given his backing to plans by his Brazilian counterpart to use biofuels as a key development tool.

"When the G8 met in Saint Petersburg in 2006 and invited emerging countries, I paid a lot of attention to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s speech about biofuels and I immediately approved his proposals," Sassou Nguesso told a joint news conference also attended by Lula during his day-long visit to Brazzaville.

Agreements signed between the two countries are expected to lead to Congo’s receiving training, technology and financing to produce biofuels from sugar cane and palm oil.

"Through this biofuel project Africa gives itself an opportunity for development because even companies producing oil here in Congo have thought about going down this road," added the Congolese president.

Champions of biofuels, which are made from a variety of plant material, point to their lower emissions of greenhouse gasses in comparison with fossil fuels.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), however, among others, has warned that developing biofuels could threaten food security in Africa as arable land once use for food crops is given over to the production of ethanol instead.

In Congo, 70 percent of the population depends on agriculture for a living. Even though the country is sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth-largest oil producer – after Nigeria, Angola and Equatorial Guinea – seven out of 10 people live below the poverty line.

"The biofuel project integrates our development plans and we are very engaged," said Sassou Nguesso, adding that Congo could start producing palm oil in five of its 11 districts.

According to an FAO report released in September 2007, maize and wheat prices have shot up to their highest levels since 2000 in the past few months because of increased demand for biofuel production. The high demand could keep prices above historic levels for the next 10 years and have an impact on food aid.

The price of yellow maize, for example, doubled from an average of US$88 per metric tonne in 2000 to $177/mt in February 2007, while the price of wheat increased from an average of $119/mt in 2000 to $277/mt in August 2007, according to the Agricultural Outlook 2007-2016, a joint report by the FAO and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Expanding cereal use for ethanol production has led to reduced acreage planted with oilseeds, particularly in the US, in favour of maize, according to the Outlook.

The result is that food and energy now compete for the same stocks. The trend of high oil prices in 2006, combined with extensive support programmes for the biofuels sector, had an impact on the diversion of increasing amounts of maize crops to ethanol in the US, the report said.

Source: IRIN