CONGO: Gunning for biofuels

Thursday, June 19, 2008
The Republic of Congo plans to set aside part of its arable land for biofuel production, even as a debate rages over the part played by biofuels in the current global food crisis.

Minister of Agriculture and Livestock Rigobert Maboundou, reckons biofuels have been overly maligned of late.

“If there were no bioethanol and biodiesel petrol prices would be even higher than they are today,” he told a news conference on 14 June.

“We are working to develop a balance within agriculture in land use between land reserved for food cultivation and land reserved for biofuels,” Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso said a few days earlier after returning from Rome where he took part in a high-level UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) summit on food security, climate change and biofuels.

Congo has 8.2 million hectares of arable land. Less than 15 percent of this land is cultivated.

Three external partners have asked for close to 1.75 million hectares on which to cultivate palm trees for the production of oil used in biodiesel.

“We are not going to exhaust all our existing potential by ceding some land,” Maboundou said.

He played down the notion that biofuels were partly responsible for the current food crisis.

“Of all the cereals going up in price, rice is in the lead. Nevertheless, rice is not used in the manufacture of bioethanol,” the Congolese minister said.

“The day when there’s a lack of oil, and biofuels become the replacement fuel, it would not be appropriate for Congo to be absent and obliged to go and buy its non-fossil fuels from abroad,” he said.

“Investors will come along with their plants, equipment and technological know-how. All Congo has to do is set aside land for them,” Maboundou said.

Even though Congo is the fourth largest oil exporter in sub-Saharan Africa - after Angola, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea - it spends US$260m annually on food imports, according to FAO.

FAO experts believe that arable land and labour, which should be used for food production, have been diverted to biofuels, contributing to a sharp rise in cereal prices.

According to the FAO, some 850 million people in the world are suffering from hunger and of these, some 820 million are living in developing countries.

For Dieudonné Moussala, the head of a consumer rights organisation, biofuels are a red herring.

“We don’t have enough to eat. We don’t have enough potable water, or electricity. These are the needs that should be addressed and not biofuels which will hardly solve anything,” he said.

“Let’s keep our our soil for food,” he added.
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