World Rainforest Movement

Ghana: Norwegian biofuel company destroyed local forest to establish a large jatropha (1) plantation

Agriculture in Northern Ghana accounts for more than 90% of household incomes and employs more that 70% of the population in the region. Most of the agricultural production is by small-holders at subsistence level, reliant on seasonal rainfall which is unpredictable and sporadic. During the dry season much of the population is idle, forcing people to migrate to the more prosperous southern parts of the country where they are employed in menial jobs.

Rural communities who are desperate for incomes are enticed by developers who promise them a “better future” under the guise of jobs with the argument that they are currently only just surviving from the “unproductive land” and that they stand to earn a regular income if they give up the land for development. This argument fails to appreciate the African view of the meaning of the land to the community. While the initial temptation to give up the land to earn a wage is great, it portends of an ominous future where the community’s sovereignty, identity and their sense of community is lost because of the fragmentation that the community will suffer.

The strategy for the acquisition of the land often takes the following course. The imaginations of a few influential leaders in the community are captured. They are told about prospects for the community due to the project and they are swayed with promises of positions in the company or with monetary inducements. The idea is that these people do the necessary “footwork” in the villages where they spread the word about job opportunities. A document is then prepared, essentially a contract, to lease the land to the company. In the event of problems, the developer can press their claim by enforcing the ‘contract’ or agreement. When the legality of the process is not adequately scrutinized, the developers have their way but, subject to proper scrutiny, it emerges these contracts are not legally binding as they have not gone through the correct legal channels. This is what happened in the Alipe area.

In November 2007 a team from RAINS (Regional Advisory and Information Network Systems) discovered massive destruction of vegetation cover over a large stretch of land near a village called Alipe within the White Volta River basin about 30 kilometres from Tamale, the capital town of the Northern region of Ghana. Heavy agricultural machinery were systematically pulling down trees and decimating the area a few metres south of the village. The land had been stripped bare of all its vegetation cover. Enquiry revealed that the site was to be the beginning of a large jatropha plantation developed by a Norwegian biofuel company called BioFuel Africa – a subsidiary of Bio Fuel Norway.

Using national regulations, RAINS managed to get them to stop the destruction but not before more than 2 600 hectares of land had been stripped of its natural vegetation cover. Still, the identity of the company responsible for the development had not yet been disclosed. They were described simply as “some white men”. In this community, like in most parts of Ghana, over 80 percent of the land is held under communal ownership and more that 70 percent of this land is managed by traditional ruler-chiefs mainly on behalf the members of their traditional areas. The chief was very categorical that he had not made such a grant and that he had also been battling with those “white people” to stop them – without much success. He confirmed that he “thumb printed” a document in the company of the Assemblyman of the area which had been brought to his palace by the “white people” but he did not confirm its contents. The Chief was initially unwilling to go against the wishes of his people as his efforts to stop the developers were being interpreted by the community as “driving away opportunities to earn an income during the current dry season”.

After presentation of the case to the community by RAINS and further discussions, the community realised that BioFuel Africa’s promises were really a hoax. The community understood the impact that such a project would have on their lives individually and on the community in general and realized that the promise of jobs, shared prosperity and improved livelihoods – the Company’s main benefit to the community – were not really commitments but mere campaign gimmicks. But how long will this hold as they sit idle for the rest of the year until the rains come in April?

Most vocal indeed were the women at the session. Looking at BioFuel’s representative in the face a woman asked, “Look at all the sheanut trees you have cut down already and considering the fact that the nuts that I collect in a year give me cloth for the year and also a little capital. I can invest my petty income in the form of a ram and sometimes in a good year, I can buy a cow. Now you have destroyed the trees and you are promising me something you do not want to commit yourself to. Where then do you want me to go? What do you want me to do?”

Such is the story of how a Norwegian biofuel company took advantage of Africa’s traditional system of communal land ownership and current climate and economic pressure to claim and deforest large tracts of land in Kusawgu, Northern Ghana with the intention of creating “the largest jatropha plantation in the world”.

Excerpted from “Biofuel land grabbing in Northern Ghana”, by Bakari Nyari, Vice Chairman of Regional Advisory and Information Network Systems (RAINS), Ghana and African Biodiversity Network Steering Committee member, http://www.wrm.org.uy/subjects/agrofuels/Biofuel_Northern_Ghana.pdf

(1) Jatropha curcas, is indigenous to Central America. Its oily seeds can be used to produce biodiesel. The plant, particularly the seeds, is toxic to humans and animals.