Spread the Word About the Land-Grab Hoax

By Robert Vierhout | August 12, 2013

The United Kingdom Overseas Development Institute, an independent think tank, recently published a report on biofuel projects in five developing countries, four in Africa and one in Asia. 

The project was triggered because of the claims by several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that the European Union’s biofuel policy had resulted in major land grabs, especially in Africa and some parts of Asia, pushing people off their land and reducing the land available for growing food crops.

Action Aid, one of the most aggressive antibiofuel NGOs, claimed that a total of 50 million hectares of land had been grabbed for biofuel production. This figure was taken from a database called the Land Matrix that is compiled by the International Land Coalition. Fifty million hectares is the size of Spain.

This database, when published in 2012, received significant media traction and the numbers taken from it were accepted at face value. One year later, we now know that the Land Matrix database is not very reliable.

Earlier this year, in its booklet “Myths and Facts about Bioenergy in Africa,” the NGO Pangea was the first to raise questions on the reliability of the database. The program manager of the ILC interviewed admitted that it was “very hard to verify data” and that they were very careful “not to describe any of their data as verified.” Unfortunately antibiofuel advocates never indicate this reality when they make reference to the database.

The ODI work is stunning. When comparing several sources on land acquisitions associated with biofuel, the numbers vary substantially. For Africa, the numbers quoted are between 7.5 million and 18.8 million hectares. The researchers believe that the data is highly sensitive to the time period covered and the methodology used.

In the four African countries investigated by the researchers—Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia—fieldwork showed that only 1.5 million hectares of land were allocated for biofuel production, which is less than half of the 3.1 million hectares cited in the database.

But the more shocking result from their work is that only “a tiny proportion (of that allocated land) is actually being cultivated.” For the four countries investigated, the total surface of land under cultivation is 26,600 hectares. Land for ethanol crops is less than 10 percent of that number: 2,280 hectares. 

So, the total land allocation for biofuel production is a mere 226 square kilometers; just over one-third of the size of Madrid and less than 1 percent of the 3.1 million hectares that are supposedly allocated to biofuels.

One of their findings also demonstrates what we, the biofuels industry, have always claimed: There is no food vs. fuel controversy. “The findings suggest that there is little basis for making strong statements that biofuel production in developing countries causes widespread undermining of food security through displacing food or competing for resources,” the report says. 

These are important and far-reaching conclusions that should bring some sense back into the European debate on biofuels. Unfortunately, as often is the case: First wild accusations are made, covered broadly by the media, and then once the dust is settled and once the facts surface, there is total radio silence.

The ODI report did not gain any media traction. Maybe it was too painful for journalists to acknowledge that they have been reporting on a land-grab-for-biofuel hoax.  The best way for NGOs and the politicians who support them unequivocally to save face is to ignore these findings.We know what to do next: spread the results and tell the world about the hoax.

Author: Robert Vierhout
Secretary-general,
ePUREVierhout@epure.org