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Archive for September, 2012

Farming for Oil in Tanzania

Biofuels offer much to both developed and developing countries alike. Developed countries see biofuels as a way of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; switching to biofuels may help meet climate change mitigation targets without painful behavioural changes. Oil-importing developing countries may reduce these imports, possibly export biofuels to energy-hungry developed countries, and growing feedstock may be a stimulant to rural development. Environmental benefits for the developed world, economic and social benefits for the developing, too easy. However biofuels do not currently enjoy a tremendous reputation. Very legitimate concerns have been raised over several years around issues such as food vs fuel, land grabs, and environmental impacts (both GHG emissions of growing feedstock and deforestation – when I told a friend that I was off to research palm oil they immediately told me the uplifting story of a documentary about how palm oil plantations were killing off the already endangered orang-utans in Indonesia).

Sunset in Kigoma: Not a bad place to spend a bit of time

It was against this background that I travelled to Kigoma in Tanzania to research the work of FELISA, a local company who plan to produce crude palm oil (CPO) and biodiesel from oil palm trees.
Due to some money problems FELISA are yet to start production; however they plan to run their own large farm and contract local farmers to provide them with more palm fruits. CPO is used extensively for cooking and sold daily in villages, towns, and markets all over Tanzania. When heated to 700C CPO can power diesel motors without any engine modification. Palm oil can also be turned into biodiesel for transportation purposes.

Oil palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia have been responsible for significant deforestation and in some instances local communities have been displaced or marginalised, with large companies taking the lion’s share of any commercial benefits. Similarly, contract farming arrangements have a patchy record when it comes to exploitation of small relatively powerless farmers by large, much more powerful companies. However that does not mean that either palm oil production or contract farming are bad things, per se, rather the how of their implementation becomes paramount.

The good oil: Kudra (l) and his brother, Said (r), making palm oil

The good oil: Kudra (l) and his brother, Said (r), making palm oil

Oil palm trees have been farmed in the Kigoma region for over 100 years. Kigoma is on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and just 50kms from the eastern edge of the DRC. The climate is more tropical (read: sweatier) than much of the interior of Tanzania and conducive to growing palm trees. To make palm oil on a farm or in the village is a simple and cheap process if time consuming and not particularly effective at extracting the oil from the fruits. FELISA’s industrial method is the same except that by using diesel-powered machines up to 60% more oil can be extracted from the fruit than is possible when using the man-powered machines on the farms. This is one of several benefits that FELISA can offer to potential contractible farmers. The others are access to more markets for their CPO (in larger towns or cities), a whole new biodiesel market, and a higher yielding oil palm variety.

Due to the climate (suitable), the many long established oil palm trees (limited land-use change), the farmers of Kigoma being very familiar with oil palm cultivation (anticipated crop yields should be reached), their ability to make oil (maintaining their independence and reducing dependency on FELISA) and the expertise and market access of FELISA there is genuine potential for contract farming and palm oil production to lead to poverty alleviation while avoided the negative potential impacts of either contract farming or oil palm cultivation.

Simplistically put:

Kigoma environment + Kigoma farmers + palm trees + FELISA = possible success

My Swahili crash course – results were mixed

However it does not follow that this possible success has implications for wider poverty alleviation or other biofuel projects. If you change any one of the terms on the left of the equation there will be a new outcome on the right. To go with a cliché, FELISA could be part of a local solution to a local problem. But all poverty is local so a local solution can be the only solution. The concerns raised by people around biofuels and oil palm cultivation are genuine and well-founded. However broad-brush arguments for or against “biofuels” decontextualises and dehumanises the outcomes and can be unhelpful when they mask situations with the potential to work and help people.
There were times when I found the going pretty tough in Kigoma and other parts of Tanzania. Speaking no more Swahili than a few pleasantries daily communication was difficult. Transport – whether around the country or up and down Lake Tanganyika – was long, boring and uncomfortable. And at times I felt completely lost in regards to where my research was heading and how my dissertation was going to eventually shape up. However at other times it was tremendous. When something I had planned came together, like a focus group taking off or speaking with a particularly engaging farmer, or just being able to observe and partake in the lives of people that were my motivation to return to university study and enrol in CAS in the first place, the discomforts and doubts of the previous day or hour instantly receded in importance.

Alexander Chetkovich, former CAS MSc student

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