Articles, News & Events

What are the implications of the South African Industrial Biofuel Strategy for land, women and the poor in South African rural communities?

Green Connection was contracted by SPP and Oxfam to investigate and produce a report on the potential impacts of biofuels on the poor rural communities of the former homelands. This was a project lasting several months, from end of 2010 to May 2011. The project included a field trip to the Eastern Cape.

Biofuel production has potential social, environmental and energy impacts and thus any government policy specifically targeting rural communities in biofuel development needs to consider and address these in order for biofuel development to be founded on sustainability principles.

The onus of this report was firstly to review the literature on biofuels and assess in a global context how biofuels contribute to energy, social welfare and environmental sustainability.

Secondly, an understanding of the current context in South Africa was developed, in ecological, social and economical terms, to determine whether the goals and associated outcomes of the South African Industrial Biofuel Strategy’s focus in South Africa would result in sustainable and equitable benefits of biofuel production for rural communities, particularly women and the very poor.

Thirdly, there was also concern that biofuel policies have led to “land grabs” in Africa, resulting in the loss of livelihoods and resources for poor communities in Africa (Aarts 2009). This study thus undertook to examine in closer detail whether biofuels development, as expressed in the South African Industrial Biofuel Strategy and in the current socio-economic and policy climate, would lead to an effective “land grab” situation. In this case, the “land grab” would not necessarily be through illegal expropriation of land, but might result through inadequate protection of disempowered rural communities’ land resources into the future. The political history and environment of South Africa therefore has bearing on many aspects of biofuel development, including land tenure, economic policies and governance.

According to the Biofuel Feasibility Report (2006), due to South Africa’s relatively high liquid fuels consumption and relatively low agricultural capability (as regards arable land and water), biofuels can only make a small impact on supply security, and replacing the traditional community practice of low input- low risk farming with high input- high risk agricultural systems is often unaffordable and unsustainable. Ultimately biofuels per se is not the global solution to the oil crisis and using annual commercial food crops to replace fossil fuels can only be a short-term, limited solution, given the high fuel demand growth of the world.

As it stands, the South African Biofuel Strategy will have mostly negative impacts for rural communities and women in particular. As the Biofuel Strategy is based on an industrial scale and targets rural communities in the homelands to produce feedstock in order to facilitate both rural development and biofuel development, it is founded on an unsustainable agricultural model in a context of poor tenure security, limited capacity, inadequate markets and infrastructure, and ineffective governance. The interplay of these factors leads to negative repercussions for communities.

The industrial biofuel vision encompassed in the Biofuel Strategy is not based on environmental or economic sustainability:

  • ecological sustainability will be impacted, in terms of water, soil, biodiversity and GM crops
  • social sustainability will be lost as women and the poor will be disproportionately impacted by the costs of modernized agriculture on their rights and livelihoods
  • financially the Biofuel Strategy is based on inadequate subsidies for producers, ineffective governance and as the use of foreign investment and commercial contractors is prioritized, there will be little long term commitment to sustainability