Will peak oil cause a rush for land in Africa?

Authored by: Fabian Kesicki , Julia Tomei

Handbook of Land and Water Grabs in Africa

Print publication date:  August  2012
Online publication date:  September  2012

Print ISBN: 9781857436693
eBook ISBN: 9780203110942
Adobe ISBN:


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During the summer of 2008, oil prices peaked at almost US$150 per barrel (bbl), while in 2011 on average oil prices of $111/bbl were experienced – the highest annual average in history. Oil prices are not expected to fall significantly and this situation has incentivised a search for alternatives to conventional transport fuels based on crude oil, for example in the form of biofuels. High oil prices are considered favourable for investments in biofuels, as are other political drivers such as climate change and renewed concerns about energy security in industrialised countries. However, the land use changes – both direct and indirect – associated with increased biofuel production have meant that biofuels rapidly became a contentious energy option (Saltmarsh 2011; McVeigh 2011). Those concerned with the negative consequences of increased global demand for biofuels highlight the conversion of land previously used for food production to the cultivation of fuel crops. Indeed, biofuels were cited as one of the contributory factors to the food price hikes of 2008 (Rosillo-Calle and Johnson 2010). Food security is a global issue, but for countries already dependent on food imports biofuel investments can further reduce the area available to grow food crops and thus decrease food security. In Africa, food security has generally worsened since the 1970s, the majority of the food-insecure living in rural areas (Mwaniki 2006). Biofuels have also been blamed for the loss of natural habitats, including forests in Kenya (ActionAid et al. 2011), grasslands in Brazil (RSPB 2008) and peatlands in Indonesia (Greenpeace 2007), with the consequent release of above- and below-ground carbon contributing to anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Many biofuel feedstocks, such as sugarcane and palm oil, are produced as monocultures in input-intensive, mechanised agricultural systems. This form of industrialised agriculture is associated with negative environmental impacts including the increased use of agrochemicals, soil erosion and compaction, and water pollution. The requirement for economies of scale associated with this form of agriculture also, almost by definition, excludes or limits the role of small farmers who may lose access to land they depend on (Oakland Institute 2011; Richardson 2010; Charles et al. 2009). Finally, biofuel projects are accused of providing an unsustainable income where collaboration with local people ceases or large processing facilities control the price of feedstock (German et al. 2011).

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