Biofuel deal sparks land debate in Sierra Leone

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Hailed as the biggest ever investment in Sierra Leone's agriculture, a plan to grow thousands of hectares of sugarcane to produce ethanol has raised fears over food security and land rights.

Swiss group Addax & Oryx announced on June 17 that it had signed a 258 million euro ($368 million) deal with seven European and African development banks to finance the bioenergy project near Makeni in the north of the country.

The hot and rainy west African nation, recovering from a brutal civil war which ended in 2002, has the ideal climate to grow sugarcane, much like that of ethanol powerhouse Brazil which has led the way in using the crop for biofuel.

Sierra Leone's agriculture ministry says the company has leased 57,000 hectares (141,000 acres) of land for a period of 50 years, an area roughly the size of the US city of Chicago.

The project, according to the Geneva-based Addax group, will include "development of a sugarcane plantation, the construction of an ethanol refinery and a biomass power station".

Construction is expected to begin this year, and operations are set to start in 2013, eventually employing up to 2,000 people.

Most of the ethanol -- which can be blended with gasoline and diesel to reduce dependence on harmful fossil fuels -- will be exported to European markets.

The biomass power station is expected to eventually produce a fifth of Sierra Leone's electricity.

While Addax has outlined a raft of measures to boost food security and train farmers, some remain unconvinced and say farmers risk losing fertile land or have been caught up in dodgy land deals.

A study commissioned by Swiss group Bread for All released on June 15 said that "many farmers in project-affected communities have already lost their access to fertile lands."

While Addax provided alternative, often smaller farmland, their promises to plough and harrow the lands materialised too late in 2010.

"This led to very low yield on these fields and local communities are reported to now face growing food insecurity and hunger," it added.

Beat Dietschy, who heads the NGO, said landowners "have given consent to Addax based on verbal promises which have not been realised."

Addax managing director Nikolai Germann told AFP this study was a campaign of misinformation.

"Not only is Addax Bioenergy bound to respect the laws of Sierra Leone, it has also signed agreements with seven European and African development banks which require the company to comply with the highest environmental and social standards," he said.

Addax, which plans to develop a plantation of 10,000 hectares of sugarcane, says large areas of land are available for communities to use as the project uses up less than a third of the total land leased.

It has also set up a programme to help small farmers become self-sufficient, offering over 2,000 farmers a 30-week training course and has ploughed over 2,000 hectares of community fields.

"This is today the largest food production programme in the country," said Germann.

However a group of landowners in Makeni say they are "angry over the deal".

"When Addax visited the area, they promised us schools, boreholes, hospitals because of the chemicals they would be using, and jobs," said Ali Bangura, a representative of the Landowners Committee of Makeni. "But nothing has materialised since 2008."

Germann said the company had taken care not to create unrealistic expectations and considered that "providing education and health services to the general public are the responsibility of the government and not of private investors."

Two clinics have however been set up for local workers and their families.

Sierra Leone's Agriculture Minister Sam Sesay has defended the investment.

"Large scale investors are not the slash-and-burn type. What land they have they can make use of year round and for many years unlike the small holders who move here and there," he told journalists on Monday.

"So taking part of the land to give to large investors is worth doing."

© 2011 AFP

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