Dorothy Voorhees

The seed fuel wars of Africa

Biofuel conflicts in Ghana and Ethiopia

In Ghana and Ethiopia, the anticipated positive local economic effects of the cultivation of biofuel stock have been counterbalanced by disputes between local farmers and largely foreign biofuel stock companies. Land has been sold to foreign investors without prior acknowledgement of local land tenure practices, proper institutional arrangements or adequate income compensation. How can future land tenure conflicts in these countries be avoided?

During the first decade of the 2000s, biofuel feedstock cultivation boomed in Africa. This was mainly due to the rise in fossil fuel prices, which encouraged foreign investment in alternative fuel sources. 1 Also, a large number of climate change conventions, such as the Kyoto Protocol and EU Directive 2030, encouraged the use of biofuel. In Ghana, large areas of land were acquired for growing jatropha seeds, while in Ethiopia a large proportion of the farmland was converted to cultivate both jatropha and castor bean. The oil from both is perceived as a more sustainable source for producing energy  than fossil fuel. At that time, there were no specific legislative and policy frameworks to guide investments in the cultivation of biofuel crops and subsequent large-scale acquisitions of land. Ad hoc deals were made between largely foreign biofuel stock companies and local chiefs (in Ghana) and government officials (in Ethiopia). Local farmers in both countries, who do not privately own rural land due to traditional systems of land tenure, have been forced to either change their agricultural practices or leave the land they were actively using. 2

On the global stage, the debate on jatropha seed and castor bean has entered a new stage after the short boom in the early 2000s. Foreign investment in these biofuel crops has fallen, 3 because fossil fuel prices are again declining, but also because it is increasingly agreed that fruitful farmland for food production should not be wasted for cultivating crops for energy production, which threatens both regional and global food security. This has fed the debate on whether biofuel crops are indeed justified fuel sources when cultivated in countries where land is not privately owned and where large-scale land acquisitions are not regulated and might result in land grabs. In Ghana, for example, this already led to a fall in jatropha cultivation since 2009. Yet, the question is whether and how future land tenure conflicts in this region (and elsewhere) can be avoided when proper regulation of foreign investment projects that involve large-scale land acquisitions is lacking.

About the article

This article is based on research conducted by Richmond Antwi-Bediako and Benjamin Betey Campion and is part of the 'Jatropha curcas in rural land use (JATROPHA)' research project of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research – WOTRO Science for Development  (‘NWO-WOTRO’) programme, ‘Conflict and Cooperation over Natural Resources in Developing Countries (CoCooN)’. The research findings presented in this article are based on qualitative and quantitative data collection techniques, including questionnaires and an interview checklist. To obtain representative information on the conflict implications of jatropha cultivation in Ghana and Ethiopia, the countries were stratified into zones to reflect the major vegetation zones, agro-ecology and political divisions. The quantitative results of this survey were analyzed using SPSS software. The results gave us insights into the biofuel conflict situations in the two countries.

High expectations…

In the early 2000s, the cultivation and use of jatropha and castor bean was applauded with high expectations. Both were presented  as sustainable sources of fuel, as they would reduce dependency on fossil fuels and hence likely reduce carbon emissions. Promoters like Goldman Sachs, 4 and most notably the European Union, moreover argued that the production of the seeds would have a positive impact on the economies of Ghana and Ethiopia, as it would be an important export product and thus boost the countries’ GDP, create jobs and lead to the development of infrastructure. 5 As jatropha and castor bean could be cultivated on marginal arid lands and wastelands, local farmers were said to be able to earn an additional income by cultivating these crops. In this way, food security would not be threatened, as these lands could not be used for the cultivation of food crops anyway.  As a result, several foreign biofuel companies, most notably from Norway and Italy, started to operate in Ghana and foreign investment in biofuel production increased. The European Union (EU), for example, increased its foreign investment. 6

…final disappointments

However, the cultivation of jatropha and castor bean by no means appeared to be a clear-cut win-win scenario. Recent scientific studies suggest that the cultivation of biofuel crops actually increases carbon emissions and thereby threatens biodiversity. 7 Furthermore, the crops proved to be not as suitable as expected for cultivation on arid lands, and needed much more intensive irrigation than initially foreseen. This would increase the costs for local jatropha and castor bean farmers, who would subsequently feel inclined to cultivate the crops on more fertile lands. Since this implied a sacrifice of land for food, the cultivation of these biofuel crops would push up food prices and pose a threat to local and global food security. 8 Consequently, over the last four years, global interest in jatropha and castor bean has decreased. For example, while the EU was once a significant investor in the cultivation of biofuel, the European Commission and European Parliament recently voted to limit the use of biofuel.

Also, local enthusiasm for these new ‘success’ crops soon declined. Farmers cultivating jatropha or castor bean started complaining that they were better off cultivating other crops, given the irregular and decreasing earnings they received for cultivating these biofuel crops. In addition, farmers in both countries noted that foreign companies were making large-scale land grabs for the cultivation of biofuel stock, resulting in tensions. 9 

Who foots the bill?

Conflicts over land acquisitions have arisen due to a lack of acknowledgment among foreign investors of local land tenure practices. In Ghana and Ethiopia, land is not privately owned by farmers, but by local chiefs (in Ghana) or government authorities (in Ethiopia). Negotiations and acquisition processes were not transparent in many cases and local chiefs or government officials sold land without consulting the local people who actually use or cultivate the land. In many cases, farmers found out later that their land had been sold and were completely excluded from the process. For example in Bordede, Ethiopia, local authorities allocated land intended for farmers to jatropha investors without adequate consultation. This led to the undaunted local farmers  tilling the land at night while the investor planted during the day. They argued that they were denied the right to farm on land that they had previously cultivated.

As chiefs and government officials have a direct stake in selling their land to foreign investors, local farmers got the short end of the stick. While companies sometimes made agreements with local farmers to compensate them for the losses of land, the farmers often could not ensure they got what they were promised, either because they were loyal to their chiefs (in Ghana) or because the offers did not sufficiently compensate for their losses. Having no land property rights, the local farmers are powerless to fight land acquisitions. Investors claim that their purchases are legitimate, as they bought the land from the actual owners of the land (the chiefs). The only form of action that local farmers can take is to turn to their family head or chief (in Ghana) or the municipalities (in Ethiopia); however, these same persons are  usually party to the sale of the land. In the last resort, they can go to court, but this option is rarely used, and if it is used, it is mainly by affluent and more powerful stakeholders.

In both countries, local farmers have subsequently taken matters into their own hands, which has led to several confrontations between the local farmers, biofuel crop farmers and representatives from (foreign) biofuel stock companies. Conflicts include destruction of the other conflict party’s properties, restriction of access to farms by force, seizure of property and fighting. In some communities, individuals took up arms to protect their lands from being taken by companies.

Institutional shortfalls

One reason for the escalations of these conflicts lies in the absence of clear national policies and regulatory frameworks. As a result, the boom in the early 2000s was not properly regulated. For example, in Ghana, the Renewable Energy Act 832, which is meant to guide the industry, only came into law on 31st of December 2011. In Ethiopia, there is still no act of law to guide the sector. However, in 2007, the Ethiopian Biofuel Development Utilization strategy was put in place, albeit hurriedly and without thorough consideration of effects on other sectors and resources (especially agricultural land), to inform investment in the sector. Land acquisition processes during the boom in Ghana and Ethiopia were therefore not guided and appeared largely indiscriminate.

Regulation also failed in terms of environmental impact assessments (EIAs), which are intended to demonstrate that a project has been planned in an environmentally-friendly manner and that appropriate mitigation measures and safeguards have been integrated into the design. In Ghana, over 132,000 hectares of land were registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be used for jatropha cultivation. Any cultivation company that operates on an area of 10 hectares or more?? is required to conduct an EIA. Moreover, not all companies that registered have conducted EIAs. The Norwegian company, Biofuels Africa Ltd., is the only company that received an EIA from Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency. 10 Some companies are operating in the field, but have not even registered with the EPA. In Ethiopia on the other hand, no EIAs have been conducted at all. As a result, there are no clear commitments on the part of most of the biofuel crop companies, and a lack of monitoring makes it easy for them to flout social, economic and environmental regulations, both in documentation and practice.

Regulating land acquisitions

In order to avoid future conflicts over land, it is necessary to create an institutional framework at national level that guides foreign investment and large-scale land acquisitions for commercial purposes. National land-use plans should be developed and made available at district and community levels to prevent future situations where land and water for food crop and livestock are appropriated for cash crops and other commercial plantation purposes. Such plans should acknowledge local land tenure practices and take into account the challenges regarding natural resource allocation that result from these practices. Moreover, such plans should entail procedures for land access and profit-sharing arrangements for investors. Most importantly, in developing such plans, all relevant stakeholders – including local farmers – should be involved. This will prevent chiefs and government officials from hijacking the immediate and future benefits that accrue from such investments.

Furthermore, regional and district offices, such as the EPA, in both countries should be provided with sufficient resources to carry out and monitor EIAs. At local level, accountability structures should be enhanced to ensure that chiefs and government officials, tasked to deliver smooth administration of national resources and regulation of projects, work in an effective and transparent manner. This will ensure that arbitration and negotiation are enhanced in these communities.

While the related conflicts subsequently reduced due to a lack of global interest in biofuel crop cultivation, the cases of Ghana and Ethiopia are examples of African countries where land has been sold to foreign investors, without acknowledgement of local land tenure practices, proper prior arrangements and adequate compensation. Without regulating future foreign and local investment in land for commercial purposes, these issues will therefore reoccur in the case of future claims on publically-owned land.


Ajit Menon, Associate Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, India.

Aklilu Amsalu, Assistant Professor, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa,  Ethiopia.

Daniëlle Hirsch, Director, Both Ends, Amsterdam Netherlands.

Domien Huijbregts, Communications Officer, NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development, The Hague, The Netherlands.

Frans Bieckmann, co-founder, executive director and editor in chief, The Broker, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Teyo van de Schoot, Human Rights Senior Advisor, HIVOS, The Hague, The Netherlands.

Photo credit main picture: Dorothy Voorhees