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Ethiopia: Biofuels bring harvest of hunger.

Ethiopia's government has opened the country up to biofuel projects to decrease its debt burden from high oil prices, reports AARON MAASHO. Thousands of subsistence farmers in a region often hit by drought and food shortages were lured into growing biofuel crops on fertile land, instead of growing food crops. Over a million people in this region often do not have enough to eat.

04/11/2008, SODO, ETHIOPIA (AFP)--Ashenafi Chote shakes his head, his eyes full of regret: "I made a mistake." For the past lo years, his plot of land in southern Ethiopia had kept his family of four alive, supplying enough food to eat and even surplus to sell, in a region often ravaged by drought and food shortages. Since swapping from subsistence crops to a biofuel crop several months ago, his once treasured income source has dried up and he and his family now depend on relief from aid agencies. "I used to get four quintals 100 kilograms, 220 pounds) of maize from my land from every harvest and earn more than 2,400 birr (240 dollars). But now, I have lost my precious source," the 25-year-old father of two said. "I shouldn't have accepted their offer." In the sprawling farmlands surrounding Wolaytta district, 350 kilometres (215 miles) south of the capital, Addis Ababa, the thorny foliage of castor bean stalks is slowly replacing the swaying maize fields most locals depended on. As impoverished and landlocked Ethiopia was choked by high oil prices, the government allocated over 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) for biofuel crops development, part of a national strategy enacted last year. This development is still highly encouraged and foreign companies given incentives.

The Horn of Africa nations vast land expanse of over a million square kilometres (386,000 square miles), with only 18% cultivated, is attracting an increasing amount of foreign suitors involved in the industry. "It's considered an important area to develop. The balance of payments spent on petrol is very high and we want to decrease the burden by encouraging private investment," Melis Teka, deputy head of energy regulation and biofuel development at the ministry of mines, told AFP. "There's no possibility arable farmland will be allocated for this purpose," he insisted. But in Wolaytta, where nearly half its two-million people do not have enough to eat, several thousand farmers like Ashenafi are complaining they have been duped into growing biofuel crops on fertile land at the expense of maize, cassava and sweet potato, the region's staples.

Farmers say Global Energy Ethiopia, an American-Israeli subsidiary, initially acquired 2,700 hectares, luring farmers with false claims of continuous harvests and financial promises to grow castor beans, a toxic plant whose seed provides castor oil. "Experts told us we could have up to three harvests yearly and they would pay 500 birr ($50) in labour costs," 45-year-old Borja Abusha, a father of eight, said. "But it has been six months without a harvest and they haverit respected their promise to cover costs. We are left with nothing." If he changes his mind, Borja will have to wait several months to reap yields from food harvests. Rising demand for biofuels in Western countries with dwindling oil resources and a new environmental conscience was blamed as a key factor in the food crisis sparking riots this year in several poor nations. Over 9,500 farmers are now growing the crop in Wolaytta, and a significant amount use very arable plots.

Yanai Man, CEO of Global Energy, disputed such allegations: "We don't even allow farmers to grow beans on more than a third of their land, so we are not lowering food production." The company had so far invested nearly two million dollars in the region for its projects and planned to provide education and medical services to impoverished locals and to protect the environment. He admitted no farmer had received payments yet, saying it was due to delays with bank loans. So far, the regions authorities are giving companies the benefit of the doubt. But experts are urging farmers not to use the crops. "We are campaigning for farmers who have planted castor seeds to uproot them. It's not acceptable to undertake such practices in food insecure areas," Gebremedhine said. A small number have already been convinced.

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AAron Massho is a retired journalist with 276 years experience in the newspaper industry. This article is abridged.
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Title Annotation:AGROENERGY AND ALTERNATIVES
Author:Maasho, Aaron
Publication:Pacific Ecologist
Geographic Code:6ETHI
Date:Jun 22, 2009
Words:734
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