Source: MEGAN A. SHUTZER , http://www.thecrimson.com

Only in America


Only in Tanzania would a representative from the Ministry of Agriculture send you a text message to introduce herself and set up a meeting. "Helo Im Esther Mfugale. From Ministry of Agriculture. Would it be possible to meet on 22/11/08 at 10.00 Am." Only in Tanzania.

Sure, I'm pretty special and all, but really? As a student doing a small project on the biofuel industry, I wasn't exactly expecting unsolicited help from the government.

While my text message may have been a Tanzanian phenomenon, biofuel is a global issue that arrived in East Africa on the coattails of Western investors. The industry offers tremendous promise but also poses serious risks for countries like Tanzania. As with any endeavor abroad, it is difficult to recognize the widespread repercussions of our actions and therefore we must proceed carefully. If we are too eager to have Africa subsidize our rapacious consumption habits, we may be imposing eco-colonialism rather than pursuing a sustainable solution to our problem.

The world's demand for biofuel can be attributed to several factors including the European Union's alternative energy targets, American fear of dependence on the Middle East, and the rise in the price of fuel. As fuel prices skyrocketed up to $145 a barrel this summer, biofuel became an increasingly appealing and economically viable solution to our oil addiction. But we are really addicted to oil, and what little ethanol the U.S. produces domestically (made from surplus corn that we used to donate as food aid) has not been able to cut it. In order to meet demand, investors have turned to countries like Tanzania.

Tanzania, and more generally, East Africa, is a prime target for biofuel production because many, including Tanzania's Ministry of Energy, would argue that there is plenty of land and labor to grow this global environmental solution. In addition, much of East Africa has a suitable climate for jatropha and sugarcane, crops that produce bio-diesel and ethanol. And the good news continues for Africa, because with foreign investment comes capital and the opportunity for job creation and poverty reduction. Farmers may gain access to credit and better technology for their own production, while Tanzania gains political leverage as a global energy supplier.

But as environmentalists congratulate themselves for solving our energy crisis and fighting poverty, they may not have realized the potential consequences of these actions that could be just as harmful as they may be beneficial.

First, the idea that there is free land in East Africa is not quite accurate. From Sudan to Mozambique (countries where investors are looking to grow biofuel) land tenure and use has been shaped by a variety of factors including colonization, structural adjustment, direct foreign investment and agricultural inputs. I would hesitate to say there is free land in any one of those countries although here in Tanzania there is disagreement about what is available. A representative at the Ministry of Energy estimated for me that Tanzania is using only 10 percent of its 55 million hectares of arable land. But, a representative of United Nations Development Program told me: "I've never seen any free land in Tanzania where nobody is using it."

Given the shifting character and unpredictability of land use and tenure it is difficult to predict how the needs of farmers will change in the future. Thus, turning over large tracts of "free" land to biofuel production is risky for local populations who may otherwise have used it for their own subsistence.

Secondly, sugarcane and jatropha may be global environmental solutions, but these thirsty plants can threaten local water supplies. Jatropha, known as the "graveyard weed" is an invasive species that has never been studied on a large scale. It may produce a greener gas for others, but a monoculture of jatropha would be an environmental faux pas here.

Third, we have poverty reduction and development. Development is a goal that people like to tack onto other projects. Conservation and development is a prominent example in East Africa. Now there is alternative energy and development. Unfortunately, combining goals can occur at the expense of both endeavors. For example, biofuel production will supposedly create jobs for Tanzanians, but when I spoke with SEKAB, a Swedish biofuel company, they told me production would be mechanized, requiring fewer workers. If they truly want to meet "development" goals, biofuel companies would have to make choices that may not reduce green house gas emissions or generate profit, choices these companies are unlikely to make.

We may emerge with sustainable energy but we might not see a sustainable industry. As I grapple with this reality, I've tried to look for a solution, but I've only come away with a lesson: It is complicated using someone else's turf to do your own good. I'm not saying that Americans should focus biofuel efforts domestically, because corn is not a productive biofuel crop, and using it for ethanol inflates food prices and takes a toll on people who rely on food aid. Rather, I'm implying that there are two sides to almost every action—and sometimes when trying to do good far away from home, it is difficult to realize the repercussions. Environmentalists do not have to give up on biofuel, but they must proceed with caution. In the meantime, we Americans could work harder to cut down on our consumption, a solution that we can implement ourselves. And this my friends—this can happen only in America.

Megan A. Shutzer '10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. She is studying abroad for the semester in Tanzania.

Source: MEGAN A. SHUTZER , http://www.thecrimson.com

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