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The Contentious Political Economy of Biofuels
Kate Neville
In coastal east Africa, Liu Scholar Kate Neville navigates the complexity of the political economy of biofuels through visiting organizations and local communities.
Biofuels—ethanol and diesel derived from plant material—have been the focus of heated debate over the past decade. Introduced with great enthusiasm on the international stage in the early 2000s, as a way to mitigate climate change, provide energy security, and promote rural development, they quickly became the centre of a public storm. A number of countries were quick to jump on the potential of biofuels, with some, like EU member states, drafting legislation to promote their use. The potential growth in markets for biofuels coincided with already-existing goals to support rural development, and so provided strong incentives for governments and corporations to invest in biofuels projects, particularly in developing countries.

In countries like Kenya and Tanzania, a number of government bodies, non-governmental organizations, and private companies and investors promoted and initiated biofuels projects—with the goals ranging from local energy production and rural electrification to export-oriented commercial agricultural development. For some inhabitants and landholders in communities on the east African coast, the prospect of jobs, investments, and attention from both the public and private sectors were a welcome change from political and economic marginalization. However, for others in these communities, the surge of attention brought fears of economic and physical displacement from their lands, particularly in places where land tenure was contested. And for environmental and conservation groups, the rush for biofuels projects raised concern about the potential impacts on surrounding ecosystems, especially forests, wildlife, and water systems.

As food prices soared in 2007 and 2008, leading to anti-biofuels slogans like “food versus fuel,” and as emerging scientific research showed wide differences in the carbon emissions of different biofuel feedstocks and production systems, deep divides about these alternative fuels formed within and across sectors. The rush of investment in biofuels projects was matched by a rush of campaigns and reports warning against the potential impacts on local communities and their environments.

In 2010, for her PhD dissertation research, Liu Scholar Kate Neville headed to Tanzania and Kenya to investigate the contestation surrounding biofuels by exploring the ways in which a few companies and communities were initiating projects and responding to proposals for land and crops in these rural, coastal regions. Neville’s central question was: why do we observe such messy and rapidly changing positions, alliances and discourses over biofuels? Emerging science concerning their environmental impacts can explain some of the variation, but cannot account for all of the splits and fluctuations. With her travels and work supported by the Liu Bottom Billion fieldwork fund and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Neville joined a team of researchers from a number of institutions—including the National Museums of Kenya, the University of Dar es Salaam, and the French Institute of Research for Development—who were studying ecological and social changes in coastal wetland regions, and assessing, among other things, the potential impacts of new hydropower and agricultural developments.

To investigate the contentious politics and economics of biofuels projects, Neville looked at proposed bioethanol and biodiesel projects in two coastal wetland areas—one in Kenya, and one in Tanzania. In Kenya, the project site was the Tana River delta (above left). With its origins in the Aberdare Mountains, Kenya’s longest river meets the Indian Ocean at Ungwana Bay, north of Malindi in the Coast Province (above right). The wetlands in the lower delta, criss-crossed by tidal channels, have been designated by Birdlife International as an Important Bird Area; further, some conservation groups have initiated a submission to have part of the delta considered for protection under the Ramsar Convention. Several proposals for biofuels projects near these wetlands have garnered strong attention by communities and non-governmental organizations in the area, with particular attention focused on a Jatropha curcas project (for biodiesel) from the Canadian company Bedford Biofuels, and a sugarcane project (for bioethanol) from a partnership between the parastatal Tana and Athi River Development Authority (TARDA) and private Kenyan company Mumias Sugar.







To better understand these project proposals and responses to them by various communities and organizations, Neville met with conservation organizations, company representatives, and government officials, gathered project documents and reports, and visited a number of villages in the Tana delta (above left). She accompanied a hydrologist studying the region’s groundwater, and during their site visits, they met with villagers to ask questions about their water and lands (above right). They travelled with a translator and field assistant from one of the villages, by motorbike, bus, foot, and boat (below). These meetings and encounters revealed great complexity in the negotiations and responses, and have raised many new questions. As Neville continues her research on the political economy of biofuels, she will puzzle over how to make sense of social movements and past contestation, economic and market pressures, and the political dynamics among various stakeholders.

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