July 21, 2008

Kenya Biofuel Project Causes Dissension

The Kenyan government's new plans to plant cane on 20,000 hectares of the vast Tana River Delta on the Indian Ocean coast reflects its hopes of helping its 200,000-ton sugar deficit to create biofuel.

However, the plans have been met with an enormous amount of controversy among critics who say the plan will crush local ways of life and harm one of Kenya's most pristine and bio-diverse wetlands.

If the delta is planted with sugar, we will run out of grazing land for our cattle," local community leader Bile Bundit said.

Joined by the nation's largest miller Mumias, the Kenyan government hopes the proposed $350 million sugar project set on the riverine vegetation of the delta will create 20,000 direct and indirect jobs and reduce the import bill and put biofuel-powered cars on Kenyan roads.

"We cannot just start messing around with the wetland because we need biofuel and sugar," Kenyan Nobel laureate and environmentalist Wangari Maathai said.

Earlier this month, Kenya's High Court ordered a temporary halt to the project pending a judicial review of its impact. But the government is determined to overcome that hurdle.

Mumias, a Nairobi bourse blue-chip company that has a controlling stake in the project, plans to install an 8,000 tons-per-day sugar mill and distil 23 million liters of ethanol per year from molasses, a cane by-product.

"The project will pretty much catapult the area into the era of modern society," says Mumias CEO Evans Kidero.

The firm says the ethanol will be used to make biofuel, seen by many as the world's way out of fossil fuels dependency.

It would also produce 34 megawatts of electricity per day from cane by-products -- another strong argument for those in favor, given Kenya's growing energy demands.

Currently, sugar is only grown in the Western parts of Kenya, where it costs $570 to produce a ton of sugar. In Sudan and Egypt, it costs only $240-290 to produce the same amount.

Experts say dumping of cheap imports, poor infrastructure and technology shortcomings have held back Kenya's industry.

Those who back the plan say it will bring the eastern regions of Kenya up to speed with the rest of the country. Most notably, the Tana River Delta area has a 42 percent poverty rate, one of the highest in the country, according to a 2006 government survey.

"There are a few people protesting, but the majority want the project," says delegation leader and Regional Development Minister Fred Gumo, vowing nothing will stop the project.

Some conservationist groups, such as Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, are concerned that the project may disturb the lives of 350 species including birds, sharks and reptiles.

"Irrigation will interfere with the natural flow of water in the delta and it will affect fish breeding sites," says Maulidi Diwayu, a local resident.

But those who are behind the project say they will do their part to ensure that all native species are protected.

"We found it will impact the environment negatively and positively, but on balance, the project was found to be environmentally, socially and economically feasible," says Professor David Mungai who led a project impact study.