Energy, land and food

As the EU and the UN work to expand access to sustainable energy for all, the land and food rights of millions of people in the developing world must not be jeopardised, argues Aaron Akinyemi.

Aaron Akinyemi
11 May 2012

With 1.3 billion people around the world currently lacking access to electricity and a further 2.7 billion unable to enjoy clean and safe cooking facilities, the need to radically expand access to sustainable and clean energy for all is becoming increasingly urgent. Nowhere is this need more pressing than in the global south, where billions of people rely on wood, charcoal, or animal waste for heating and cooking.

In addition to mitigating the harmful effects of CO2 emissions, sustainable energy is vital for the most basic living needs of billions of people and for fostering economic growth in developing and emerging countries, which are rapidly progressing in a global economy still quivering from the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis.

In an effort to meet these energy challenges, world leaders including UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and European Commission president José Manuel Barroso recently convened at the EU Sustainable Energy For All Summit in Brussels to launch a new EU energy initiative aimed at extending sustainable energy access to all by 2030. The proposals within the “Energising Development” initiative include financial support for sustainable energy investments in the developing world via various channels including public-private partnerships.

In addition, under a proposed EU Technical Assistance Facility, the Commission said it plans to provide select partners in the developing world with on the ground EU expertise on implementing sustainable development projects.

The Energising Development initiative forms part of the Sustainable Energy for All framework, which was launched by the UN secretary-general last year, and aims to ensure universal access to modern energy services, double the global rate of improving energy efficiency and double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030.

Speaking at the summit in Brussels, Ban Ki-moon said:

I wholeheartedly welcome this initiative. Today, one out of every five persons on our planet earth still does not have access to modern energy services. This seems unbelievable, but it is happening now around the world. I myself was once one of those people until I was a freshman in college in Korea, [which] was totally devastated by the Korean War. It was 1963 and I was studying under a very dim kerosene lamplight. Now, I am standing before you as the secretary-general of the United Nations. This was only possible through industrialisation and economic development, which [allowed] me to be able to use modern technology - so basic to many in the modern and developed world. Access to modern energy helped to transform my world - and my country. We need to make such a transformation possible for all the people around the world.

Gains in expanding access to sustainable energy

Thus far, important gains have been made in expanding access to sustainable energy. Countries with significant biomass resources such as Brazil and Sweden now obtain 50 per cent of their energy from renewable sources, while Denmark obtains 20 per cent of its total energy from renewable means.

In the global south, Kenya is set to host Africa’s largest wind farm in the Lake Turkana region, which will provide 300MW of clean energy to the country’s national grid. Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, more than 500,000 solar home systems have been installed within three years.

Despite this, the enormous potential offered by solar panels in developing countries – many of which have abundant sunshine – is still being impeded by the high costs involved.

Dr Kandeh Yumkella, chair of UN-Energy and director-general of the UN Industrial Development Organisation, said: “In this initiative, we’re really pushing hard for research and development to keep driving down the cost [of solar panels]. Within the last decade, solar PV prices have dropped by almost 30 per cent, so we see a lot of progress, but there is more to do.”

Dr Yumkella, who is also co-chair of Ban Ki-moon’s high level energy group, added: “People are convinced that the bigger the market, the faster prices will drop, so encouraging more deployment with support and incentives from governments is important.”

The dark side of clean energy targets

The rush to reduce the world's over-reliance on fossil fuels and meet EU and international clean energy targets has however, created some casualties. Private investors and speculators across Europe, North America, the Middle East and other strong emerging economies have been purchasing or leasing land for biofuels and agricultural exports in the developing world and, in the process, displacing scores of local communities.

A recently published database of “land grab” deals by the Land Matrix Project – the largest of its kind in the world - revealed the startling extent of secretive land deals reached between governments in the developing world and foreign investors. According to the report, over 200 million hectares of land were sold or leased between 2000 and 2010 - mainly in Africa, but also in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. In Africa, 754 deals were identified in which large tracts of land covering a total of 56.2 million hectares were acquired at little or no cost by foreign investors in order to grow biofuels and agricultural produce for export.

The deals have led to the displacement of local people and created little or no benefit in terms of job creation. According to researchers, the data vindicates widely-held beliefs that rich food-importing countries have indeed been specifically targeting land in poorer countries, where land rights laws are weak and poverty is rife.

In Ethiopia, where drought and famine have blighted the local population for decades, the government has been leasing or selling its prime land to foreign investors for rock bottom prices and in the process, forcing tens of thousands of people off their land, according to Human Rights Watch.

Meanwhile, thousands of villagers in Tanzania’s Kisaware district were left with nothing when British firm Sun Biofuels seized 8,200 hectares of their land to grow Jatropha and subsequently went bust.

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Dr Yumkella argues that as developing countries – and in particular African countries – are in urgent need of investment, it is important not to assume that all land acquisition deals and investments are underpinned by sinister motives.

“We should be careful we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said. “However, we must ensure that governments [in countries] where these investments are going make sure that they protect the rights of the locals – not only land rights, but also food security rights.”

Dr Yumkella explained that the UN Environment Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization have developed a toolkit aimed at helping governments in developing countries assess the pros and cons of investments when embarking on land deals with foreign investors.

International development agency ActionAid, however, remains sceptical about land acquisition deals and in a new report, maintains that if EU biofuel targets are not revised, people in the developing world will continue to be forced off their land and global food prices will increase.

Laura Sullivan, ActionAid’s head of European advocacy, said: “If it continues to ignore the impacts of its biofuels policy on people living in some of the poorest parts of the planet, the EU will effectively be sponsoring hunger and human rights abuses on a massive scale. Instead of pumping money into this fool’s gold, the EU needs to drop its targets and subsidies and invest the money in truly sustainable alternatives that support local farmers to produce food not fuel”.

She added: “Europe must start opening its eyes to the damage that its renewable energy policies are doing in poor countries – and it has a chance to change them this year.”

As the EU’s Energising Development initiative begins to gain traction and the Rio+20 summit approaches in June, the world’s eyes will be watching intently to see if world leaders can earnestly commit themselves to achieving access to sustainable energy for all while safeguarding the land rights and human rights of the world’s most vulnerable.

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