October 25, 2007

Government announces biofuel-project in drought-affected Lavumisa

The government of Swaziland has announced that it would be allocating thousands of hectares to a private company to cultivate cassava for biofuel. About 40 percent of the country's one million people are facing acute food and water shortages. "The cassava ethanol project has restarted the debate on how the country should use its agriculture land," said Sipho Mthetfwa, an agriculture extension officer in Shiselweni Region in the south of the country. "The quick answer is, 'to grow food for the people', but government's stance is that we need to develop industry and new markets so people can collect wages and buy food, because traditional agriculture is too undependable."
As oil prices soar and biofuel production becomes more attractive, especially to poor countries, a global debate is raging over the possible impact on food security. By placing the cassava project in drought-affected Lavumisa, in southeastern Shiselweni, where agriculture has been limping along for years, government is attracting criticism that it favours exports over food security at home. "This year's drought has been nationwide, but drought has hit Lavumisa for 15 years," said Mthetfwa. "There are mostly small landholder farmers here - they are too poor to buy inputs for irrigation. And don't talk to them about alternative, drought-tolerant crops - they don't want to grow anything other than maize ... [which] has not grown well in years."
Cassava is drought-tolerant and productive in poor soils, and has traditionally been grown by poor farmers in marginal areas. Between 1961 and 1995, cassava production for human consumption rose by 50 percent in Africa and 70 percent in Asia, the leading producer of cassava-derived starches, which are now being fermented to produce biofuel, according to the FAO.
The Swazi government is allocating non-irrigated land to a local firm called USA Distilleries, which makes molasses from the sugar cane grown in the eastern lowveld but is based in Big Bend, a town 60km north of Lavumisa. The company is investing more than US$5 million in the biofuel project, which is expected to generate 700 jobs. USA Distilleries declined to comment on its new venture but more details are expected to be released after the environmental impact assessment has been completed. "The ethanol made from cassava will be sold overseas, where there is a ready market," said Lutfo Dlamini, Minister of Enterprise and Employment. (rts)

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