New life for old rubber trees

At first glance it looks like a fully grown tropical forest, but among the thick undergrowth, the trees still stand in lines, their trunks deeply scarred. This was once a productive rubber plantation; now it is part of Liberia’s estimated 600,000ha of overgrown and moribund rubber farms.

To fell the trees and clear the land for replanting means backbreaking labour, followed by a long wait until the new trees grow big enough to be tapped. But for a Canadian renewable energy company, it is a potentially limitless supply of fuel for power stations. The fuel also attracts none of the carbon taxes increasingly being levied on power companies that use fossil fuels.

Buchanan Renewables has already started work. Its huge diggers can be seen near Kakata, in the west, uprooting the trees. Another machine – a giant mincer – takes the trunks and grinds them up, spewing out a growing pile of rubberwood chips, which are then trucked to the port of Buchanan and exported.

For general manager Liam Hickey, the project has huge benefits: the farmers get their land cleared and replanted, Liberia gets a new source of export revenue, and power stations get a reliable source of sustainable fuel. Normally rubber trees need to be replaced once they are over 25 years old.

“These trees are not producing anything,” Hickey told IRIN. “They are absolutely past it. Most of them are between 30 and 60 years old. And the problem the farmers face is that that you can’t raise micro-finance in this country. So how do they take down all these trees, buy all the seedlings, plant and wait for seven years? That’s not a good situation to be in at all.”

The deal

The company offers farmers a deal. It buys the tree trunks for US$2 a tonne (there should be almost 1MT of usable wood in a large tree), replants the land, free of charge, with new rubber trees, and the farmers also get the roots and smaller branches to burn for charcoal or sell as firewood. Buchanan Renewables is working with big rubber estates, but also with smallholders, provided there is a big enough area for it to be worth bringing in the diggers.

It represents some urgently needed investment in a country that, seven years after the end of its civil war, still finds it hard to deliver the jobs, opportunities and improved living standards that peace promised.

Tonia Johnson has a 40ha rubber farm she inherited from her father on the road between Monrovia and Buchanan, but she was getting nothing from it. “My trees were very, very old,” she told IRIN, “perhaps 38 or 40 years. And during the war the fighters were in there and I couldn’t manage it.” She heard about the scheme from a cousin who worked in Buchanan, put in an application, and the diggers turned up.

So far they have cleared around 30ha. “There is a little creek on the farm,” she says, “And they were having trouble dragging the trees and it was raining too much, and they were muddying the water for the other people. So they cleared the front part only, but they have paid me for all the trees and they say they will come back.”

''Most of the power plants in Europe which are burning coal today are seriously looking at biomass as an alternative, because it greatly reduces the carbon emissions''

What would Johnson have done if the company had not cleared her farm? “I was thinking maybe I was going to clear the trees myself and make charcoal with them, but to replant was too expensive for me. Now in another seven years I will have rubber, so I thank God for them.”

Profit motive

Buchanan Renewables treads a careful line between profit and social responsibility. Most of the money for the project comes from a Canadian millionaire, John McCall MacBain, who made a fortune from classified advertising before selling his company and setting up a charitable foundation. His foundation has offered grants to Liberia for other projects, but the money he has put into the rubberwood company is an investment, and its operations need to be profitable, as well as environmentally sound.

The company has been operating in Liberia for two years. It exported 45,000MT of chips last year; this year it has contracts to ship 90,000MT. Hickey is confident both of the supply of old trees, and the demand for his product. “We should be able to clear 10,000ha a year, and there are 600,000ha out there which should be cleared right now. And after 30 years the areas we are now planting will need to be replanted again, so we are never going to run out.

“Most of the power plants in Europe which are burning coal today are seriously looking at biomass as an alternative, because it ... greatly reduces the carbon emissions. And rubberwood has a pretty comparable heat content to coal. At the moment woodchips are a little cheaper than coal, but it’s not really a cost-driven agenda, it’s more of an environment-driven agenda. Coal is going to get more expensive, not cheaper, and companies are under a lot of pressure to reduce their carbon emissions.”

It seems a little surreal to be discussing how Liberia can fuel Europe’s power stations in a city that was completely without mains electricity for so many years, and where, even now, the power supply is erratic. But a new wood-chip burning power plant for Monrovia is planned, once the company and the government have agreed the price of the fuel.

“We have a project to build a 36MW rubberwood-powered facility for Monrovia,” Hickey told IRIN. “This wood is a national resource, and at the moment it is being shipped out of the country, when of course part of it should be used here. We are well aware of that. The McCall MacBain Foundation ... will put any profits from the power plant back into Liberia. The power plant will make a low return but it will make some money, of course. We are interested in sustainable development, and you can’t have sustainable development with zero returns.”