Dozens of farmers in northern Ghana claim they have been forced off their land with no alternative source of income after a multinational firm bought their farms to cultivate jatropha, a non-food crop whose seeds contain oil used to produce biofuel.
Biofuel Africa Ltd has acquired over 23,700 hectares of Ghanaian land forcing out the inhabitants of seven villages – all of them farming communities -- in Tamale district.
Farmer Mumud Alhassan Adam, 50-year-old father of five, lost his eight-hectare plot on which he cultivated maize and rice.
“I went to the farm one day but I realized somebody else was on the farm and then I was told the land had been sold off. Since then I have not been allowed to farm."
Local chiefs own most of the land in northern Ghana and rent it out to farmers or sell it to anybody who wishes to buy.
“There was no consultation with us (farmers) before the land was sold and I have not been paid any compensation since I was displaced,” Adam told IRIN.
He added: “A few of the farmers were offered employment on the jatropha plantation but many others were left with hunger and no source of income, while others like myself had to raise money to rent another plot of land several kilometres away. It has been a very difficult time for my family.”
But BioFuel Africa’s chief executive officer Steinar Kolnes said the company offered the farmers options: “We don’t pay compensation…We gave the farmers two options: To stay and farm their crops alongside the jatropha or leave to other more fertile lands we had provided for them.” He said those who chose to leave were given plots up to 10 times the size of their previous plots.
Adam said he knew of no farmers living in the area who have been given alternative land to farm.
Many farmers are trying to make the best of the change, rather than fighting for their land back. “If I get a job with any of these firms I will abandon crop cultivation and join them. And many of my colleagues would do the same,” John Akerebo, a farmer in the region, told IRIN.
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Over 20 companies from around the world, including from Brazil, China, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and Norway, are acquiring land in Ghana to produce biofuels, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Between 15 million and 20 million hectares of farmland around the world have been subject to biofuels negotiations since 2006, according to the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
Kwadwo Poku, a local consultant for several of the multinationals with business in Ghana, told IRIN: “With so much land uncultivated [in Ghana], these firms are doing this country a favour by…employing many more farmers."
In a communiqué on its website, BioFuel Africa says only 10 percent of the land in question was being cultivated for food crops and that its project is providing farmers with much-needed employment during the lean season.
The Agriculture Ministry estimates that just 16 percent of Ghana’s arable land is cultivated, despite agriculture employing 60 percent of the country’s workforce.
Multinationals are attracted to Ghana by the land availability, soil types and a lack of regulation on acquisitions, according to the Food Security Policy Advocacy Network (FoodSPAN), based in the capital Accra.
But David Eli, FoodSPAN chairman, said the growing practice of carving up cultivable land for biofuel production could worsen Ghana’s food insecurity. "As a country we don’t produce enough food to feed everybody so if the argument is that we have enough land then why don’t we invest to cultivate that land for food crops?”
Up to 1.2 million Ghanaians are food insecure, according to the World Food Programme’s latest estimates, 453,000 of them in Northern Region. The government is drafting a US$10-million national food security plan, according to Agriculture Ministry director Nurah Gyiele.
The government has recognized the need for more clarity on the rights of farmers and companies in land deals concerning biofuels, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, and has called on the government's Energy Commission to draft legislation on land acquisitions.
Head of the Agriculture Workers Union, Kingsley Ofei Nkansah, said the legislation, which is currently being developed, must ensure that biofuels cultivation be limited to marginal lands; that all acquisitions include compensation for farmers and that chiefs prioritize land for food crop cultivation over biofuels.