Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sugar and the natural environment

The food versus biofuel issue has raised its ugly head again, with an added bit of spice. In this case it is a story from Kenya that has appeared a few times, as it developed, on the BBC web site. The latest chapter can be found here and tells the story of how a group of concerned citizens, led by Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai have sued the Kenya government over their approval of a sugar plantation proposal in the Tana river delta, which is home to a variety of wild species including two rare birds of particular concern and a range of mammals such as lions, hippos and elephants and reptiles, at least one of them endangered.

The lawsuit claims that at least five laws and the Kenyan constitution are being broken, and right now the project is on hold as a judge has ordered a halt while the case is being heard.

Apparently the protagonists of the scheme claim that “the project will boost the area's economic growth and provide thousands of jobs.”

Sugar has a torrid, not to say horrid, history all over the world. Author Elizabeth Abbott’s new book found here and called Sugar: A Bittersweet History documents this history and makes it plain that at no point has sugar provided any sort of decent jobs for anyone except the plantation, mill and slave owners – whom she refers to as the plantocracy. Even where slavery is not occurring the jobs are back-breakingly hard, the workers suffer, and all-in-all the whole thing is bad news. She cites the example of modern-day Haitians in the Dominican Republic, where conditions are tantamount to slavery. If Abbott’s report is correct, there will indeed be economic growth – for one or two sugar barons, and the jobs will be a nightmare for the field workers.

A slightly earlier BBC report in found here in the thread quoted Nature Kenya spokesperson Sarah Munguti as saying “the project was flawed and did not incorporate concerns raised by environmentalists.”

What is certain is that if a sugar mill and plantation does get developed the entire sensitive delta area of the Tana River under consideration, some 20,000 Hectares, will be irretrievably altered, for ever.

The other groups who should be reading Abbott’s book are both sides in the argument about attempts in Uganda to excise one third of the pristine Mabira forest, which lies an hour or so east of Kampala and is a tiny island of only 300 sq km in the midst of a mass of humanity. This has been an ongoing battle that seems right now to be on hold, with round two going to the environment and the people who fought the initial moves, especially those who died. There is a petition put out by the folks who want to save the forest that currently has 11,694 signatures attached to it which you can view here.

I’d be willing to bet that there will be a third, and maybe more rounds, as the story, in which an Asian/ Ugandan sugar baron has stated that he needs the extra land to enlarge his estates, continues to rumble. Then there is the little matter of the millions of dollars of hardwood that would come out of the forest. The minimum estimate of its value that I have read is USD 50 million. At the other end the figure is three times that. Someone’s pockets are going to get heavy.

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