In 1858 and 1859, oil was discovered for the first time in commercial quantities in Ontario Canada and Pennsylvania, USA. This was a turning point in human civilization. From producing diesel for steam engines to using kerosene to light up house lamps, oil was the ‘oil’ of civilization. By the middle of the 20th century almost all engines ran on one form of oil extract or another.
Almost a hundred years later, In 1956, oil was discovered in commercial quantities in Nigeria in Oloibiri, a small community in the Niger Delta area in Southern Nigeria. On the world stage, this also marked a turn in Nigeria’s economic bearing. By the late 70s, the country was enjoying a huge oil boom as one of the largest producers of oil in the world. As at May 2018, oil export accounted for over nine percent of Nigeria’s GDP.
All these have come at a massive cost especially to the Nigerian environment. From oil spills to gas flaring, the oil sector has been a bane for the environment in Nigeria. Fishing communities have had their livelihoods snatched away by blackened rivers. Farmers in these areas have not been spared as their contaminated farmlands would barely support crop growth. These were the contributing factors that led to the militant crisis in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, but that’s another matter.
Biofuels have been declared a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels and generally regarded as one of the best options for a sustainable future. The Union of Concerned Scientists define biofuels as “liquid fuels—most often ethanol or biodiesel—that are made from plant- or animal-based sources called “biomass.” Biomass includes everything from corn to algae, and can also be used to produce electricity.” One of the more popular examples of a biofuel is ethanol. Ethanol is most commonly made from corn and sugarcane.
Now in attempts to encourage agriculture and diversify the Nigerian economy from oil, (more than really a need to create a cleaner environment), the Nigerian government has recently taken steps to encourage biofuel production in the country. Along these lines, various state governments in partnerships with multinational corporations have commenced steps to set-up bio-fuel manufacturing plants in their states.
One such project is the Kebbi State Fuel-Ethanol project in Kebbi State, Northwest Nigeria. The refinery under construction is projected to produce 84 million liters of ethanol per annum. It has also been estimated to create over one million jobs upon completion. What’s more, the project is lauded to create clean energy and accomplish all else at little or no cost to the environment.
Thing is, in life there are almost always costs. They are just not as immediately apparent in one case as they are in another. In this case, these costs come in the form of the negative social impact on the lives of the people who are dependent on the production of corn and sugarcane.
Recently, I visited Gosa, a town in the outskirts of Abuja Nigeria mainly inhabited by natives and indigenes. While there, I paid a visit to the market; a bustling outdoor space filled with traders jostling for space and customers. I was drawn to a clearing where a group of women were screaming for everyone to “buy sugar, buy your sugar, buy your sugarcane”.
I bought some of their wares and having previously read an article on the biofuel plant, I decided to talk to them about it. Now, my expectation was that even though these women depended on sugarcane for their livelihoods, they might not be very knowledgeable about such happenings. I was pleasantly surprised.
Discussing with one of the women, Mama Precious, she told me the cost of sugarcane had risen astronomically for them. When I asked why it was so costly it has become difficult to buy, her response was that the farmers did not want to sell to them anymore as they said that the “company” will buy everything at higher prices.
The major grievance of such unintended casualties as Mama Precious is the fact that the members of the communities where these projects are located are often denied seats at the tables during the planning of these projects. In some cases, they are a part of the planning. However, rarely is any account taken of the likes of Mama Precious; people who do not live in the State but will be hugely impacted by the projects nonetheless.
This would not be the first time the building of a biofuel company will bring such social impacts. In Brazil, the cost of farmland has grown at a rapid pace since the country commenced its ethanol program. In Malaysia, the cost of palm oil rose for ordinary consumers as plantations took over production. In Tanzania, farmers complain about losing their land to biofuel projects which don’t yield anything for them. When I discussed this issue with a friend of mine, he pointed out that the infrastructure hasn’t even been built and these women have not been completely pushed out of their businesses.
While we drive forward the sustainable and cleaner energy agenda, there is the need for us to endeavor to bring everyone along. The major argument against fossil fuels is the harm they do to the environment. This is where bi-fuels come in; cleaner alternatives, better for the environment. However, if in developing cleaner alternatives, we fail to put foremost the socio-economic impacts on people, then in my opinion, we have failed.
The call for a cleaner environment is for the benefit of humans, and if I had to choose between negative impacts on the environment and negative impacts on people; I would choose the people even though negative impact on the environment often translates to negative impact on people.
Recommended reading: Electric Cars: How Much They Really Cost (the Environment)