Guiding biofuels development in Kenya | WWF

Guiding biofuels development in Kenya

We’ve fought against damaging biofuel developments – but can we help create a sustainable biofuels industry?
On the face of it, a project to supply renewable energy that could bring rural jobs and much needed economic growth in a developing country sounds like just the sort of project WWF would support. But when large-scale biofuel plantations were proposed near the Kenyan coast, WWF joined other conservation and human rights NGOs, led by Nature Kenya, in campaigning against them.

“The proposals would have seen thousands of hectares of forests, woodlands and wetlands converted to monoculture plantations of jatropha, a shrubby tree whose oily seeds can be used to make biodiesel,” says Kiunga Kareko, Coastal Kenya Programme Coordinator at WWF Kenya. A 164,000-hectare development was planned for the Lower Tana River Basin, a sensitive floodplain ecosystem. Another project in the Dakatcha Woodlands 130 km south of the basin would have destroyed some 50,000 hectares of some of Kenya’s last coastal forest.

Unsustainable development

“Both areas are important habitats for wildlife, including birds, mammals and reptiles, and provide vital ecological services such as fresh water to local people,” says Kiunga. “In addition, research has found that, far from being a climate-friendly alternative, this jatropha-based biodiesel would actually result in increased carbon emissions. This would emanate from destruction of woody and herbaceous plants to make way for jatropha.”

There were social and economic issues as well as environmental ones. Communities discovered that their land had been leased at incredibly low rates to foreign-owned firms, without any proper consultation. Besides this, while WWF projects have shown that jatropha hedges can provide a useful source of fuel at the community level, the economic viability of growing it on this scale in East Africa is at best unproven. “We presented evidence to the Kenyan government showing how a jatropha project, which cleared a huge portion of the coastal forests of Tanzania, had collapsed within three years,” says John Salehe, an east African conservationist who worked for WWF at the time. “Its legacy was a ruined habitat and desperate communities.”

Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) listened, and advised the government against allowing jatropha plantations in the coastal region. The Dakatcha proposal has been stopped, and the Tana Delta project cut back to a 10,000-hectare pilot, which still faces strong opposition. WWF is working with Nature Kenya, individual conservationists, other NGOs and the government to develop a longterm land-use plan for the delta.

Sustainable biofuels?

But while the threats in coastal Kenya may have receded, biofuels are not going away. Indeed, they have an important role to play in WWF’s vision of a shift to 100 per cent renewable energy. The challenge is to ensure that increased biofuel cultivation does not come at the expense of food production or replace land needed by people and nature. Building a market for sustainable biofuels is key to this.

The 10 per cent by 2020 EU target for renewable energy in the transport sector will be largely achieved through the use of biofuels.

The expansion of European biofuels use has been widely blamed for driving “land grabs” and unsustainable developments like those in Kenya. To address environmental and social concerns, the EU decided that biofuels must comply with one of its recognized certification schemes. While this is a step in the right direction, the schemes it recognizes vary in terms of performance and credibility. Pressure from NGOs and the private sector is still needed to improve regulations and ensure that biofuels are produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner – which should complement environmental and development priorities in the regions where they are grown.

The most comprehensive and ambitious of the recognized schemes is the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), a multistakeholder organization of which WWF is a member. The RSB’s principles and criteria include avoiding negative impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 50 per cent, maintaining water resources, improving food security, and contributing to social and economic development.

“Schemes like those proposed for the Tana Delta and Dakatcha Woodlands would never get off the ground if the RSB principles and criteria were applied,” says László Máthé, former coordinator of WWF’s bioenergy work. “The RSB is, at present, the only scheme that credibly addresses all the environmental and social issues associated with bioenergy. We hope governments and industry around the world will adopt and implement these standards.”

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Better Production for a Living Planet

	© WWF
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  • Habitat conversion;
  • Unsustainable water abstraction;
  • Carbon emissions;
  • Pollution of soil, water and air;
  • Food security.
  • Potential to reduce habitat destruction and biodiversity
  • Less in some of Earth’s most precious natural places;
  • Potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Rural development opportunities;
  • Reduce energy dependence.

Bioenergy can make an important contribution to providing access to sustainable energy for all. Credible sustainability standards, such as the one developed by the RSB, help manage risks on a project level and promote best practices among producers and processors, complementing sound regional and national energy planning and policy.

Martina Otto, Head of of Policy Unit, Energy Branch United Nations Environment Programme

	© Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB)
    The RSB provides and promotes the global standard and certification scheme for socially, environmentally and economically sustainable production of biomass and biofuels.

Priority Countries

  • Production
    Tanzania, Mozambique, Madagascar, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Russia


    China, EU, USA

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