Just How is This Supposed to be Environmentally Responsible?

3 Jul

Say good-bye to this...

Tens of thousands of small farmers and the fertile wetlands that provide their livelihood are on a fast track to ruin in Kenya’s Tana River delta, right now; one of the main culprits behind this disgraceful situation is a Canadian company called Bedford Biofuels.

Calgary-based Bedford considers itself “an environmentally responsible company” and even has a “humanitarian division” called EMPOWER, supposedly dedicated to helping poor, developing-country farmers. It prides itself for participating in the Clinton Global Initiative (which unfortunately says a lot about his much-lauded organization.)

Because in Kenya, Bedford is only helping to destroy both farmland and an environmentally sensitive wilderness with its 10,000-hectare plantation of physic nut trees. Also known as jatropha, the plantation and other similar commercial agro-ventures are drawing millions of gallons of water from the Tana River and displacing farm families.

A recent must-read article in The Guardian tells the stories of some of those farmers who have been evicted from their plots of land. It also describes the sorry condition of the wetlands thanks to the vast amounts of water being drained from it to irrigate the plantations.

Now physic nut is almost a miracle plant. It not only provides a clean-burning biofuel, but thrives in sandy, saline soil and can withstand drought. It even produces a latex that purportedly has cancer-fighting properties. It is the kind of tree that could, and should, become a lifesaver for African farmers, stopping soil erosion and providing fuel to run small village generators. But as is so often the case when science suddenly hits upon a great new gift of nature, jatropha is being farmed by multi-national corporations in enormous stretches of other peoples’ land rather than shared among the poor.

What has happened in Kenya is this: the arrival of the Mumias Sugar Company – intending to produce cane alcohol on 20,000 hectares of the Delta for fuel – sparked a protest among both conservationists and farming communities in 2007. They succeeded in winning an injunction against the scheme, but Kenya’s High Court overturned it on a technicality. The court then ceded all the land, including 30 villages and the farms of 25,000 people, to the government-run Tana and Athi River Development Authority, or TARDA.


Farming in the Tana Delta

And while the region has already suffered various failed experiences with large companies attempting to foster agri-business, TARDA went ahead and leased the land to other corporations — including Bedford Biofuels. So now, as Francis Kagema of Nature Kenya put it, “These people have lived here for hundreds of years, but suddenly someone writes up a piece of paper and they are squatters on their own land.”

What’s more, “environmentally responsible” Bedford actually wants to enlarge its lease to 90,000 hectares of the Delta. “The land is almost completely under-utilized,” it says in its investor-searching communique.

Such egregious behaviour beggars belief – all the more so when the company involved is branding itself as a good corporate citizen, trying to make the world a better place. Is this kind of mendacity to become the ugly face of Canadian business?

The Canadian government annually renews its apparent commitment to fighting poverty in Africa, but so far, no one in Canada is pointing out the outrageous contradiction of driving thousands of people into poverty so a company here can reap the profits.



2 Responses to “Just How is This Supposed to be Environmentally Responsible?”


  1. Selling Land, Stealing Livelihoods « Global Kiosk - December 14, 2011

    […] have posted twice already about these ‘new enclosures’ and written about foreign companies coming in to desperately poor nations to make use of their best land. But apparently, national […]

  2. From Underdogs to Watch Dogs « Global Kiosk - June 25, 2012

    […] how we want to vote, or whether we want to avoid patronizing unethical companies (see Pfizer,  Bedford Biofuels, Suncor, Cargill, etc ), or even to campaign for change.  It is also true that people might not […]

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