Norwegian company uses land grabbing strategies of yesteryear in Ghana

Publié le par hort

 
Ghana: Biofuels: Doing battle with the dragon himself

2008-02-01

A few days ago the members of RAINS came face to face with a Norwegian company called BioFuel Africa. In the words of Mr Finn Byberg, Director of Land Acquisition for BioFuel Africa a subsidiary of Bio Fuel Norway (http://www.biofuel.no) at a public engagement session in Kusawgu, a village in the Mid-Volta River Basin in the Northern Region of Ghana, “developing the largest jatropha plantation in the world, in Ghana”.Kusawgu is the village where this battle to save the land in Northern Ghana from land grabbing began on Saturday 26th January 2008. But the skirmishes began in November 2007 when a team from land RAINS, discovered massive destruction of vegetation cover in a large stretch of land near a village called Alipe, five kilometers from Yapei, within the White Volta River basin about 30 kilometres from Tamale, the capital town of the Northern region of Ghana. The sight of huge agricultural machinery pulling down trees and decimating the area was soul destroying. The land had literally been stripped naked.

Upon enquiry I learnt that the land was being prepared for the first phase of a jatropha plantation. My heart sunk. We suddenly realised that the battlefields were now in our own backyard, not far away in India or Brazil as we have been reading. The land-grabbing dragon and community disempowerment is right here and we are ready for confrontation! In collaboration with the Central Gonja District Assembly and the Environmental Protection Agency, work was suspended on that site. BioFuel Africa, was waging a battle based on false promises of a better future for the local population under the guise of jobs opportunities.

An interesting aspect that emerged from the episode was seeing the strategy used by BioFuel Africa for the acquisition of the land. Firstly the imaginations of a few opinion leaders in the community is captured - about prospects that will arise from the project in the form of promises of positions in the company or of financial gain. These people then act as fronts for the necessary “groundwork” in the villages where they spread the word about job opportunities. A document is then prepared, essentially a contract to lease the land to the company. When it does emerge that there is no benefit for the community and things erupt the biofuel company claims they have a legally binding contract with the Chief. (Lesson No. 1: Never sign any document until you have had the opportunity to soberly reflect on its meaning and import, because as the Kusawgu Chief said, “they will use it to tie your hands” literally meaning you be bound by its contents). When the legality of the process is not adequately analyzed, the companies have their way, but when subject to proper legal scrutiny, the legality of such contracts fades which is what happened in this particular battle.

As a first step, we immediately contacted the District Chief Executive to inquire about the above mentioned project. He had no knowledge or information about it nor did the District Assembly. The District Chief Executive confirmed that he had noticed it and was making inquiries as to who was responsible. He promised to visit the site. To gain time, we advised the DCE to explore the possibility of using the planning powers conferred on the District Assembly under the Local Government Act 1993 Act 462 to get the activities suspended. (Note: under this act nobody can undertake any development of land without seeking the prior approval of the District Assembly of the area). Unfortunately the Assembly could not stop them due to the highly politicized nature of the Assembly process.

(Lesson No.2 : We cannot rely wholly on the District Assemblies to support us in this battle because of their vulnerability to political manipulation. After all, a DCE who cannot convince his staff to accept a project of this nature could be readily dismissed from his job!) Eventually using the Environmental Assessment Regulations 199 LI 1652, we managed to get them to stop the destruction but not before more that 500 hectares of the earth had been stripped of its natural vegetation cover!

(Lesson No.3: Was his real position exaggerated to give the traditional rulers and the communities idea that he could enter any commitment with them and deliver on his commitment!)

Our next was to call on the Traditional ruler of the village to get information about any land grants he may have made to the proponents of the jatropha project. At this stage, the identity of the company doing the Project had not yet been disclosed. They were described simply as some “white men”. (Note that in this community, like in most parts of Ghana, over 80 percent of the land is held under communal ownership and more that seventy percent of this land is managed by traditional ruler-chiefs mainly on behalf the members of the traditional areas.)
The chief categorically stated that he had not made such a grant and that he had also been battling with those “white people” to stop them without much success. However, he confirmed “thumb printing” a document which had been brought to his palace by "those white people” in the company of the Assemblyman of the area but he could not confirm its contents. He confessed that his efforts to get them to stop work on the site was proving problematic. Why?
 
(Lesson No. 4: The developers have the tendency to raise the hopes and temporarily win the support of local communities by enticing the villagers with the promise of jobs and income.)

Initially the chief was unwilling to go against the wishes of his people in that respect. (Note also that during this time of the year most of the people in Northern Ghana are unable to farm due to the lack of rain and so, having harvested they are virtually idle. This year the harvest happened to be very small because of the devastating effects of the floods that hit this part of Ghana in the recent rainy season.)

(Lesson No 5: The devastating effects of climate change on the already poor rural communities renders local communities vulnerable to all sorts of situations thus making them easily amenable to all sorts of utopian promises.) The chief confirmed that his efforts to stop the developers were being interpreted as “driving away opportunities for the people to earn some income during the season”.

(Lesson No.6: The strategy employed by the biofuel companies also appears to be to create conflict in communities by making community leaders appear anti-development which thus sets the people against them.)

We next proceeded to the surrounding villages to obtain first-hand information on the what they have been told about the project and how they felt about it. These interactions revealed the same initial picture that the chief had given - there was so much euphoria about jobs and possible income that they could not countenance any move to stop the project even in the face of the destruction of their environment, their means of livelihood and the basis of their survival. Fortunately there were a number of sceptics who were convinced that ”all that glitters is not gold” and that the manner in which they marshaled unto the land did not portend of anything good. These people naturally became our companions in the battle against the promoters of the project.

(Lesson No. 7: When interacting with communities, at first, do not appear to oppose the project but go through an analysis of it with the people and you soon you will convince them that “all that glitters is actually not all gold”.)

The facts then began to emerge: a big fish in Government was promoting that project and had deployed his business associates in the Region to front for him. This front was immediately employed as the Local Manager of BioFuel Africa. EPA insisted that they must go through the proceses of doing an Environmental Impact Assessment. We organised a public consultative forum in the community where we had a face-to–face confrontation with the Director of BioFuel Africa in the village square in front of the Chief’s palace. The audience and judges were the village communities affected by the proposed project. 

When met again a few days later on 28th Jabuary 2008 in the chief's palace to discuss other issues pertaining to the acquisition of land. After the presentation by myself on behalf of RAINS and the discussion which followed, it became clear to all present that BioFuel Africa's promises were really a hoax. With the level of community engagements that we made in the villages, it was obvious to the local communities that the development would cause more danger to the survival of the community than any benefits that could accrue from it. They realized that indeed all that glitters is not really gold! They saw the dangers that such a project impose on their lives individually and on community cohesion in general. But how long will this hold as they sit idle for the rest of the year until the rains come in April?

There was the conviction that the promises of jobs and a new improved life could not materialize because Mr Finn Byberg, the Chairman of BioFuel Africa himself confessed, during his presentation that he could not state categorically what commitments the company would make because as he said: “Commitments are not very easy and so when I am required to make these, I need to be very careful. I do not want to be caught for not keeping my word.”. This was hidden in the argument that the company was also still learning. So our land is the guinea pig for their experimentation! In other words his promise of jobs, shared prosperity and improved livelihoods that was the Company’s main benefit to the community were really not commitments for which the community could hold him to.But were mere campaign gimmicks. Most vocal indeed were the women at the session. Looking Mr Finn Byberg in the face a women asked, “Look at all the sheanut trees you have cut down already and considering the fact that the nuts that I collect in a year give me cloth for the year and also a little capital I can invest my petty income in the form of a ram and sometimes in a good year, I can buy a cow. Now you have destroyed the trees and you are promising me something you do not want to commit yourself to. Where then do you want me to go? What do you want me to do?”

The response that followed was to express regret and a promise not to repeat it. This was the tone in which the session ended.

The next Monday we assembled again before the Chief at the request of the Company. Here another battle began - the battle as to whether a contract exists between the chief and the Company around thirty-one hectares of land in four locations in the traditional area. Here too we won the battle because of the circumstances prior to the thumbprint of the document and also the subsequent events which shrouded the documentation process in mystery. The legal battle became fierce, but in the long run the battle was won.

But the questions we are asking ourselves hinge on whether we can win the war ultimately. I am confident that we can because we have the truth as our guide and the interest of the community is our goal. We cannot afford to fail otherwise there will be chaos. But the war is heating. I have started hearing about large tracts of land being acquired in various parts of the Northern Region. This is the most expansive region with the lowest population density and thus ideal for land grabbers! Another obstale is the government policy to have 10% biofuel of the total fuel content in Ghana by 2015 - a rather over ambitious proposition.

We need a more aggressive campaign to halt land grabbing. We need to engage with traditional rulers, District Assemblies and Politicians about this ominous phenomenon. We need visibility through print and electronic media to put our message across effectively to a wider audience. RAINS has a strategy to build on the rapport that it has developed through the OSIWA project with traditional rulers to open up another channel for engagement. We cannot afford to be caught unawares in this war with the dragons, the biofuel companies. The ancestors are on our side and we shall win the war!

Publié dans geostrategy

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