Yaounde — Biofuel production initiatives are gaining ground in Cameroon as the government seeks to reduce the Central African country's energy deficit while fighting climate change.
Although biofuel production has not yet reached a large scale, the government is optimistic about the prospect of boosting the economy through a new source of much-needed renewable energy to complement hydroelectric power generation.
At the same time, biofuels - made from vegetation such as palm and jatropha - are seen as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming.
But environmentalists caution that biofuel production in Cameroon must be regulated if it is to achieve both economic and environmental goals.
Cameroon's president, Paul Biya, touted the potential of renewable energy to solve power shortages in his 2010 end-of-year address to the nation.
"I have instructed the minister of water and energy to explore ways by which we can get alternative energy through the production of renewable energy, especially biofuels and solar energy," Biya said.
Now the government has opened its doors to some prominent investors in renewable energy.
Billionaire Vincent Bollore, head of the French-owned Bollore Group, recently met Biya and the minister of water and energy, Basil Atagana Kouna, to discuss large-scale biofuel production. A subsidiary of the company, SOCAPALM, has been active in Cameroon for the past 30 years. Together with two other subsidiaries, SAFACAM and Ferme Suisse, it established a pilot biofuels programme in 2005.
The Bollore Group controls more than 80 percent of palm-oil production in Cameroon, mostly for export, and now plans to boost its production of biofuels significantly beyond the current rate of 100,000 litres per annum, although targets have not yet been announced.
"We have come to discuss with the president of Cameroon and other government officials our project to go into large-scale biofuel production, as well as opening a photovoltaic or solar energy firm that will go a long way to making up the energy deficit in Cameroon and help in the fight against climate change," Bollore told a press conference.
The government is upbeat that a number of planned renewable energy projects will enhance energy efficiency, and enable Cameroon to meet the high demand expected to be triggered by its new economic development programme, dubbed "Vision 2035".
A recent report by the ministry of water and energy puts current hydroelectric production in Cameroon at 1,017 megawatts (MW). The government aims to scale this up to 3,000 MW by 2020 with the construction of dams at locations including Lom Pangar and Memve'le in the South region, and Warack and Menchum Falls in the North and Northwest regions, respectively.
According to the government report, other investors apart from the Bollore Group are taking an increasing interest in renewable energy projects in Cameroon because of the availability of land and rich soils for the cultivation of palm trees, cassava and jatropha, which are important feedstock (raw materials) for biofuel production.
French bio-energy company Agro Energy Development (AED) has been in discussion with local authorities for the past two years about the possibility of developing biofuel from jatropha in the north of the country, where the plant flourishes.
Known in the local language, Fulfulde, as kogolondje, jatropha is particularly popular in Maroua in the Far North region, where it is used for food - the seeds and leaves can be eaten once cooked to remove toxins - and as a traditional medicine. AED plans to cultivate over 350,000 hectares (865,000 acres) of the crop to produce an estimated 665 million litres of biofuel annually.
FORESTS UNDER THREAT?
But environmental experts are ambivalent about the idea of large-scale biofuel production in a country as highly forested as Cameroon.
Joseph Armathe Amogou, a local representative of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change who heads work on its Clean Development Mechanism for carbon offsets, acknowledges that biofuel projects could provide Cameroon with a needed renewable energy source, while potentially delivering reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that could be turned into credits and bought by rich nations to meet their Kyoto Protocol targets.
But he cautioned that, if production is not regulated, it may turn out to be a liability for the environment.
"If producing biofuel means sacrificing large expanses of forested land that previously held high-carbon stocks, then this is going to cause social and environmental damage because it will eventually lead to a net increase in carbon emissions," Amogou said.
He recommends that biofuel feedstock be grown only on non-forested land such as that in the north.
"We are against the clearing of forest in the southern part of the country for palm plantations to produce biofuels," he said.
Civil society organisations argue that the quest for more land in the forested south to expand palm plantations will not only be harmful to the environment, but will also provoke social tension between the industry and local communities.
"We think that the production of biofuel using palm oil is inappropriate at a time that current palm-oil production in the country does not meet the needs of local consumers," said Benard Njonga of the Citizens' Association for the Defence of Collective Interests (ACDIC), a local group that works for food self-sufficiency, at a recent press briefing in the capital Yaounde.
"This may instead trigger a further increase in the price of palm oil locally, which means hunger and suffering for the population," he warned.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.