COMMUNITY members and visitors to Namibia's pristine coastal desert area have expressed concern over a massive jatropha plantation planned in the Tsîseb Conservancy close to the Dorob Park.
They say the plantation would irrevocably change – and damage – the fragile desert environment.
To add insult to injury, members of the public said, government approval and an environmental impact assessment are still outstanding but the local traditional authority and conservancy committee have already signed an agreement with local businessmen that approved the project.
Local businessmen with the support of German investor Jatropha Biofuel Company (JBC) are reportedly planning to establish jatropha plantations covering 3 500 hectares.
A senior councillor of the Daure Daman Traditional Authority, Phillips Gâseb, yesterday confirmed that the authority had signed an agreement with the businessmen last week, giving provisional approval for the project.
Gâseb said the area identified stretches from about 120 kilometres from Henties Bay towards the Brandberg, which is a tourist hotspot.
According to him, the local businessmen have promised the community schools, study bursaries for promising students and a percentage of the income from the jatropha plantations.
The traditional authority's secretary, Lien /Uises, also confirmed that an agreement was struck to this effect, and said the businessmen had promised to build houses, set up a clinic in the area, and pay a monthly fee of N$20 000 to the traditional authority and the Tsîseb Conservancy committee.
"It is a big project," said /Uises. "Negotiations started in 2008 after Cabinet and line ministries like the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Ministry of Lands and Resettlement, and Ministry of Environment had given the go-ahead for this."
Community members said the preliminary agreement was jointly signed by the traditional authority and the Tsîseb Conservancy committee.
But this was denied by the vice chairperson of the conservancy committee, Sakarias Seibeb, who said the conservancy had never had any direct communication with the JBC.
He said the committee had registered concerns such as the outstanding environmental impact assessment, and wanted more information on the possible long-term advantages, or disadvantages, of the project.
He said the community in the conservancy could lose use of the area as an exclusive wildlife breeding area.
Businessman Bernd Finkeldey, believed to be a representative of the local directors of JBC, yesterday was reluctant to comment on the plans and insisted that no agreement with any party had yet been signed and that there was no approval from any ministry yet.
This was confirmed by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism's environment commissioner, Theo Nghitila. He said the company still had to make a presentation to the ministry, adding that he did not yet have details of the project.
Finkeldey said he had made a presentation to the traditional authority and the conservancy committee last week, and added that the two groups had given them approval "to go ahead to submit proposals to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism".
He also insisted that the planned project "might be" in the Dorob Park or in the conservancy area, or "wherever", saying: "People will be compensated for a loss of income", presumably referring to a dislocation and loss of income from tourism and trophy hunting in the conservancy area.
"We are looking at suitable places to do that," Finkeldey said, and added: "This is a big plan and we hope to realise this."
He said investment in the project could total billions of Namibian dollars.
"It will be major, massive, bigger than ever, running not in the millions but in the billions, but we are still waiting for approval for the land," he said.
"We don't want to risk anything at this point in time. It is too early to make figures available."
Finkeldey said he had already met with various government ministries, the Erongo Regional Council, farmers in the region and members of the Tsîses Conservancy to discuss the project and find a suitable location.
He acknowledged that an environmental impact assessment still has to be done.
Cabinet last year recommended that no large-scale jatropha plantations for the biofuel industry be allowed in the environmentally more robust Kavango and Caprivi Regions. This was because of the adverse impact it could have on food security, land tenure and loss of access to communal land.
In 2006, the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry prepared a national bio-fuel action plan, which stated that the jatropha plant is more feasible for dry land cultivation.
The roadmap estimated that about 63 000 hectares of jatropha would be planted in Namibia by 2013.