One of the scariest news items I saw about the Congo has nothing to do with civil war. It was a Reuters report about a UN economist touting the virtues of biofuel production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other African countries. This sounds like a case of “we can, therefore we should” with some pretty dire potential consequences.
While it is certainly possible biofuel crops can be grown outside the rain forests, there is no guarantee that’s where it would happen. And, while it is also certainly possible that abandoned arable land could be used to grow new crops, it is entirely more likely that the first biomass that’s used will be the existing vegetation –rainforests– because it is more economical to pluck the low-hanging fruit.
These aren’t just theoretical musings, either. A Chinese company recently signed a billion-dollar contract to develop more than 3 millions hectares of the DRC from oil palm plantations. Those will supposedly not threaten the rainforest, but the Chinese don’t exactly have a stellar record of good citizenship when it comes to economic development in the Third World.
Mostly, though, I question how turning the DRC’s resources into a source of fuel for China, France, or the US will help the Congo any more than the exploitation of any other resource for major country consumption. Job creation? How much good have sugar and palm oil plantations done in that regard?
The economics of biofuels aren’t necessarily positive for the Congo, although I’m sure they would be for the Chinese or whomever. Biomass becomes fuel only in expensive processing plants–sold to the Congo by whom and paid for with what?. They also require surface transportation to the end user (which uses energy, too). To make biofuels economically viable, raw feed stock costs have to be excruciatingly low–and that’s the end of the stick the Congo would be holding. It’s the same economic scenario as any other natural resource exploitation scheme in Africa’s history.