When the lights went out at 9pm last Wednesday with a loud click, I was just finishing up in the shower and was a little late getting out in time to find my flashlight. I was in a comfortable concrete house in the village of Inhassune, Mozambique, recently vacated by the South African manager of a 250-acre jatropha plantation run by ESV Group. Since he and the rest of the officials had cleared out, there was no electricity unless you can buy the fuel to run the generator, which costs about $10 an hour. I paid for three hours a night, from six to nine.
Jatropha trees produce seeds you can press to make biodiesel: it is one of the new biofuels we are hearing so much about as an alternative to oil. Oxfam is looking at how growing biofuel crops affects poor agricultural communities, and I interviewed a few farmers to see what they have to say about it all.
So if biofuels are so important to our future energy needs, why is this plantation out of business? The company is a victim of the recent economic downturn. It is leaving over a thousand workers from Inhassune and other villages in a dilemma: the local government officials say they must keep working while ESV and the government look for another company to buy the operation. But the workers have not been paid for 14 months. Many are struggling along on one meal a day, and breaking rocks into gravel to sell to construction companies for $1.50 a day. “The government said when a new company is established they will pay the back wages,” says Enrique Jorge Santos, 50, the field manager. The workers don’t seem too optimistic: His staff of 750 is now down to 50.
The ESV project is planting jatropha on an old cotton plantation. Although the unpaid workers now lack money to buy seeds, tools, fertilizer, and other agricultural inputs for their own fields, at least they still have their land. About four hours south of Inhassune, the village chief of Nzeve, 137 people in the rolling, coastal hills near the resort town of Bilene, was told by the government that each of the farmers had to hand over about six acres (80 percent of each farmer’s land) for a jatropha project planting 49,000 acres. Working on the plantation would offset any loss of food production: They can buy food with their salary, right? This seems reasonable until the company runs into cash flow problems and lays off workers.
Violeta Sithole, 47, worked in the jatropha nursery, but recently lost her job. “They were going to give us jobs, a school, electricity…but we are not seeing any of it,” she says. “Now that I am no longer working we need more money and we are not growing enough in our field.
“All we eat is cassava.”
Despite all the disappointment, people in both communities really want the plantations to succeed. It is so difficult to get a wage-paying job, any prospect of earning cash is really attractive. Many poor villages will agree to almost anything, so the government and companies can take a gamble on jatropha, sharing the risk with local farmers who may not understand the risk nor be able to recover if the scheme fails.
And if they do manage to produce biofuel oils, what about some energy for the villages? In Inhassune, one woman we spoke with who is surviving on growing maize and breaking rocks says, “When we had meetings with the company, they said they will make the oil, but they never said they would provide any energy for the community.”