The fight for the Tana River Delta: Update

Back in mid-June I uploaded a podcast with Helen Byron, the RSPB’s Senior International Site Casework Officer about the hugely important campaign to protect the Tana River Delta in Kenya. The Delta covers an area of 130,000ha (320,000 acres) and is a vast and diverse patchwork of habitats including savannah, semi-arid Acacia thorn bush, coastal forests, grasslands, beaches, dunes, lakes, mangrove swamps and permanent and seasonal fresh water pools or channels. One of the most important wetlands in Africa it has been described as Africa’s second Okavango Delta. It supports over 350 species of birds, including twenty-two wetland birds found in internationally important numbers, globally threatened birds such as the Endangered Basra Reed Warbler and two threatened primates found nowhere else in the world – the Tana River Red Colobus and Tana River Crested Mangabey.

Amongst the threats facing the Tana River Delta is an attempt to grow Jatropha (Jatropha curcas, a tree with large oil-rich seed pods) by multinational biofuel company Bedford Biofuels Inc, on 65,000 ha of land in Tana River District. The land is currently owned by five local group ranches and is either in or adjacent to the delta. Bedford Biofuels currently has a licence for a ‘pilot’ of 10,000 hectares of Jatropha at Tana: in July this year two directors of Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) were suspended after accusations that they had acted irregularly in granting this same licence.

Bedford describes itself on its website’s homepage as “an environmentally responsible oil company” with the mission “to be a global leader in harvesting sustainable energy for future generations, empowering local communities, and cultivating harmony between environmental responsibility and economic yield”. Governments and investment fund managers around the word would agree with them, and Bedford has launched huge investment funds to secure finance to grow Jatropha (one such fund is touted by slavering fund managers as A SOLID investment opportunity that does not come along very often). Sadly, though, the truth is that Jatropha is not the wonder plant it was once hyped as, and concerns are growing that while it does indeed produce biofuel, yields have been exaggerated, it is an invasive species which could disrupt local biodiversity, and plantations could cause damage to water catchment areas and local biodiversity.

In January 2011 Reuters posted an article titled Biofuel jatropha falls from wonder-crop pedestal, which pointed to “a heated debate in the European Union about biofuels, which critics charge are competing for land with food crops and creating unwanted side-effects around the globe.” The same article highlighted admissions that Jatropha grown on poor soils yielded poor harvests, that costly pesticides and fertilisers were needed to grow the trees, and that Jatropha was best grown on fertile land needed for (or already in) food production.

Friends of the Earth produced a damning report in December 2010 entitled “Jatropha: Money does not grow on trees”. The report states that, for example, in India Jatropha plantations yielded less than a fifth of what was expected under rain-fed conditions, and that while biofuel companies quote figures suggesting that huge amounts of oil can be extracted from Jatropha seeds they (of course) are giving maximum yields from crops grown under ideal conditions with the most efficient extraction methods used. It’s also a much thirstier crop than was thought: the FoE report points out that researchers from the University of Twente in the Netherlands have found that on average Jatropha needed more water than any other bioenergy crop to produce the same amount of oil, requiring up to 20,000 litres of water per litre of fuel produced (not quite as bad a return as the 100,000 litres required to produce a 1 kg of beef on western farms, but hardly acceptable in a country like Kenya where already depleted groundwater supplies are under increasing pressure from droughts).

Bedford Biofuels of course make a robust defence of their plans (and to be fair were jatropha the answer to the world’s dependence on oil they would be in a strong position to argue from), but is the hyped gusto that biofuel companies used to secure funding for Jatropha plantations being replaced with a dawning realism? Dominic Fava, business development manager of British biofuels firm D1 Oils, which processes jatropha grown in Asia and Africa, is widely quoted as saying that, “Jatropha is not the miracle crop that many people think it is.”


Many NGOs are fighting to save the Tana River Delta, and the battle seems to be turning in favour of campaigners, whose clear message that the Delta is irreplaceable and that Jatropha will both NOT solve the world’s energy demands (that can only be solved by us using less energy and using what we do more efficiently) AND will exacerbate looming food shortages in impoverished areas by clearing land that local people would have used for growing food crops. There is no doubt that biodiversity in this IBA and critically-important site will be irreparably damaged if the ‘jatropha land grab’ is allowed to continue.


A few days ago Helen Byron has sent me an update on the campaign with links to articles and web posts:

  • The land-use planning process for the Tana River Delta is now well underway! It was launched in mid September when over 60 participants from a range of key Kenyan Ministries and agencies came together with NGOs, media and international experts for a high-level meeting. The Kenyan Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) hosted the meeting with the BirdLife partner Nature Kenya providing the Secretariat together with NEMA (the Kenyan environmental regulator). The meeting included a field visit into the Delta to meet local people. The land use plan under preparation will be informed by Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and should represent a truly sustainable future for the Delta. The strategic planning is being supported by DFID (UK Aid) money and should be finalised by autumn 2013.

    On the less positive side, the Canadian company Bedford Biofuels are continuing to push their project, including using some rather heavy handed approaches. But their position is starting to look less secure. It has emerged that the two NEMA Directors suspended in July 2011 are accused of acting irregularly in granting the licence to Bedford Biofuels, NEMA’s Chairman has said that the licence had been awarded in spite of mounting scientific evidence which has exposed the claims made for jatropha as false and has called for the licence to be cancelled. Nature Canada (BirdLife Canada) is raising awareness of concerns about the project in Canada through a letter to several Canadian Ministers and stories on the Nature Canada blog.”

Helen Byron, October 2011.




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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores

One Comment

  1. Chatterbirds says:

    Thank you for making readers aware of this issue!

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