Big Benefits to Rural Poor from Small-Scale Bioenergy Projects

BIODIVERSITYSmall-scale biomass and other bioenergy projects can play a significant role in rural and local community development in poor countries, according to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the UK’s Department for International Development released April 8.

The report includes studies of 15 different start-up bioenergy projects using a diverse range of technologies in 12 countries spanning Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Contention, criticism and debate concerning life cycle emissions and the effects of biofuels on food security, forests and water resources has overshadowed the many benefits that can accrue to people living in poor rural communities by developing suitably scaled and designed projects that make use of appropriate technology, according to Oliver Dubois, a bioenergy expert in the FAO’s Natural Resources Department.

*Photo courtesy of FAO

Virtuous Cycles

“The furious debate around bioenergy has largely concerned liquid fuels used for transport,” Dubois said in a media release. “Yet more than 80 percent of bioenergy usage in the world involves other sources, mainly wood, which are used for basic household cooking and heating in poor areas of the world.”

“In all the cases covered, even those that sold on bioenergy products to a wider market, the local community benefited from improved energy access both for domestic and business use,” according to Dubois.

On the other hand, in none of the cases studied did bioenergy production jeopardize local food security. “These initiatives have adequately involved local people in decisions on the bioenergy schemes, so if food security did suffer as a result they would have done something about it,” he said.

“Virtuous cycles are shown to develop within communities where people have access to the energy services needed for development without money flowing out of communities for fossil fuels or local natural resources used up”.

Multiple Benefits

Among the benefits cited in the report are:

– an increase in natural resource efficiency through the creation of energy from waste that would otherwise be burnt or left to rot;
– the creation of renewable, affordable, environmentally benign or beneficial by-products such as fertilizer from biogas production;
– the possibility of enriching soils while producing both food and fuel through intercropping; and
– the creation of new financial and human capital by making use of marginal land.

In addition, small-scale bioenergy development has insulated these communities from “the vagaries of the fossil fuel market used in times of an energy crisis, but then typically abandoned when the oil price drops,” according to the study.

The projects studied between September and November last year included one in Mali where 10,000 people in 30 villages now receive electricity generated from jatropha oil produced by local farmers, who switched from growing cotton, and another in Senegal where people are making bricks from recycled charcoal, generating employment and cleaning up charcoal dust.

In India, sanitation is being provided by a water pump fueled by biodiesel made from forest seeds. By-products include fertilizer and animal feed. Another project in Vietnam is reducing deforestation by farmers producing biogas, fuel and slurry for fertilizers in bio-digesters using waste from small numbers of cattle and pigs.

Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger
A product of the New York City public school system, Andrew Burger went on to study geology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, work in the wholesale money and capital markets for a major Japanese bank and earn an MBA in finance.

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