Durban - Plans for a massive sugar-to-petrol scheme in Maputaland have raised fears that protecting food supply, water and the environment may play second fiddle to economics in the “gold rush” for petrol plantations.
At least three developers are pushing to build bio-ethanol refineries on the Makhatini Flats, fed by sugar cane plantations irrigated with water from the Jozini/Pongola Dam.
Although some of the cane could be turned into sugar for export and domestic use, new state subsidies may make it more attractive to distill the cane into bio-ethanol for blending into national petrol supplies at an initial rate of 2 percent ethanol to 98 percent petrol.
Some of the cane waste could also be burned to generate electricity.
While the production of renewable biofuel and electricity is set to lower the cost of fuel imports and coal emissions, it will also reduce the amount of land and water available for food farming and environmental protection.
Separate sources have confirmed that a major investor – thought to involve Brazilian and American interests – is keen to develop up to 30 000ha of irrigated sugar cane around Makhatini to feed a new mill and bioethanol refinery.
The Tongaat-Hulett group has also investigated new plantations but has not responded to repeated requests to clarify its ambitions.
Another group, Ubuhle Renewable Energy, has plans for a 50 million litre-a-year bio-ethanol plant at Siqakatha, fed from small cane grower plantations near the Mjindi irrigation scheme.
The proposed Ubuhle ethanol plant, headed by businessman Zakhele Gumede, is a few hundred metres from a natural wetland that Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the provincial department of agriculture drained illegally earlier this year, apparently without environmental authorisation.
A third group, Silvapen, wants to build a 120 million litre-a-year bio-ethanol plant near the current Makhatini cotton and sugar irrigation scheme.
Silvapen head Penalto Miguel said: “There is a gold rush to invest in ethanol. There is opportunity for everyone.”
Miguel and his partner, Modige Masina, hope to access 16 000ha of sugar cane in the Makhatini area, although a recent environmental impact process by Tongaat-Hulett and other groups suggests that supplies of water from Jozini Dam are already limited.
Tongaat-Hulett and the Irrimec group were granted a 60 million m3 water allocation from Jozini dam in 2007 by the Department of Water Affairs, with another 70 million m3 already allocated for irrigation of cotton and cane.
During a recent Tongaat-Hulett investigation, officials from the Department of Agriculture raised concern that high quality soil should be reserved for food crops, while some subsistence farmers said it was important to keep enough grazing land.
Miguel denied his project would require substantial volumes of water and said the KZN Premier’s office was helping to “facilitate” a new water allocation from the Department of Water Affairs.
Mike Newton, special adviser to Premier Senzo Mchunu, confirmed that officials of his department were playing a “co-ordinating role” to support three potential investors to develop biofuels and food crops in the Makhatini area.
Asked whether there was enough water and fertile land available for food and ethanol, Newton said discussions were under way with Water and Agriculture department officials.
He said some of the existing water allocations could be “revisited” and it was important to stem water losses and leaks from existing projects.
He could not say what percentage of land and water might be allocated for food production compared with sugar cane, cut flowers and other non-food export crops, but stated: “A large amount will also be for food production. At the end of the day we have to create a balance.”
Mchunu has indicated his determination to take “bold steps” to unlock the farming potential of the Makhatini Flats while Economic Affairs, Tourism and Environment Affairs MEC Mike Mabuyakhulu recently took another swipe at environmental impact regulations (EIAs) which he said were hindering development.
“Currently, the department is dealing with EIA applications for potential investment worth more than one trillion rand. If all these investments could receive the nod, this could radically change the economic landscape of the province,” he said. - The Mercury