EXPERT OPINION: Biofuel investment and women’s land rights: the role of the water, energy, land, and food (WELF) nexus

Land demand for the purpose of generating renewable sources of energy poses a challenge to food security and to rural African women’s rights to land, which is the main source of their livelihoods. For instance, policies aimed at promoting investment in biofuel, pose a threat to food security and the well-being of communities in sub-Saharan Africa. It is worth noting that the majority of those involved in food production in most rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa are women. Thus, the conversion of agricultural land for the production of biofuel is likely to increase hunger, malnutrition, and poverty, and women are most likely to be affected by the land use conversion.

The water, energy, land, and food (WELF) nexus, a holistic approach in thinking about interrelated issues affecting resources, is gaining attention as a solution to sustainable resource use and development. A recent scoping assessment on the integration of gender in WELF nexus research shows that limited attention has been given to this area of research. Even though some research has been done in the gender and WELF thematic area, the research has hardly engaged the fundamental gender issues that contribute to gender inequalities such as patriarchy, inequitable power relationships, and unequal decision-making power. Without evidence-based research articulating these gender issues and proposing frameworks and innovative gender mainstreaming approaches, women are likely to lose out in policies, decision-making, programmes, and actions aimed at promoting sustainable sources of energy in Africa. Integrating gender in WELF nexus research, planning, and operationalisation is crucial to achieving equity and inclusivity in the participation in and benefits from renewable energy projects.

Energy demand for domestic, industrial, agricultural, and multi-sectoral use has increased with the growth of the global population specifically in Africa. Additionally, the supply of energy is becoming insufficient to satisfy the growing demand. The situation is worst for lower-income countries, particularly in rural areas of Africa. For instance, it is noted that about 600 million people (43% of the African population), mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, do not have access to energy. The energy crisis is a huge concern as it has an impact on the socio-economic growth of nations. For example, it is noted that the rolling blackouts in South Africa have had an adverse effect on the sustainability of businesses, economic growth,social services,and political stability. The limited availability of fossil fuels coupled with continuous degradation of the environment resulting from the use of fossil fuel has trigged global concerns about the need to adopt carbon neutral and sustainable sources of energy. The electrification of Africa will potentially enhance communities’ economic capabilities to contribute towards achieving sustainable development.

The WELF nexus approach is gaining credence in the drive towards the efficient management of resources. This involves looking at the synergies and trade-offs of using specific resources such as land, water, and energy. Although some studies have examined the repercussions of policies promoting investments in biofuel for the agricultural sector, the implications for women’s rights to land, which constitute their main source of livelihood, have not been well articulated. There is a need to fully understand how biofuel policies and actions affect women’s access to land needed for food production and, in turn, affect their livelihoods and ability to contribute to household and community food security. It is very important to address gender issues in the sustainable management of WELF resources because women play an active role in renewable energy, water, and land conservation as initiators of programmes and projects, investors, managers, and consumers.

The conversion of agricultural land for the production of biofuel is likely to increase hunger, malnutrition, and poverty, and women are most likely to be affected by the land use conversion.

Dr Matilda Azong Cho, Postdoctoral research fellow, Future Africa Sustainable Food Systems Research Chair (FA-SFS)

Currently, traditional land tenure systems practised in most parts of Africa favour men over women in terms of inheritance and access, creating limited land rights for women, who play a significant role in the food crop production, distribution, and consumption sectors. Thus, with the lack of ownership of land, women most often get side-lined in the agricultural land trade-offs negotiations for the production of biofuel as a source of renewable energy. For instance, research has demonstrated that the dynamics associated with unequal power relationships in relation to access and control of land stymie the benefitting of women from biofuel projects, since compensations are usually directed to men with secure land rights. Biofuel investments influence production of traditional rural crops . Losing user rights over agricultural land as a result of renewable energy programmes will thus not only affect women’s economic empowerment but will also affect food security due to a decline in productivity.

In spite of these challenges, a scoping study done on the integration of gender in WELF research pointed to the limitations in research on equity consideration in nexus resources negotiations. The research further revealed that current gender and WELF research has not suggested strategies and approaches to address unequal power relationship in the negotiation processes related to land for renewable source of energy investments. Policy and practice should therefore endeavour to promote gender considerations in WELF resource negotiations through investing in relevant research and development.

Author: Dr Matilda Azong Cho is a postdoctoral fellow within the Future Africa Sustainable Food Systems Research Chair – FA-SFS – working primarily on the Climate, Land, Agriculture, and Biodiversity (CLAB-Africa) project.