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Study shows bioenergy benefits for rural poor

Small-scale projects scrutinised from jatropha electrification in Mali to animal waste biogas in Vietnam

Photo: ©FAO/Florita Botts
Cooking with biogas from animal and human waste in China
8 April 2009, Rome  – Bioenergy, when produced on a small-scale in local communities, can play a significant role in rural development in poor countries, according to a new report jointly published by FAO and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).  

The study, “Small Scale Bioenergy Initiatives: Brief Description and Preliminary Lessons on Livelihood Impacts from Case Studies in Latin America, Asia and Africa,” covers 15 different “start-up” bioenergy projects from 12 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia involving a diverse array of technologies.

“The furious debate around bioenergy has largely concerned liquid fuels used for transport,” said Oliver Dubois, a bioenergy expert in FAO’s Natural Resources Department. 

 “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.” 

Concern over the impact these transportation biofuels will have on the environment, water resources and food security has obscured many of the positive benefits for poor rural people.

The study shows quite clearly that there are a number of huge possible benefits of using new technologies for biomass-based rural energy, some very basic, others more sophisticated.

Biofuel benefits for poor

Some of the possible benefits of bioenergy highlighted in the study include:  

-an increase in natural resource efficiency as energy can be created from waste that would otherwise be burnt or left to rot is put to use 

-the creation of useful by-products such as affordable fertilizer from biogas production 

-the possibility of simultaneously producing food and fuel through intercropping

-the creation of new financial capital with growth cycles by making use of marginal land  

 “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,” said Dubois.

Saving local resources

 “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”. 

The study also shows how the use of bioenergy has often played a role in partially insulating poor rural people from the vagaries of the fossil fuel market used in times of an energy crisis, but then typically abandoned when the oil price drops.  

In none of the cases studied did bioenergy production appear to jeopardise food security, either because the bioenergy is produced from crops not used for food or grown on very small plots or stretches of unused land. 

Involving local people

 “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,” said Dubois. 

Although bioenergy initiatives face implementation challenges, these challenges are similar to those of other production activities in rural areas such as technological constraints and lack of investment capital, the study found.  

The research for the study was carried out between September and November 2008 as a joint initiative between FAO and the PISCES Programme funded by DFID.