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Failed promises: governance regimes and conflict transformation related to Jatropha cultivation in Ethiopia

Fekadu A Tufa, Addis Ababa University; Department of Social Anthropology
Aklilu Amsalu, Addis Ababa University, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies
E. B. Zoomers, International Development Studies, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands


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Conflict over natural resources is a widespread phenomenon in the global south. Trends in consumption, demographics, environmental degradation, and socio-political dynamics are exerting significant pressure on the availability and accessibility of natural resources. In many countries, the governance of land for commercial agricultural investment leads to conflict. Such conflicts are complex, and the drivers extend beyond resource scarcity to issues of access and competition. This paper is based on the results of field research on investments in large-scale Jatropha plantations for biofuel production in Ethiopia. A case study of a large-scale Jatropha plantation in eastern–central Ethiopia is used to reconstruct the history of a short-lived, large-scale biofuel development in Ethiopia, and to examine the processes and the reasons for its failure. Between 2006 and 2009, more than 400,000 ha of land were acquired for industrial biofuel development. Given the country’s dependence on imported fossil fuels and the global rush for alternative energy sources, the Ethiopian government, not surprisingly, gave emphasis to investment in biofuel development, mainly through Jatropha plantation. However, after costly experimentation, the “miracle crop” did not deliver what had been promised. Instead, it dispossessed and displaced thousands of marginalized local smallholder agropastoralists, created conflict over water and land resources, and kept thousands of hectares of land out of production. In the end, the rhetoric of “Jatropha revolution” and promises of local and national development were never materialized; the government’s ambitious biofuel strategy also failed to achieve its objectives. The main argument of this paper is that the failure of large-scale biofuel companies to fulfill their ambitious promises in Ethiopia is part of the general failure in the governance of large-scale commercial agriculture and misleading views toward, and unrealistic promises of, Jatropha investments. These negatively affected the livelihood of the local agropastoralists and their interactions with the companies, which caused instabilities and conflicts in the area. It is hoped that the findings of this research will contribute to knowledge production and policies on the governance of large-scale commercial agriculture.

Key words

biofuels; conflict; Ethiopia; land governance; large-scale investments; political economy

Copyright © 2018 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087