Invasive species for biomass threatens palusami and food security

Fiu Mataese Elisara

O.L.S.S.I. Executive Director 


In Tuesday’s Samoa Observer, 15 January 2019, I read with interest a report by Alexander Rheeney titled “Biomass plant progresses to next stage” referring to the proposed development of a biomass gasification plant at Mulifanua! 

I understand there are plans to upscale this to expand to the big island of Savaii.

I recall a related bioenergy/biomass event as part of the MNRE 2017 Environment Week, where Samoa Observer on 31 October 2017 reported under “Invasive Species could be turned into renewable energy” referring to a specific renewable energy project that focused on biomass resources assessments at the Samoa Trust Estates Corporation (S.T.E.C.) Mulifanua plantation Upolu being part of its overall effort to promote adaptation to Climate Change and Sustainable Energy in Samoa.

If I am correct, I understand there is specific targeting a gasification plant at Vaiaata with stockfeed supply options using OFNelson Letolo plantation at Vailoa Palauli and possibly bring in a number of large areas of customary lands. 

ACEO of MNRE dealing with Renewable Energy (RE) was quoted saying at the time “…this GEF/UNDP project would improve sustainability of the power system for renewable and non-renewable energy in Samoa within five years with STEC and EPC being key player in this biomass plant that serves many purposes one of which is getting renewable energy and clean electricity from eradicating invasive species...” She added “There was already a feed stock facility study on S.T.E.C. Land at Mulifanua to show there is enough invasive species for the biomass gasification plant that will improve sustainable, cost effective, energy efficient, and utilization of indigenous energy resources for energy production in Samoa.” 

ACEO RE then surprisingly said “These invasive plants includes Pafiti, Funtumia Elastica (PULUVAO), Castilla Elastica (Pulumamoe), Ficus Obliqua (Aoa), MCananga Odorata (Moso’oi), Cocos Nucifera (Niu), Albizia Falcataria (Tamaligi) and Rhus Taitensis ( Tavai)” 

I was completely flabbergasted and shocked! Really? Aoa, Moso’oi, Niu, Tavai as Invasive species? These key indigenous native Samoan trees with inter-generational, historical, cultural, livelihood and ecological imperative to daily lives of Samoans now considered as ‘invasive species’?  I wondered if this was an official position of MNRE and government of Samoa! She also boldly and “…confidently assured everyone who is working really hard behind the scene, trying to achieve 100 percent renewable energy target, in eight years times… we will be able to achieve the 100 percent renewable electricity target.” by turning these ‘invasive species’ to renewable energy! That was an immensely ambitious statement and rather insensitive in my view calling these invaluable trees in the lives of Samoans as ‘invasive’. 

A week later on 6 November 2017 I read an email from Jean-Yves Meyer, an invasive species expert from the Pacific Island Invasive Network, obviously confused by this and wanted to clarify by stating that “…there is a misunderstanding by UNDP of the notion of ‘invasive species’: Ficus obliqua (Aoa) and Rhus taitensis (Tavai) are native/indigenous tree species in many Pacific islands (including Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Niue, Vanuatu), and coconut Cocos nucifera (Moso’oi) is not invasive per se…”

It was a helpful email for me. The next day 07 November 2017 I sent a longer email to Jean-Eves Meyer copied to the Pacific Invasive Network members saying “…this MNRE statement was rather unfortunate, more irresponsible, when our own local people/officials fail to defend against ‘lured’ and ‘foreign’ claims of invasive species that include ones local populations depend for food security, shade, birdlife, recreation, and cultural significance for generations – cannot fathom the ‘wisdom’ nor understand why the niu, aoa, tavai and moso’oi are listed as invasive plants here in Samoa!  

We in the Pacific get crucified by imposed ‘definitions’ more so when pushed externally and locals fail to defend the intra- and inter-generational role, invaluable use, and livelihood basis some of these listed species deliver for local populations and eco-systems health and services alike.

The biomass, biofuel, and bio-energy options for ‘renewable energy’ that target ‘real’ invasive species as feedstock in small island countries like Samoa, requires more than a ‘precautionary approach’, as SIDS do not have the land capacity to sustainably feed these ‘hungry’ beasts. In my humble view, these renewable energy technologies are not relevant, not appropriate, and should be rejected in small island countries!

Not only do we increase emission of greenhouse gases through burning (exacerbating climate change that SIDS are at the forefront of the impacts, countering the renewable energy argument), but more seriously when targeted ‘invasive’ species feedstock run out (and they will in a matter of few years!), our limited and finite land areas used for food in SIDS (direct challenge on food security and food sovereignty) to be replaced and planted with more ‘profitable’ mono-culture tree plantations that destroy biodiversity, watershed areas, forests, birdlife, etc..

The same culprit donors will continue to generate these investment initiatives in SIDS that create competing land uses with the false use of money as bait. Sadly many of our governments and those who should know better, continue to hide behind the label of ‘sustainable development’ when in fact all they are hell-bent doing is pursuit of so-called ‘sustained economic growth’, profits, business, money - at the expense of social equity, ecological integrity, cultural respect and diversity, protection of human rights, spiritual connectivity, etc.

Ironically, on instant date of 7 November 2017, Samoa Observer published a piece on “Coconut experts (from around the Pacific) gather at Tanoa” - linked to Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele opening address focusing on the invaluable role and key importance of the coconut tree (Niu)  in all Pacific countries as a ‘tree-of-life”. Unbeknown to him this, amongst other native and indigenous important trees, has been insensitively referred by his own local officials as invasive species, directly contravening his clear powerful statement to Pacific niu experts.   

As a Samoan and Pacific Islander, I would prefer to continue to eat palusami, oka, faalifu, fai’ai pusi/fe’e/eleni, miti, pe’epe’e, etc. etc. It will be unforgivable for those who are responsible to retrospectively find in the future that as Pacific Islanders, we are unable to access or afford this due to their being labelled ‘invasive’, used as feedstock for biomass, and when run out forcibly replaced by mono-culture trees more ‘profitable’ for biomass, bio-fuel, bio-energy, etc. than for food. I would also prefer the cool shade of the ‘aoa’ tree with birds enjoying its expansive foliage, and enjoy the aroma of the ‘mos’oi’ ‘ula any time. I pray no one dares call these ‘invasive’ in my presence.

The Samoa RE 5 Years (July 2017 to June 2022) project called “Improving the Performance and Reliability of Renewable Energy Power System in Samoa” (IMPRESS), is a Partnership between the Global Environment Facility (GEF), Samoa Government and Private Sector with total Project Financing of USD$52,565,028.

This project was signed in August 2017 with the aim of improving the sustainable and cost effective utilization of renewable energy (RE) and demand-side management (DSM) and energy efficiency (EE) investment in Samoa through developing RE and DSM/EE policies and regulatory framework; and adoption of RE-based technology in electricity generation and RE financing investment in Samoa.

As is usual with these kinds of large macro-level projects they entail complex processes and elaborate consultancies producing very long intricate documents that normal people like myself find impossible to follow or understand.  

IMPRESS is a 172 pages project document! The important chapters deal with issues of development challenges, project strategy, partnerships, feasibility, expected results, governance and management, financial planning and management, budget and work plan, legal context, etc. Too technical and complex for me and needed the help of some of my colleagues from Biofuel Watch (UK) and Global Forest Coalition (Indian Office) to make some sense of it all. 

The IMPRESS project is essentially a technical assistance and capacity building one targeting internal policy reform towards promoting bioenergy and biomass production through private sector engagement. It talks about a bioenergy producing plant but details are critically missing on environment and social management framework (ESMF) and environment and social impact assessment (ESIA) of both the bioenergy project and the biomass production which require more information and disclosure on the bioenergy and biomass production projects including mandatory information on ESMF and ESIA. 


A few concerns that have become evident on a quick reading of the project document include the following:

1. Bioenergy as a sustainable RE is brought here in the guise of having problems in grid stabilization due to variable energy mix of wind and solar, particularly in the off peak hours which in my view is more of a technical issue that can be easily resolved through implementation of the right technology. Thus not justify addressing this using bioenergy.

2. The private sector finance and involvement will be essentially through financial intermediaries (FIs) on which the IFIs/Multilateral agencies have basically no control as they cannot force an FI to comply with safeguards despite the expectation they voluntarily comply with safeguard systems.

3. The project involves subsidies to both bioenergy and biomass production to make them cheaper thereby hiding the real cost. It also argues for emission reduction and even account for negative emission where existing studies expose elements that suggest not recommending perverse subsidies.

4. Given the global concerns on gender rights and engagement, the document need to clarify its feminization of labour in saying that more women will be engaged in biomass plantation and feedstock preparation.

5. What is seriously lacking however is the lack of solid analysis and accurate data on bioenergy feedstock, land use, biomass production/ha/year, biomass species, cost of feedstock, and cost of bioenergy produced.

6. To better facilitate a more broader understanding of the project, it would be useful to have some information on - on per capita agricultural production in Samoa; area of arable/agricultural land in Samoa; what is the total food intake in Samoa; does it fulfill the demand?; how much food is imported?; nature of land which will be used for biomass production; how much food production it will replace and how the deficit will be addressed; and a comparative analysis between cost for food import and fossil fuel import.

In relation to gasifier technologies being proposed for this project, a quick research with a colleague in Biofuel Watch show that part of the wider project involves biomass gasification which is to power a gas engine in order to generate electricity.

Biomass gasification projects have a horrendous failure rate. This is especially the case for biomass-only gasifier projects for generating electricity, as opposed to mixed biomass-and-diesel gasifiers and heat-only gasification projects. When ‘speaking’ about biomass gasifiers, I am referring exclusively to biomass-only gasifier projects for electricity being the main technology targeted here.

This involves placing wood or other biomass (in this case - ‘invasive species’ trees and plants mentioned above) into a gasification chamber, exposing it to high temperatures under controlled oxygen conditions to produces syngas which is cooled and cleaned until it consists of basically just hydrogen and carbon monoxide then burned to power a gas engine. 

Biofuel Watch colleague reports that there is a long history of failed gasifier projects all over the world as in her 2015 report that showed “by early 1980s, there were over 15 manufacturers of small scale biomass gasifier investments supported by governments of Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. In 1983, the World Bank and UNDP initiated a monitoring report on such gasifiers published in 1995 to say that almost none of the projects identified became fully commercial.

Most proved unsustainable for technical, financial/economic, and institutional reasons. Even the successful projects were plagued by technical problems for a year or longer and relied on ongoing technical support and supply of spare parts.

In the 1990s, lots of biomass gasifiers were built in Europe especially in Germany where at least 50 were installed with the same failure results. In 2010, a report commissioned by the German Government, co-published by GTZ, find equally bleak results for gasifiers where many German gasifiers taken out of operation after some months of trial.

Some gasifier plants went up in flames and developers went bankrupt. Few plants that continued operation were operating under special circumstances as part of university research programmes or operated by the developers themselves and in almost all cases required one to two years of trial and adaptation. In the UK, Biofuel Watch report seeing failure after failure, with billions pounds of lost investments. 

Whilst biomass gasifier losses become a risk for investors the main concern for this IMPRESS project and indeed for Samoa is the serious risk of explosions, fires, and air pollution being unique within the bioenergy sector very much identical to risks in chemical plants and oil refining industries. Even if explosions are avoided through pressure control and prompt gas flaring, malfunctioning gasifiers are highly polluting.

The EU describes the risk where during operation of a biomass gasification plant there is increased hazard potential due to the fact that a potentially explosive, toxic and combustible gas mixture is produced and consumed where the producer gas and residues (ash, liquids, exhaust gases) cause an explosion, fire, health effects due to human poisoning, suffocation, noise, hot surfaces, and pollution.

These problems and risks with biomass gasifiers are caused, First, syngas is mainly a highly explosive mix of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and hydrogen gases where constant pressure control is vital, but if a gas engine malfunctions it will shut down much faster than the gasification chamber so pressure quickly builds up and unless the syngas is instantly flared, there is real risk of an explosion.

Second, unless the temperatures are kept absolutely right depending on the type of biomass used, tar will build up, corrode and clog up the system and this tar formation is the main reason for failure. 

For Samoa, the proposed gasifier is relatively small however my Biofuel colleague ‘remembers’ similar small scale gasifiers at University of South Carolina with three near-fatal accidents. There is expectation in Samoa to scale up this project and with commensurate risks that need to be factored into a cost-benefit analysis for long term investment return or even canceling this project for reasons extrapolated above.

To conclude, this is a high-risk project for Samoa based on very uncertain cases of utilization of very suspect ‘invasive species’ that include trees that have generated cultural and inter-generational benefit to Samoans, ultimate development of monoculture tree plantations to sustain feeding the ‘hungry gasifier beasts’, free local food such as palusami being made unaffordable due to indigenous food security threatened when lands become more profitable to grow biofuel feedstock trees replacing food crops,  and use of technology that are prone to disasters such explosion, fire, pollution and others.

If government continues to go this biomass RE option as its preferred pathway to achieve its laudable but ambitious 100% RE by 2025 let it know that at least they have been warned. 

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