Rukwa is a beautiful region in western Tanzania that has seen many people come and go. Over the years it has housed refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. But for many of the 162,000 people who now live there and will be displaced over the next ten years to make way for the AgriSol Energy project, the area is simply home.
Bruce Rastetter, owner of the Iowa-based company AgriSol Energy, is moving forward on a project to build an 800,000 acre farm in Rukwa. Using modern, large-scale farming techniques Rastetter plans on planting corn and soybeans on part of the land in 2012.
AgriSol Energy will sign a 99-year lease with the government of Tanzania for possession of the farmland, an area slightly smaller than the state of Rhode Island, and will own all of the crops produced. AgriSol Energy says its farm will create jobs and will help with food shortages by selling crops locally in Tanzania.
But local people are skeptical of Rastetter’s plan. In a recent article by the Guardian, residents of nearby villages claim they were never consulted or even informed about the massive land deal in their backyards. Agricultural extension officer Moshi Muzanye said if the government had consulted him he would have advised reserving it for locals, who could use the space to ease pressure on crowded village land.
Jumanne Maghembe, Tanzanian Minister for Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives, defends Rastetter’s project in the Des Moines Register saying he believes this project will supplement local food production and help feed the country. AgriSol Energy asserts that their presence in western Tanzania is to help satisfy the demand for food in Tanzania and to train Tanzanian farmers by teaching them modern agricultural techniques.
Iowa State University (ISU) intended on partnering with Rastetter to conduct the small-farmer training program. But a recent report Dan Rather found that ISU pulled out of the project that they would have an advisory role only. Dr. Dennis Keeney, Professor Emeritus of Agronomy and Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering at ISU was appalled when he first became aware of Rastetter’s project at how dehumanizing the corporate world can be. He is concerned but doubts ISUs withdrawal will make much difference to Rastetter’s program since he doesn’t believe Rastetter took “training” seriously anyway.
Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute and a contributing author to State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, is also skeptical of Rastetter’s project. After conducting a study into Rastetter’s plan she labels it a “land grab,” an exploitive land transaction by a foreign government or private investor for the purpose of agricultural production and export. Mittal also is concerned about demands in AgriSol Energy’s proposal to Tanzania requiring permission to cultivate GMOs and guaranteed access to export markets.
A 2010 analysis by the World Bank shows large-scale agribusiness investments rarely have any beneficial effects on the local community. AgriSol’s project will likely displace thousands of people from their homes and farms and while some will be employed as laborers, most of the managerial positions will probably be given to foreigners.
The government of Tanzania is moving forward with the project despite local outcry. John Julius, Director of Tanzanian NGO ROSDO, says allocating Rastetter such a large tract of land is a disgrace to the government of Tanzania. Julius draws attention to the deeper problem in Tanzania—an inability for most to afford the food that is grown. The problem in Tanzania is not a food shortage, but because of poor infrastructure and little support for farmers people are often too poor to purchase the food that is available.
Bashiru Ali, a senior lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, is also concerned about the effects on the local community. In The Citizen, a Tanzanian newspaper, he says, “We need to look into our land laws and strengthen them so that they adequately protect the rights of indigenous Tanzanians.”
After signing the agreement Tanzania will have little power to protect local rights; already hard-pressed locals fear their children will not have land to farm in the future. Mr Ahmed Simba, a Kigoma-based peasant, complains in the article in The Citizen that the government is allocating tracts of land to foreign investors while refusing the same land to local groups, “I’m afraid we will end up being cheap laborers in such plantations, why does the government prefer foreign investors to local ones?”
Ultimately, the decision to accept Rastetter’s proposal is in the hands of the Tanzanian government. Maghembe stated, “we want to make it well-known to the world that the decisions in relation to the people investing in Tanzania are made by us.”
Jenny Beth Dyess is a Research Intern with the Nourishing the Planet Project.