Contradictory biofuel investments

By Linda Engström

NAI researcher Linda Engström is in Tanzania to investigate biofuel investments. Many farmers and pastoralists have lost access to land, but not one of the biofuel companies is operational.

Information on large-scale biofuel investments in African countries is scarce and often contradictory. One thing we know with some certainty is that not a single large-scale biofuel investment in Tanzania is operational. The trend is similar in other African countries such as Ghana, Zambia and Ethiopia. In Tanzania, a biofuel policy is now on its way. The question is whether it will be implemented.

However, one company that initially aimed to produce palm oil for biodiesel has temporarily switched to annual food crops and is planning to start large-scale production soon. We are currently in western Tanzania on the shores of Lake Tanganyika to investigate the impacts of this investment on smallholder land access and food security.

The Belgian-Tanzanian company Felisa obtained the land in Kigoma district in 2007. It had from the outset sought general land managed by the state, rather than village land, which it associated with problems. A few years earlier, the land had been surveyed at the request of the Tanzania Investment Centre through the regional commissioner. The purpose was to set aside land for the national land bank, to which large-scale agricultural investors can be directed. This is in line with international and national policies increasingly aimed at foreign investment and large-scale agricultural production. The land identified for the land bank belonged to a nearby village. The village border was moved so that the only permanent river is now outside village land, and a village area of 7,700 hectares was cut off for the land bank, nearly 50 per cent of total village land. Felisa now leases 4,258 hectares of that land on a 99 year contract.

The actors we meet have different opinions on how, when, where, why and even whether the steps in this process were taken. These steps include land survey for a village land certificate, the survey for the national land bank, meetings between different actors, evictions from company land, court cases, bribes to village chairs, climate change, etc. It is very difficult to know what really has happened.

Local communities tell us stories that indicate some of Felisa’s activities may be illegal. These stories also shed light on many governance issues, not least the relationship between village leaders and village members.

As noted, the land upon which Felisa is now starting production was first converted to general land under state management. The land allocation process is clearly documented and we have a copy of Felisa’s certificate. Despite this, the villagers still feel the land is theirs. The main reason for this is that they don’t think the land bank process was fair and that they lost land without consent. The company says there were no complaints from the villagers about loss of land when they took it up. Only later, they say, did this occur, when village leader(s) saw opportunities to take bribes from pastoralists who came to the area looking for land. Many stories converge on the fact that the pastoralists, Sukuma, were allowed by village leaders to move on to Felisa land without being told they could not remain there when the company started production.

The Sukuma were evicted by force in October 2012. At first, they refused to move, so Felisa initiated a court case in August 2012, which they won. Felisa organised for the eviction with the police and other guards. Many village members tell us about the violent eviction of Sukuma from the farm’s land, with people having legs broken through beatings and others being taken into custody. Local communities tell us Felisa is now renting out land to farmers and pastoralists. One Sukuma man tells us he is about the make an arrangement with the son of the Felisa owner to grow onions on the farm. However, Felisa denies this or any responsibility, for example, for the force used during the evictions, which they describe as a police matter. They let other people use company land (for example, they have offered the district commissioner this opportunity), and don’t charge anything, but the beneficiaries are only allowed to plant annual crops.

The big losers seem to be the Sukuma, who practise both pastoralism and agriculture. They have moved from their original areas in, for instance, Shinyanga and Tabora because of lack of land. One man tells us he has walked for two months with his 50 cattle to reach this village. Since the river is now a forbidden area, the cattle now need to graze much closer to the village settlement to access water. This leads to cattle eating crops, which leads in turn to many complaints by and conflicts with the farmers, the Ha people. Moreover, the Sukuma as well as the rest of the village, in losing access to the flood plains, also lost the ability to grow rice. Since the evictions, many Sukuma live just outside the Felisa farm. Now an American company, AgriSol, has most likely obtained that land. Does this mean these people will soon be evicted again? With high demand for land everywhere, not least for conservation purposes, where can they go? The managing director of Felisa thinks the government should force these “invaders” to change their lifestyle, mostly because they clear all the forest to create pasturage and, according to him, cause changes in rain patterns.

The reasons for biofuel investment bankruptcies seem to differ. However, what these projects have in common is the use of village land. And most of them grew jatropha, a little known crop that was enshrouded in unrealistic expectations on yield and input needs. Exaggerated promises to farmers, illegal land allocation processes and speculation are mentioned as some other key factors. The fate of company land following bankruptcy remains to be properly analysed. Agro EcoEnergy, a Swedish company in Bagamoyo, is awaiting financial closure. If Sida decides to provide a credit guarantee, it will start sugarcane production. Bagamoyo is our next destination.

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