Rice farmers may be evicted by new biofuel companies

Monday September 28 2009

Food crisis: Stephen Wasira, Tanzania’s Minister for Agriculture, Food Security and Co-operatives. Photo/FILE

Food crisis: Stephen Wasira, Tanzania’s Minister for Agriculture, Food Security and Co-operatives. Photo/FILE 

By MIKE MANDE

Tanzania farmers in key arable areas face eviction by multinational corporations out to cultivate agrofuel products.

More than 5,000 rice farmers from various parts of the country could be affected.

This will trigger an environmental and humanitarian crisis as displaced villagers are left without land to grow food crops.

A new report made available to The EastAfrican last week by an international environmental group warns that Tanzania’s water sources, so critical to food production, will also be diverted to fuel production, increasing conflicts over access to water.

The report was compiled by a local environmental group, the Environmental, Human Rights Care and Gender Organisation (Envirocare) Tanzania, and an international organisation, the Impact of Jatropha Trade in Tanzania.

It says the government has few qualms about evicting farmers from their only means of livelihood, even if this sparks civil conflict.

According to the report, the government wants to fast-track agrofuel initiatives and switch vast areas of land to sugarcane, palm oil and jatropha production, pushing out locals to poorer lands.

“The most fertile lands, with best access to water, are being targetted, even though they are already used for food production by small-scale farmers,” said the report.

Abdallah Mkindi, environmental officer of Envirocare Tanzania, said that the country plans to place extensive areas under biofuel cultivation, including sugar plantations in the Wami River Basin, displacing small-scale rice farmers.

Mr Mkindi said that with the country routinely depending on imported food aid, owing to frequent drought, producing fuel for export instead of food for locals will deepen poverty and food insecurity in the years to come.

He said more than 1,000 rice farmers in Wami Basin, Coast region, a vast area in the alluvial flood and delta plain of the Wami River and its distributaries, and another 1,000 rice farmers in Ruipa, Mtwara region, will be displaced to pave the way for cane growing.

“The Usangu plains, another area identified for potential sugarcane production, have already seen the government’s willingness to accommodate large investors at the expense of small-scale farmers,” he said.

In Usangu district in Mbeya region, more than 1,000 rice farmers were recently displaced from their land to make way for a large plantation. The plantation has cut off the surrounding communities’ access to the river, leading to disputes over water.

According to Mr Mkindi, several international investors are looking at fertile areas with good rainfall and access to rivers, particularly for sugarcane and palm oil cultivation.

The targetted areas include Ruipa, Ikongo, Mahurungu-Mtwara, Usangu plains, Malagarasi, Kilosa, Babati and Hanang in Tanzania.

But analysts have pointed out the discrepancy between the government’s stated aim of using biofuels to bring energy to the rural poor, and the policy of evicting them from their land.

Currently, there is no biofuel policy, nor any legislation to govern its direction and production in Tanzania.

Under the guidance of the Ministry of Energy and Minerals, a Biofuels Task Force was established in April 2006 to develop the sector and push for legislation to stimulate the use of biofuels. This followed a study on “Liquid Biofuels for Transportation in Tanzania.”

A Swedish firm has been provided with 400,000 hectares of land to turn into sugar plantation at Wami River in Coast region, while more than 8,000 hectares of land in Kigoma region have been provided to a Malaysian and Indonesian firm for a proposed palm oil biodiesel project.

“Oil palms require major investment, and the trees can live for 30 years or more. Farmers entering into contracts to plant and grow palm trees may be forced to sign away use of their land for many decades,” warned Mr Mkindi.

The firms that are in the final stages of cultivating biofuel include D1 Oils Tanzania Ltd, a local subsidiary of the UK company D1 Oils.

It plans to use outgrowers and to have biodiesel processing stations in every district in Tanzania.

A German investor, Prokon, has begun a 10,000 hectare jatropha outgrower programme in Mpanda district in southwest Tanzania.

Diligent Energy Systems, a Dutch company with branches in Tanzania and Colombia, has began cultivation of jatropha in Babati, Engaruka, Chalinze, Pangani and Singida and large-scale cultivation in Handeni district of Tanga region.

The report also mentions a UK-based international firm, Sun Biofuels, which has acquired 18,000 hectares of land in Lindi region to cultivate jatropha.

“Farmers who currently grow cassava, rice and maize will be encouraged to abandon food crops and instead grow jatropha,” noted Mr Mkindi in the report.

Mr Mkindi said that, in addition, a US-UK group, a Malaysian group and a US-based venture fund are currently exploring more than 100,000 hectares for palm oil production.

To attract more investors, the government of Tanzania has analysed many fertile regions with good access to water, where farmers are already growing food.

Stephen Wasira, Minister for Agriculture, Food Security and Co-operatives, said various regions of Tanzania were facing food shortages and about 970,000 people were in need of aid.

Hence the government has to make arrangements to distribute about 50,000 tonnes of food to the affected areas by September this year.

Mr Wasira said the government is cautioning farmers on food shortages and appealing for more concerted efforts to ensure delivery of at least one million tonnes of grain to avert starvation.

The food deficiency resulted from last year’s insufficient cereal harvests, whereby 5.2 million tonnes were collected as opposed to the projected national demand of 6 million tonnes for the 2009/2010 crop season.

The National Food Reserve Authority had stockpiled over 107,269 tonnes of cereals required for 2009/2010, but by June this year the stock had declined to 89,842 tonnes.

The Tanzania Investment Centre has set up a land bank of 2.5 million hectares identified as suitable for agrofuel investment.

Where use of local resources is perceived as unproductive, land may be classified as idle or underutilised. It could, therefore, be made available to prospective investors, despite its economic, social and cultural functions.

While investment promotion agencies may help bring underutilised land into production, doing so creates the risk of dispossession.

A British firm that has taken over a 9,000-hectare area for jatropha cultivation in Kisarawe district, in which more than 11 villages have given out their land, wants farmers to abandon food crops.

According to the report, the villagers have been compensated for mango and cashewnut trees on the land without regard to the market price of the land.

“The farmers have not been made fully aware of issues such as the genuine value of their land and the consequences of giving it up,” said the report.

The Holland based agrofuel firm Bioshape, a subsidiary of Bioshape Holdings, Holland, has applied to acquire about 81,000 hectares of land from the four villages of Mavuji, Liwiti, Migeregere and Nainwoke in Kilwa district, Lindi region.

But land officials say they have processed the purchase of only 34,736 hectares.

According to Mr Mkindi, the firm is in the process of paying $250,000 to the District Council, with the funds to be shared between the District Council (60 per cent) and the local communities (40 per cent).

“If they were to acquire the total 81,000 hectares they would pay $1.023 million. Bioshape is planning to use 60 per cent of the total land in plantation batches of 200ha plots and to maintain a 40 per cent buffer zone of natural vegetation, animal free zones, hills and wetlands, as well as thick forest,” said Mr Mkindi.