Tanzania has suspended investments worth millions of dollars after a storm of protest over the eviction of farmers to make way for biofuels.
The EastAfrican has learnt that the country will not start any new agrofuel project before the government reviews the selection criteria for each investment.
The government has also halted allocation of huge chunks of land to biofuel investors.
Under fire from international and local environmentalists, the government said it will stop further acquisition of land by biofuel investors pending clear procedures and policies on such investments.
The government has faced even more questions since The EastAfrican reported last week that more than 5,000 rice farmers across the country would be evicted to pave the way for biofuel projects.
The criticism peaked last Wednesday when a researcher from Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, Kenneth Bengesi Kitundu, said the government was treating the biofuel investments like a “bottomless pit” at the expense of farmers.
A senior government official told this newspaper that President Jakaya Kikwete has ordered all regional authorities to halt current and future biofuel projects and acquisition of land from villagers.
Esther Mfugale, co-ordinator of biofuel production in the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Co-operatives, said the government has stopped biofuel investments, plus further acquisition of land by investors, till there are clear procedures and policies.
Already, 40 companies have biofuel projects in the country.
The government said it was waiting for the Cabinet to approve the regulations and prepare a clear policy on biofuel investments.
“The government is waiting for the Cabinet to pass the regulations.
Thereafter, we will prepare policies to pin down investors once they have done something against the interests of the country,” said Mrs Mfugale.
Fear of food shortages and pressure from environmentalists prompted the government to suspend the allocation of thousands of hectares of arable land and eviction of rice farmers over biofuel projects.
The new move highlights the growing problem of feeding the nation as investors in biofuel expand into farmland and villages, inducing farmers to abandon food crops.
Mrs Mfugale said the government has ordered local governments to stop selling land to biofuel investors until clear procedures and guidelines are issued.
“The government was asleep and never knew when these people came. But now that we have discovered where we went wrong, we have to stop and set out clear procedures for biofuel investments,” she said.
The decision to halt biofuel investments is likely to have a knock-on effect as the government has already spent $3.1 million secured as a grant from Sweden and Norway to strengthen policy, legal, regulatory and institutional framework to support a sustainable biofuel industry in Tanzania.
Mrs Mfugale says the government had little knowledge of the presence of biofuel investors but it is doing all it can now to get a full picture.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives has already identified broad land uses from its land use categorisation.
Farming and livestock take up 47.5 per cent; forest, bush land and woodland 37.1 per cent; water resources seven per cent; wetlands 8.6 per cent; built-up areas 0.3 per cent; and bare rock 0.2 per cent.
The EastAfrican has been informed that three main potential land uses are threatened by the introduction of biofuel, especially jatropha cultivation.
They are farming, which will give away 17.5 per cent to biofuel investors; pastures and meadows suitable for livestock, which will give away 29.4 per cent; and forest, woodland, bush and grassland, which will give away 37 per cent.
They are also likely to be encroached upon by displaced farmers and livestock keepers.
The Tanzania Investment Centre has already set up a “land bank” of 2.5 million hectares identified as suitable for investment projects.
It has set aside 1.1 million hectares of land for agriculture; 1.4 million hectares for housing estates; 537,880 hectares for industry; 445.80 hectares for mining; 238,939 hectares for ranching and 711,027 hectares for tourism.