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Activists Confront US Investors Over Tanzanian Land Deal

A fierce debate is currently taking place concerning huge tracts of Tanzanian land which U.S. investors are seeking to develop. Tens of thousands of former refugees now farm the land. The investors say they want to help the east African country, but activists and Tanzania's opposition call it a land grab.

Tanzanian government officials say they are working on finalizing leases which would allow the company, Agrisol Energy Tanzania Limited, to develop 325,000 hectares in the western Rukwa and Kigoma regions.

The company in question is part of Agrisol Energy, a U.S-company co-founded by Iowa-based hog and ethanol entrepreneur Bruce Rastetter.

On its website, the U.S company says its new project will help expand agriculture in Tanzania, transfer know-how and technology, as well as create jobs and prosperity.

Activists such as Anuradha Mittal from the US-based Oakland Institute have been waging letter writing and media campaigns against the project. She says if the deal goes ahead 160,000 people will be displaced. She also says there will be environmental degradation, and very few, if any benefits, for the local population.

"We will keep the pressure up. Their lies of boosting food security and creating jobs are totally unacceptable because there is no evidence to suggest that it would work for the people of Tanzania or for the people who have been displaced from land," Mittal said.

Mittal says most of the farmers facing displacement are families who fled violence in neighboring Burundi over the past 40 years.

"Why would the government decide to give away this huge tract of land where people are already living, have made livelihoods, have made a home. It is because they think the refugees were dispensable, and more important nobody knows about it and they can move on it. Also I should mention is that the latest reports that we are getting is that it is not a done deal. Because of the international attention that has been put on this deal, it is back in the parliament, it is being debated and I am sure the government is well aware of the fact that when the world is watching that they have their reputation to maintain," Mittal said.

At the recent World Food Prize events in the U.S. state of Iowa where he was invited, Tanzania's Minister for Agriculture Jumanne Maghembe dismissed these concerns. He said the project would, in his words, go a long way to supplementing food production in Tanzania, and also help supplement other African countries.

Agrisol Energy ignored a request to be interviewed for this report.

A statement issued by Agrisol Energy Tanzania said the company was made aware that the land was previously used as camps for refugees, but that these camps were either closed or being closed.

The statement also said recent news accounts and reports have inaccurately portrayed the company's intentions.

A recent letter issued by the environmental groups Sierra Club US and Sierra Club Canada expressed fears Agrisol's motivation is mainly export-driven biofuel production rather than food for local consumption.

A senior research fellow with the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, Deborah Brautigam, is urging the Tanzanian government to take its time in making a decision on the proposed 99-year-lease.

"I would say I am more on the side of it is an opportunity that should be handled with extreme care. I am not sure that it is being handled with appropriate care. These are areas that were not empty so there are people that are having to be moved and so on. There has not been, as far as I know, a very clear analysis of the social and environmental impact. So I think the government may be moving a little bit quickly and perhaps precipitously," she said.

Brautigam who just returned fromTanzania said that in the post-colonial era governments tried but failed to establish successful large-scale government farms. She says after subsequent years of having mainly small scale farms with low productivity, there is now a push for export-driven commercialized agriculture.

Brautigam says Tanzanians should be much more informed about these issues, as well as U.S. officials, since Agrisol Energy is an American company.

"What is it that we are doing? Will this be harmful for food security in Tanzania? Have all of the possible ramifications of this kind of investment been addressed? We are a country that cares about poverty. We are putting a lot of effort into assisting Tanzania to move out of poverty. Is this kind of project something that will help or is it as many people fear something that will hurt?," she said.

In recent weeks, opposition leaders in Tanzania have also been speaking out against the proposed lease. Meshack Opulukwa from the opposition Chadema party told the country's lawmakers increased food production is no justification in taking away land from villagers.

He also said the displacements would increase the likelihood of conflicts between farmers and pastoralists. Opulukwa also said Tanzania has no problems with food shortages but rather with infrastructure and moving food around.

On its website, Agrisol Energy said it anticipates starting development of Tanzanian land in late 2011. Now it seems that date will at least be pushed back. Activists and opposition leaders are still hoping the proposed lease is never finalized.