RAZABA, TANZANIA - Thirty-eight-old Mariam Salmin Mziraya struggles to fight off the wave of fear that has gripped Razaba. The anxiety centers on a looming eviction that would pave the way for a large scale agribusiness.
Like most villagers here, Mziray, a mother of four, is afraid of losing her land. It’s her only source of livelihood even as a new initiative supported by the G7 continues to make inroads into rural Tanzania.
She said the threat is coming from a large agricultural project being pioneered by a Swedish company through a public-private partnership dubbed the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT).
"When we heard about the project for the first time," she said, "we thought things would change our lives for the better, but we are now being forcefully kicked out to give way for the project.”
Investigations have revealed that about 1,300 people are at risk of losing their land or homes to make way for a sugarcane plantation, which is a flagship project of the G7’s initiative to increase agricultural investment in Africa, the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.
Mziray fights back tears, wondering how much longer she has before the unspeakable will happen.
“I have been a smallholder farmer all throughout my lifetime," she said. "When we heard about the project for the first time, we thought things would change our lives for the better, but we are now being forced out to give way for the project. We have not been compensated, and we do not know when or where we are being relocated to. I do not know what the future holds for my children”
Until now, Razaba has been a sleepy village with little interaction with the outside world. It’s tucked several miles away from the town of Bagamoyo, north of the commercial city Dar es Salaam. That changed a few years ago when transnational corporations and private investors interested in large scale agriculture began to arrive.
Hamisi Chapa, 62, a village elder, says that authorities have ignored their pleas.
“We have not been involved in the process," he asserted. "They are not open to us, and they have now resorted to using force. We call upon the government to come clean and inform us about what’s going on. We feel that our rights to life and security have been trampled upon. We have only been given empty promises since 2011 and nothing has been forthcoming.”
‘Support Farmers, Not Agribusiness’
Up to 1,300 people are set to lose their land and livelihoods in Tanzania’s District of Bagamoyo, where an area of land the size of Washington D.C. will be used by a plantation to produce sugar for biofuels.
ActionAid has launched a petition urging the Obama administration to end its support for the alliance and focus funding on supporting poor farmers in Africa, rather than agribusiness.
Elias Mtinda, a senior official at Action Aid Tanzania, said, “We are not saying the project is bad, but there are issues that need to be addressed. Our recommendation is that they need to suspend the project and conduct fresh consultations with the [local] communities and other stakeholders.”
The New Alliance is a set of agreements that works with international investors, including transnational corporations, to develop agriculture in Africa.
Hans Rudolf Herren, President of Biovision Foundation, a Swiss-based organization focused on sustainable development, says that “it is particularly worrying that African governments are required to give incentives to agribusiness, expanding corporate access to seeds, land, water, labor and markets – often at the expense of the local communities.”
“The G7," he said, "should focus on improving small-scale farmer’s access to affordable agricultural practices, such as organic and ecological agriculture, and supporting local businesses and value chains that directly include and benefit the small-scale farmers,” said Herren, recipient of the 1995 World Food Prize.
He argues that family farms, of which most are small-scale, produce more food per unit area than industrial farms, citing figures released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations during last year’s International Year of the Family Farming.
“The logic would clearly suggest to make a special effort in supporting family and small-scale farmers”, he added, recommending that G7 leaders revisit the New Alliance when they meet in Germany this coming June.
Tanzanian officials and private investors dispute claims that the partnership is grabbing land from the local people.
Geoffrey Kirenga, chief executive officer of SAGCOT said the project was part of ‘a homegrown process’ aimed at facilitating increased investment in agriculture.
“We call ourselves honest brokers," he said. "We facilitate discussions between the government and the private sector to look into issues such as to effect policy changes, we talk to the private sector, we talk to the farmers and they identify key areas where changes are needed and we facilitate dialogue on how to solve issues.”
Per Carstedt, Executive Chairman of EcoEnergy Tanzania, the company that is implementing the disputed program, said the project aims to generate greater investment for agricultural development, scale up innovation, reduce poverty and end local hunger.
“I usually say that the project is in three areas," explained, "One, it’s a big agriculture project. It’s a big industrial development project and it’s a big social and community development project. By far the most complex one is the third one because there you are interacting with tens of thousands of people, and you are taking people from the way they live today as subsistence farmers trying to make a lot of them into commercial farmers, trying to train them to become workers, tractor drivers or managers of irrigation systems, and so forth.”
Responding to claims from local farmers that the firm has secured a lease of over 20,000 hectares of land for the next 99 years threatening their livelihoods, Carstedt said the land issue has led to further delays in implementing the project.
“We knew that land is an issue when we looked at all over of Africa," he said, "As soon as you want to do something on land, it’s very contentious. We discussed at length for different solutions and we ended up after two year of discussions with a model where we have agreed with the government and the community…. This land that we are using is a government land.”
But activists and community leaders complain that the land acquisition process has lacked transparency and they are now calling for the suspension of the project.
Shaaban Kasanula is the chairman of the community in Razaba village and complained about the alleged failure by the authorities to involve the local people.
“We have been completely left out in the whole process and our cries have fallen on deaf ears,"he said. "The local people now do not want to hear anything about the project.”
The local leader urged the Tanzanian authorities and donor agencies to reconsider the project, echoing similar calls from human rights groups, and replace it with initiatives that support small-scale food producers and advance sustainable agriculture.
Last September, the British charity Oxfam condemned agricultural public-private partnerships (PPPs) terming them ‘unproven and risky, while the risks fall on the most vulnerable.’