A major U.S. energy company, AgriSol Energy, is accused of engaging in land grabs in Tanzania that would displace more than 160,000 Burundian refugees who have lived there for decades, according to a report by the Oakland Institute, an organisation focused on environmental issues.
An ethics complaint from the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) states that AgriSol is benefiting from the forcible eviction of the refugees, many of whom are subsistence farmers, and leasing the land — as much as 800,000 acres — from the Tanzanian government for 25 cents per acre. “All duty and tax free,” the Iowa CCI adds.
The project could net AgriSol, led by co-founder Bruce Rastetter, as much as 300 million dollars a year, according to the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board.
Larry Ginter, a retired hog farmer from Rhodes and a member of Iowa CCI, said in a telephone conference that he was “outraged at the exploitation of the farmers there (in Tanzania).”
“This is an old pattern that has been going on for years,” he adds about AgriSol. “This is a classic case of colonialism, and is theft of the highest order.”
A spokesperson for AgriSol Tanzania denies those allegations and claims that the government had been the one that had instigated the movement of refugees. “We did not evict them,” Henry Akona, director of communications for AgriSol Tanzania, told reporters.
“Perhaps it has been mishandled,” he said, regarding the movement of refugees. “But it’s unfair for the Oakland Institute to mix AgriSol into it.”
The company’s website states that the project is delayed at the settlements of Katumba and Mishamo “until the situation is resolved”.
The Tanzanian connection
The AgriSol project was supported by the Tanzanian government under an initiative called Kilimo Kwanza — meaning “Agriculture First” — that was launched in 2009 by the Tanzania National Business Council to “promote agricultural development through public-private partnerships”.
The “public-private” partnership would, currently and in the future, aid ArgiSol in three different types of production: large-scale crop cultivation, such as food grains, beef and poultry production, and soy and maize production.
AgriSol was set to launch a 100-million-dollar investment in Tanzania over the next 10 years. The stated aim of the programme, according to AgriSol was to, “help stabilise local food supplies, create jobs and economic opportunity for local populations, (and) spur investment in local infrastructure improvements.”
The demands that ArgiSol made included such lopsided conditions that AgriSol would effectively “pay less for land in Tanzania than for a Starbucks coffee in the United States,” according to Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute.
Mittal, who conducted field research in Tanzania, said these policies have been supplemented by aggressive moves to stymie local businesses. “The people on the ground have been told they can’t build new businesses,” she said. “They have no other option left but to move.”
This partnership, according to the report, was also contingent on several other factors including that the Tanzanian government grant AgriSol a preferential “strategic investor status” and relocate the 162,000 people currently living in Katumba and Mishamo.
While unfortunate, the company counters, AgriSol was simply engaging in a business relationship, since the refugees were set to move anyway. “AgriSol was like a potential new tenant,” Akona explains.
AgriSol Energy Tanzania, the company behind the Tanzanian operations, was a partnership venture between Rastetter’s AgriSol Energy and the Tanzania-based Serengeti Advisers Limited. Iddi Simba, the former Minister for Industry and Trade for Tanzania was one of the heads of Serengeti Limited.
According to a memorandum by Iddi Simba, written on behalf of AgriSol, the Tanzanian government “made AgriSol aware of three tracts of land in western Tanzania that were previously used as camps for refugees, but were, at the time, either closed or being closed.”
Simba, however, was not formally in government when he made the statement. He was forced to resign from his ministerial office in 2001 after issuing illegal sugar import permits.
On AgriSol’s website, AgriSol has claimed that they have “halted active development efforts” in Katumba and Mishamo, until the refugee situation is resolved. They state that they only have current plans in the Tanzanian towns of Kigoma and Lugufu, which has also held a refugee camp, and at a “smaller location near Basanza village”.
According to some Tanzanians, however, this process has been particularly unfavourable to the local population.
“It’s like someone climbing a tree and finding a poisonous snake– and below him there’s a crocodile in the water,” said Sembuli Masasa, an inhabitant of the Katumba district in Tanzania, according to the report.
“If he stays on the tree, the snake will bite him. If he goes into the water, the crocodile will get him. That’s the situation we’re in.”
Children of the corn
The corruption allegations against Rastetter are not confined to Tanzania.
In June, the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement lodged a complaint against Rastetter, calling for his removal as the head of the Board of Regents, which has control over the public school system in Iowa, including Iowa State University.
Rastetter was appointed as a member of the Board of Regents by Governor Terry Branstad in 2011, a few months after Branstad’s campaign, and was soon promoted to president pro temp.
Rastetter had made multiple contributions to Branstad’s campaign worth more than 160,000 dollars, and was the largest single contributor to Branstad’s campaign, according to Iowan newspapers.
“I didn’t support Gov. Branstad to be a regent,” Rastetter flatly told reporters in 2011. “I supported him personally and raised money for him because I believed he would make a positive difference in Iowa.”
Rastetter, managing director at AgriSol, and the CEO at several other agriculture-based firms, had no specific education or training in education before receiving his position on the board of regents.
Rastetter had been a large donor at Iowa State University. According to the Iowa State University Foundation, Rastetter has made a total pledge of 2.25 million dollars to Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Initially, Iowa State University had trumpeted the project with AgriSol as a responsible agricultural investment, similar to other agricultural endeavours they had previously undertaken.
“In the fall of 2009, AgriSol Energy contacted ISU to ask if we would provide advice and assistance on planning a small-farmer education program similar to our Uganda project,” Wendy Wintersteen, dean of Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, explained in a statement. “As in Uganda, an effort in Tanzania would focus on human nutrition, child survival, clean water and food security.”
According to Mittal, Rastetter was instrumental in enlisting Professor Kevin Kimle, who holds a chair which Rastetter donated in 2009, and Eric Peterson, a member of advisory board of the College of Agriculture at Iowa State University and General Manger of Summit Farms, one of Rastetter’s companies. They were both allegedly influential in getting Iowa State University to go forth with the Tanzania project.
In February, the university withdrew support from the project, citing the public pressure over the venture.
Iowa State University’s withdrawal, however, has not stopped AgriSol from pursuing other academic partners. Ohio State University has also been approached for a partnership, according to Mittal.