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Biofuel Investments Threaten Local Land Rights in Tanzania

This piece originally appeared on the International Land Coalition Land Portal. This full text is available here.

Just a couple weeks ago, Iowa State University (ISU) withdrew from advising the Iowa-based firm AgriSol Energy on its planned land deal in Tanzania. AgriSol Energy is seeking to acquire 320,000 hectares in Rukwa Region for large-scale food and biofuel production.1 ISU’s role had been to ensure that the for-profit venture be socially responsible and benefit local communities. However, the development of AgriSol’s large-scale farm requires the eviction of 162,000 local farmers – hardly a benefit to the local communities.

In October 2011, work at the jatropha2 plantation in Kisarawe District, Tanzania came to a halt when managers of Sun Biofuels, a British company, told more than 300 workers to collect their final paychecks and leave until further notice. The company established the 8000-plus hectare estate in 2008, but is now facing serious financial problems.

These layoffs came on the heels of BioShape, a Dutch company, ceasing operations in November 2009 on its 34,000 hectare jatropha plantation in Kilwa District. BioShape had employed more than 100 permanent staff, and about 700 casual laborers. In February 2010, the company suspended its last field operations and stopped paying salaries to its local employees and, in June 2010, BioShape was officially declared bankrupt

Other biofuel projects in Tanzania are also struggling to sustain their operations, including Swedish Sekab AB, Europe’s largest ethanol company. Despite these experiences, however, the government of Tanzania is considering allocating even more land to biofuel companies such as AgriSol Energy.

Most rural people in Tanzania make a living off their land, including subsistence farming and animal husbandry. When their land is taken—even if properly compensated for their losses—many fall into deeper poverty. New policies and government practices are urgently needed to protect local property rights to land and natural resources.

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  1. Iowa-based Summit Group and Global Agriculture Fund of the Pharos Financial Group, in partnership with AgriSol Energy LLC and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University, are developing a large agriculture enterprise in Tanzania. The site encompasses three “abandoned refugee camps”– Lugufu in Kigoma province (25,000 ha), Katumba (80,317 ha), and Mishamo (219,800 ha), both in Rukwa province. 

  2. Jatropha seeds contain oil that can be processed into biodiesel. 

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