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Criticism Escalates Over Iowa Company's Plans for Tanzania

September 29, 2011
Harvest Public Media


By Kathleen Masterson


An Iowa-based energy company's agriculture project in the east African nation of Tanzania is coming under increasing scrutiny. 

AgriSol Energy describes the project as an effort to bring modern farming methods, machinery and high quality seeds to the region.  But some critics see it as a plantation-style land grab.

The Oakland Institute, a California-based policy think tank, is concerned that the 800,000-acre project will displace some 160,000 refugees from Burundi who have been living on the land for 40 years.  These communities have turned the once-fallow land into small-scale agriculture operations.  

“This is land which has been feeding so many families, and large-scale commercial agriculture is mechanized, it does not create jobs for these small-holder farmers. At best some might become share-croppers, some might become plantation workers, at most. But it's going to deny their food security,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the institute.

AgriSol did not return calls for an interview, but the company’s web site notes that the project is intended to encompass large-scale crop cultivation, beef and poultry operations and renewable energy production. 

Since the Oakland Institute issued a report on the project in May, media reports have questioned both the motives and the sustainability of the project. Several news organizations sent reporters to the sites in Tanzania to investigate; their stories focused on the many refugees who would be displaced.

Mittal said the Oakland Institute is not opposed to the company and its partners making a profit, but it is concerned that the people living on the land have not had a voice in the process.

“How do we actually benefit the national economy?” she asked, “because a lot of these projects are going into African nations with the promises of job creation, of boosting the agriculture economy.” 

Mittal said investors are asking the Tanzanian government to give them strategic investor status, which would mean tax holidays and time without import duties for any equipment they bring in. AgriSol’s investor plans show the company and its business partners would invest $100 million over 10 years, and estimate making $350 million the first year, Mittal said.

In addition to several other business partners, Iowa State University's College of Agriculture has assisted in conducting feasibility studies.  College leaders declined an interview and stated in an e-mail that the university is serving only in an advisory capacity.

While it's unclear if AgriSol has finalized negotiations for land rights, journalist Dan Rather recently reported that Tanzanian Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda remains a backer of the project.