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Dan Rather: A Land Grab University?

December 23, 2011
Des Moines Register

Back in September, “Dan Rather Reports” broadcast a story about Iowa State University’s role in a controversial African land deal. An Iowa-based company called AgriSol Energy was planning to grow corn and soybeans on hundreds of thousands of acres in western Tanzania.

ISU claimed that they were working with the company to make sure that the massive for-profit venture was also a socially responsible one. According to an AgriSol news release, ISU’s involvement ensured that the project would “effectively and efficiently serve the interests of the local communities and the country.”

However, our investigation found that the land AgriSol planned to farm — with ISU’s help — is already occupied by more than 100,000 people. They are refugees living in two settlements known as Katumba and Mishamo.

Last summer, we visited Katumba and found a thriving, self-sufficient community. In the almost 40 years since the settlement was established, its people have put down roots and turned what used to be a remote forest into highly productive — and highly desirable — farmland.

But the Tanzanian government had decided to evict the people of Katumba and lease the land to AgriSol for the development of a large-scale farm.

Critics called the deal a “land grab” that would be catastrophic for thousands of small farmers — just the kind of people that AgriSol claimed its project would benefit.

When we raised this issue with Iddi Simba, the chairman of AgriSol Energy Tanzania, he showed no concern for the fate of the refugees. “Whether those people will be moved to here or there is not our business,” he said. “That is for the government.”

The annual rent the company would pay the Tanzanian government for a 99-year lease? Just 25 cents per acre.

A top administrator at ISU has responded to our report in an interview for the university newspaper. Asked about the refugees, Associate Dean David Acker was emphatic. “That’s an awful thing to even consider,” he said. “If you did find a set of business people who were willing to have anything to do with kicking refugees off the land, who would want to have anything to do with them? Not me personally, not Iowa State.”

Unfortunately, the facts tell a different story.

Acker himself was in charge of ISU’s work with AgriSol and, as he is doubtless aware, ISU faculty visited the refugee settlements to do preliminary research for the AgriSol project in March and November 2010. What’s more, ISU is mentioned in the memorandum of understanding between AgriSol and the Tanzanian government. The agreement specifies that AgriSol would be “working closely with Iowa State University” and also makes clear that the project would move forward only after the “resettlement and removal of all former refugees.”

Our investigation also raised questions about the reasons behind ISU’s involvement with AgriSol. AgriSol founder Bruce Rastetter is a major donor to ISU and his multi-million-dollar endowment pays the salary of an ISU faculty member who worked on the project. Rastetter also sits on the Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees ISU. Critics charged that Rastetter was using the university’s name and reputation to further his own business interests.

Since our investigation, ISU has scaled back its involvement with AgriSol to an “advisory capacity.” Meanwhile, in the face of mounting criticism, AgriSol announced that it was suspending development efforts in the refugee settlements and focusing on land elsewhere in Tanzania. But Acker’s claim that ISU “never considered working in those areas [where the refugees live], and would never consider it” is simply untrue.

We’ve come to expect such evasions of responsibility from private companies, but it’s especially disconcerting to see them coming from a publicly funded, land-grant university. Iowa State University is one of America’s most respected agricultural schools and, as such, its administrators and faculty should be held to a high standard of transparency and accountability. It’s fair for Dean Acker to highlight ISU’s change of heart on the AgriSol project, if indeed they have had one. But the people of Iowa — not to mention the refugees of Katumba — deserve an honest explanation for ISU’s part in this deal, and not just shameless denials.