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Report Aligns Tanzania Strife, Ag Objective of Rastetter Firm

July 9, 2012
Des Moines Register

But AgriSol denies any tie between its efforts and abuses of refugees.

A new report alleges Tanzanian refugees are suffering ongoing human rights abuses, in part because of relocation efforts that have coincided with a push by an agriculture company with Iowa ties to lease land in the country.

Some of an estimated 162,000 refugees in Tanzania have had their homes and crops burned by government security officials and been arbitrarily arrested and denied free speech, according to the Oakland Institute, a California think tank.

The report does not link the agriculture company, AgriSol Energy Corp., to any abuses it observed. Iowa Board of Regents member Bruce Rastetter is managing director of the company. A company spokesman said the Oakland Institute report misrepresents the effects of AgriSol’s efforts.

AgriSol has said it wants to lease more than 800,000 acres in Tanzania for large-scale farming operations. Critics have called the deal a “land grab” because the company would lease land for 25 cents an acre and could one day make big profits.

The report is the latest in a series of criticisms of the deal. Last month, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a grass-roots community organizing group, filed an ethics complaint concerning Rastetter with the state.

The group accused Rastetter, an agriculture and energy entrepreneur and top Republican Party donor, of using his Board of Regents membership to advance the land purchase deal. The board oversees Iowa’s public universities, and Iowa State University was initially involved as an adviser on the project. ISU announced in February that it would drop its advisory role.

An AgriSol spokesman, in response to the report, said the company had to lease the land at 25 cents an acre because Tanzania’s laws forbid land ownership and prescribe a fixed price on all leases.

Instead of waiting for the government to change its laws, AgriSol has agreed to contribute money for every acre it leases to build infrastructure such as schools and water systems, said Henry Akona, communications director for AgriSol Tanzania. The contributions, about $10 per acre, could total more than $430,000 each year if all the land it has leased is planted, he said.

Rastetter has directed all questions about the AgriSol Tanzania project to Akona.

Akona disputed that AgriSol has played any part in forcing refugees from the settlements. The report suggests AgriSol helped push the refugees out because the company paid for a feasibility study of the land’s development in July 2008, the same year the government announced a resettlement deal had been reached.

Akona, however, said substantial parts of the government’s deal were agreed to a year earlier. Given that negotiations involved the United Nations and two foreign countries, he said, it makes no sense that AgriSol swooped in at the last moment to alter the resettlement deal.

“(The report) is confusing the culmination of a long negotiation process with the beginning of an investment process. There was a small overlap, but the refugee issue was quite long, and the investment was only beginning,” Akona said. “The agreement, which is a very complicated one between foreign governments and was completed with the help of the U.N., took a very long time and didn’t happen overnight. To say AgriSol caused that is simply a misreading of the facts.”

Akona noted that the only land AgriSol leases so far is about 42,000 acres in the western region of Kigoma, a deal that was finalized in February. A former refugee camp there has been vacant since 2009, he said.

The Oakland Institute describes itself as an independent policy think tank focused on national and international social, economic and environmental issues.

Its report said the refugees already face severe discrimination from Tanzanian citizens and have not been told where they’ll be relocated or how much they’ll be compensated.

The report also cited environmental concerns involving a refugee camp in the western region of Rukwa. The settlement, in existence for 40 years, is in a forest reserve established within the last 15 years. Critical river systems and wetlands are also nearby, the report said.

“The needs of the (refugees) must be met clearly, efficiently and fairly while preserving one of the world’s most important and fragile waterways and landscape,” the report said.