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May 27, 2008

Food security concerns in Tanzania as investors scramble for land for biofuel crops

Foreign and local companies interested in investing in the production of biofuels are busy scrambling for fertile virgin land in Tanzania's Rufiji District, Coast Region, ready to set up farms for the purpose.

However, the development has touched off concern and complaints from local residents that they could lose their land to wealthy investors giving them little in return.

More than 40 firms have shown interest in venturing into the business across the country, a development analysts see adding more worries over the state of food security. The influx of investors in the production of biofuels has largely been triggered by the escalation of fossil fuel prices in the global market as well as the adverse impact of climate change.

A Swedish company, SEKAB BioEnergy Tanzania, is among seven foreign firms out to acquire large chunks of fertile land along the Rufiji Delta. The firm is looking for about 400,000 hectares for the production of ethanol from sugarcane. It has already put 20,000 hectares under the crop and a further 50,000 hectares yet to be developed. Both tracts are in Rufiji District, one of the areas believed to be ideal for food crop production. Experts say that, if put to optimal use, the district could pump enough stocks of foodstuffs into Dar es Salaam Region and surrounding areas.

Other companies are interested in investing in the production of jatropha, maize, palm oil, cassava, cotton and paprika.

This is according to a survey conducted by Environmental Journalists Association of Tanzania (JET) and foreign journalists in collaboration with Oxfam International in the district earlier this week.

Most of the companies are expected to acquire land soon before engaging in the full production of biofuels.

There have been reports of investors using all manner of methods to woo villagers into selling them pieces of land. Kipo villagers interviewed said some investors have been holding ceremonial meetings as way of speeding up the process to acquire land.

"In one such meeting with villagers, an investor prepared spiced rice and chicken for us," said Kassim Kindinda, a Kipo resident, adding: "The investors only talk of the advantages of producing biofuel. They do not talk about how adversely their activities will affect food security in the area and the country generally."

"If we sell our land to this investor, how will we produce traditional food crops like cassava and maize? What kind of jobs will be offered to us because many villagers here are not educated?" Kindinda asked rhetorically. He pointed out that water sources would also be disturbed because large-scale sugarcane cultivation consumes lots of water.

Kipo village is close to a small natural lake called Zumbi that serves as a fertile fish-breeding ground. Investors want that too for irrigating their sugarcane plantation.

"I have been fishing here for more than 15 years now. My concern is that when the investors start using the lake`s waters for irrigation, there will be too little water left for us to continue with our own fishing, farming and other activities will be no more," observed Kindinda.

Rufiji District Commissioner Ali Rufunga confirmed that many local and foreign companies had shown interest in investing in the district. "To us, this investment is of fundamental relevance and importance to the district`s social and economic development," he said.

The DC explained that most aspiring investors had promised to create thousands of job opportunities for the local residents' taking, as well as improving infrastructure and social services. Giving an example, he said SEKAB had promised to build three ethanol processing plants in the 50,000-hectares it had acquired.

"The firm has promised to offer more than 10,000 jobs to Rufiji residents and has assured us that they will promote small-scale sugarcane outgrowers," he noted.

Josephine Brennan, Director for Africa Development under the Bioalcohol Fuel Foundation (BAFF), said they have decided to invest in the bioethanol project "following the skyrocketing prices of fossil fuels in the world." She explained that Tanzania was one of the ideal places for bioethanol production in the sub-Saharan Africa.

"The European Union target is to start using 10 per cent of agro-biofuels by 2010," Brennan said, adding that Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are some of the African countries now in the process of producing biofuels.

William ole Nasha, an Oxfam land and pastoralism specialist, meanwhile underlined the need to deliberate on the benefits and disadvantages of biofuel production in the country.

Bashir Mrindoko, Commissioner for Energy Petroleum Affairs in the Energy and Minerals ministry, said a task force was working on a draft national policy on biofuel production and use.

If investors managed to engage fully in the production of biofuels, he said, the use of fossil fuels in Tanzania would fall by 20 per cent.

However, the commissioner said there was a need for an aggressive public awareness campaign on the matter. "There is an urgent need also to balance between land suitable for food and biofuel production," he said, adding that food security is currently a topical issue because many people have most of their focus on the production of biofuels instead of food crops.

Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives deputy minister David Mathayo said in a recent interview that the government was preparing a national policy on biofuel production that would spell out how much land would be set aside for the purpose. He said the government would attach great care to the process "lest posterity is denied access to land on which the survival of humankind so heavily depends."

The deputy minister added that the government would make its decision public at the end of this year "after thorough research to see how the country will benefit from biofuel, particularly by keeping food shortages at bay. Investors have been coming and asking for land for biofuel production. It is a good idea since the investment could create job opportunities and improve the economy through the sale of the fuel," said Mathayo.

"But these benefits notwithstanding, we must be careful about our food security. We should not let biofuel production be done in areas suitable for food production," he cautioned.

According to John Mclntire, the World Bank Country Director for Tanzania, Kenya and Burundi, increasing world food prices and problems relating to food shortages in many countries made it all the more important "to think in the medium and long term on how to increase agricultural productivity in Africa."

Bjarne Sorensen, the Danish Ambassador to Tanzania, meanwhile explained that his government would prepare a meeting to discuss the challenges and prospects of competition in world biofuel production "which is already affecting food prices in Africa."

IPP Media

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