Iowa-based civil rights group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) has spoken out against Regent Bruce Rastetter, claiming him to be a corrupt politician that has misused his political power for corporate and financial gain. At the heart of this argument is a land deal between the Tanzanian government and AgriSol Energy, owned by Rastetter. CCI and similar watchdog groups have called this transaction a “land grab” against the farmlands of Tanzania, with Rastetter using his own political influence to facilitate a deal that will have major environmental and social impacts upon the nation, including the displacement of over 160,000 refugees.
Information regarding the land deal was first made available to the public in a report issued by the Oakland Institute, an independent California-based think-tank, in June 2011, which outlined the transactions’ major partners: Agrisol Energy and its Tanzanian branch, Pharos Global Agriculture Fund, Summit Farms Group, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. The report also spoke in detail regarding the intricacies of the transaction and the land that is to be used. AgriSol intends the large scale growth and harvesting of beef, poultry, and biofuels on land that is, according to Rastetter and AgriSol, “abandoned refugee camps”. These areas include the Katumba and Mishamo areas of the Rukwa Province, as well as the Lugufu area of the Kigoma province.
AgriSol has worked closely with the Tanzanian government to facilitate this land transaction. The Tanzanian government is eager to make the deal as it is supported by the Tanzanian Prime Minister under the Kilimo Kwanza (“Agriculture First”) initiative, launched in 2009 by the Tanzania National Business Council to promote agricultural development through public-private partnerships. In an interview with the Associated Press, Rastetter claimed that this project would not only be financially profitable but would also benefit the people in Tanzania by promoting agricultural and economic growth. Research performed by the Oakland Institute has shown this to not be the case.
Several reports issued by the Oakland Institute have debunked the many myths attributed to this land deal. The group’s land deal briefs “Eight Myths and Facts about AgriSol Energy in Tanzania” and their subsequent profile on Tanzanian land deals initially highlighted the social, economic and environmental issues that Agrisol was adept at hiding. Using the designation of “Strategic Investor Status”, Agrisol will gain a monopoly over fertile Tanzanian farmland, the ability to demand infrastructures, to control the prices and laws regarding produced crops, and exemption from corporate and profit taxes. Construction on the farmland will most likely result in extreme environmental impacts including the obstruction and pollution of the Tanzanian wetland system and forest reserve and risks to biodiversity. Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director and founder of the Oakland Institute, believes that the planned use of pesticides and genetically modified crops would “cause an environmental disaster, which [I] believe would be very hard to recover from and its impact on Tanzania would be devastating.“
Perhaps the most troubling potential result of this land deal is the displacement of over 160,000 refugees. While AgriSol and Rastetter have claimed the proposed land to be an “abandoned refugee settlement”, the Oakland Institute’s most recent report, “Lives on Hold”, has shown this to be false. The land requested to be used by AgriSol has been the home to Burundian refugees since 1972, with the majority of current inhabitants having been born and raised in Tanzania. As of 2007, Burundi was declared to be safe to return to, but most refugees opted to stay in Tanzania as the government offered them citizenship in 2008. However, these refugees will not gain their full rights as citizens until they comply with Tanzanian naturalization laws and are relocated into another settlement of the government’s choosing. Prior to the proposed land deal between AgriSol and the Tanzanian government, the relocation of these refugees was not planned nor addressed. Fieldwork performed by the Oakland Institute revealed that most refugees, both young and old, were largely unaware of the resettlement condition needed to gain citizenship before 2007. The Oakland Institute and CCI believe it likely that this sudden plan to resettle was catalyzed by AgriSol’s desire for the inhabited land. These refugees have now been asked to relocate from their homes to an area that has yet to be determined for reasons largely unknown to them.
“Lives on Hold” explicates the unique and troubling position of the Burundian refugees. Having inhabited the Katumba and Mishamo regions for over forty years, they are now being forcibly asked to leave the land which they helped develop into a major site of agricultural development. A family’s choice of area to relocate is not guaranteed and is intended to be chosen by the government, thus creating a sense of anxiety for refugees who fear separation from their families and established culture.
The Oakland Institute has also reported that the Tanzanian government has taken action against refugees who have continued to build and grow on their former home, with newly built houses being torn down and perennial crops destroyed. Such extreme action has been regarded by refugees as unnecessary since a formal resettlement date or location has yet to be set. While some refugees did protest such actions, the OI conveyed that such acts of civil disobedience were promptly met with threats and arrests that have gone on to subdue other similar responses.
Without a formalized resettlement plan and with citizens unable to continue to build in their present environment, Burundian refugees in Tanzania have been placed into a socio-economic limbo due to the land deal created by AgriSol Energy. Their only choice would then be to relocate in accordance with the government, a strategic ploy by the government where, as Mittal pointed out, the government can state the refugees moved out on their own accord.
Neither the Tanzanian government nor AgriSol Energy have formally broken any international land or human rights laws in this ongoing land deal, but that has not stopped CCI from speaking out against AgriSol and its founder. Procuring and analyzing recent e-mails sent from Rastetter to the Iowa University Board of Regents, the group claims on their website that the regent “used his political influence as a member of the Iowa Board of Regents to broker a partnership between Iowa State University and his company AgriSol Energy [and] would have implicated the University—and by extension the people of Iowa—in a massive land-grab in Tanzania that would have displaced 160,000 refugee farmers, while investors like Rastetter stood to make millions from the project.” CCI has since made these e-mails open to the public through their website in hopes of informing the public of the “growing influence of corporations over land grant universities”.
CCI has also launched a formal campaign against Rastettter, having already filed an official conflict of interest complaint against him with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. Working with the environmental group Food and Water Watch, CCI’s goal is to have Rastetter removed from the Iowa University Board of Regents. CCI firmly believes that information and awareness of Rastetter’s abuse of power is integral to the success of such campaigns and in preventing future unjust land deals. In order to combat against social and environmental injustice on international scale, citizens must be informed as to how their own funds and organizations are being used and abused on a global level.