Picture of Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii

What’s your beef (and why’s it coming from Tanzania?)

What do an American businessman, Iowa State University and 162,000 refugees in Tanzania have in common?

Answer: they are all either directly involved in or soon-to-be impacted by a small group of U.S. investors’ plans to acquire 800,000 acres (1,250 square miles) of land in Tanzania and transform it into large-scale industrial crop, beef and agrofuel production. They plan to use genetically engineered (GE) seed and other inputs supplied by Monsanto, Syngenta and other global agribusinesses.

As you might guess, not everyone is going to benefit from this mega-project! The deal, if it goes through, would force 162,000 former refugees from Burundi off land they have tended for the past 40 years, destroying their livelihoods and the communities they have built to give their children a future.

Follow the money (sigh, yes again)

So who wins? The Tanzanian government might make a few dollars off the deal, but it won’t be much, once negotiations over a suite of investor incentives (tax holidays, duty waivers, and relaxed rules for repatriation of dollars out of Tanzania) are concluded. The three biggest winners would be Iowa-based AgriSol Energy, Summit Group (a large-scale farming and livestock operation headquartered in Alden, Iowa) and Pharos Global Agriculture Fund. Iowa State University is also a key supporter of the project.

These three private entities stand to gain the most, not only by ramping up lucrative agrofuel production for export, but even more significantly, by requiring — as a condition of the deal — that the Tanzanian government overturn its current prohibition of genetically engineered crops. They are demanding creation of a regulatory framework that allows importation and cultivation of GE crops in that country. 

Rewriting Southern countries’ biosafety legislation in order to start flooding the region with exports of U.S. GE crops has long been a tactic of the U.S. State Department and Agency for International Development (USAID). And it’s no coincidence that the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative targets Tanzania for “agricultural development” based on public-private partnerships and transgenic biotechnology.

The deal requires the Tanzanian government to overturn its current prohibition of GE crops

And who loses? Obviously, the Burundi people who are getting kicked off the land. But the threats go well beyond the 800,000 acres and 162,000 people in question there. Tanzanian farmers, consumers, their agricultural markets and biodiversity are all at risk.

Until recently, Tanzanians were somewhat protected from the intrusion of transgenic crops by the country’s placement of the precautionary principle at the center of its biosafety legislation. That has shifted, as under intense industry pressure, the government has relaxed its laws and allowed research and field trials of GE corn and cassava, with GE cotton around the corner. The last legal protections against GE crops could fall, if the AgriSol land grab is able to effectively rewrite Tanzania’s biosafety laws. And this is why Tanzanians have formed an alliance to fight back.

Here in the U.S. the Oakland Institute is leading the charge to expose and block the Tanzanian land grab and is calling on concerned individuals to take action and urge the wealthy Iowa investor Bruce Rastetter (who is simultaneously CEO of Pharos Ag and Summit Farms as well as Managing Director of AgriSol Energy) and the Prime Minister of Tanzania to drop the project. Joining the call, the Sierra Club has brought the voices of its one million members to bear, sending its own letter urging Rastetter and the Prime Minister to abandon “this ill-advised project.” It's easy to follow Oakland Institute's lead by sending a letter of your own.

Global policy stalled

The Tanzanian case is one of many such land grabs — more formally described as large-scale land acquisitions — that have been sweeping across the Global South in recent years. The epidemic reached such disastrous proportions, with such gross violations of human rights, that the United Nations finally turned its attention to the issue and began in 2008 to draft “voluntary guidelines” to protect communities from the harmful effects.

Earlier this month, 800 farmers’ rights, environment and development groups joined victims of land grabs in petitioning the Chair of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on Food Security to swiftly finalize the guidelines. Governments meeting in Rome were to adopt the voluntary guidelines by October 17, but failed to do so.

The U.N. body came close to approving the guidelines, explained U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, but foundered over the specific provisions affecting large-scale investments in farmland. The Committee on Food Security will meet again in early 2012 and de Schutter expects that the guidelines could be ratified later in the year. Civil society groups and farmers’ coalitions like La Via Campesina continue to play a critical role in these negotiations, pressing for strong and enforceable language.

Stand with Tanzania

While adoption of the voluntary guidelines in 2012 is urgently needed, every additional week of delay puts hundreds of thousands of farmers’ livelihoods at risk.

Take Action » Join Oakland Institute’s campaign to block the Tanzanian land grab. Send a letter to AgriSol’s Bruce Rastetter and the Tanzanian Prime Minister urging them to abandon the land deal.

Picture of Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii is director of PAN’s Grassroots Science Program and a Senior Scientist with a background in insect ecology and pest management. Her campaign work focuses on supporting and strengthening agroecology movements and policies in the U.S. and globally, in addition to challenging corporate control of our food and seed systems. Follow @MarciaIshii

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