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Understanding land investment deals in Africa - Lives on hold: The impact of AgriSol’s land deal in Tanzania

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“It’s like someone climbing a tree and finding a poisonous snake— and below him there’s a crocodile in the water. So if he stays on the tree, the snake will bite him. If he goes into the water, the crocodile will get him. That’s the situation we’re in.”

—Sembuli Masasa, a resident of Katumba, describing the fate of residents who face displacement to make way for a foreign investor.


In June 2011, the Oakland Institute (OI) released details of the largest land deal in Tanzania, which had been hidden away from public scrutiny prior to that and obscured from national debate and discussion. The deal involved Iowabased Summit Group and the Global Agriculture Fund of the Pharos Financial Group working in partnership with AgriSol Energy LLC and Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

AgriSol Energy Tanzania, the Tanzanian arm of US-based AgriSol Energy, and Serengeti Advisers Limited, a Tanzanian investment and consulting firm, are the domestic front for this operation. The deal centers on developing a large agricultural enterprise on what AgriSol Energy described in its business plans and prospectus as three “abandoned refugee camps”: Lugufu in Kigoma province (25,000 ha) and Katumba (80,317 ha) and Mishamo (219,800 ha), both in Rukwa province. However, far from being abandoned, the Katumba and Mishamo settlements are thriving communities that are home to more than 160,000 people, and the land AgriSol seeks in Katumba is part of a protected forest reserve – both strong reasons to properly evaluate the factors at play in this land deal.

The AgriSol project, 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. It has a stated goal of commercial development of all three tracts, including large-scale crop cultivation, beef and poultry production, and biofuel production. The June 2011 OI report on AgriSol Energy’s land deal revealed that the project was contingent upon the Tanzanian government’s approval of several conditions, including granting AgriSol strategic investor status and relocating more than 160,000 people currently living in Katumba and Mishamo.

As more facts of the deal became known over the course of 2011, such as secret negotiations between US investors, the Tanzanian Prime Minister, and other prominent political elites as well as the Iowa State University, pushback and pressure from both inside and outside Tanzania began to build. AgriSol had hoped to break ground in Lugufu and Katumba in 2011, but the plans were stalled as international controversy around the investment grew. Civil society groups began to mobilize, and in February 2012, Iowa State University pulled out from the deal.

AgriSol’s current plans involve starting operations at “unoccupied land” at Lugufu and at a second smaller location near Basanza village. The company also announces on its website that it has had “discussions with the local and national government officials about developing farms at Katumba and Mishamo in the future.”

To counter criticism of its plans in Tanzania, AgriSol’s PR campaign is promising to deliver economic development, modernization, jobs, medical clinics, schools, water sourcing and treatment systems, power generation, and other infrastructure to improve the quality of life for local populations, and to transform Tanzania into a regional agricultural powerhouse.

However, the discourse of this PR push fails to include the voice and views of the villagers who have been living in Katumba and Mishamo since their arrival from Burundi in 1972 as refugees of a civil war. The plans for development also overlook the major environmental dangers posed by AgriSol Energy’s proposed large-scale agricultural development in an ecologically fragile area.

This Land Deal Brief focuses on the Katumba settlement and is based on fieldwork conducted in early 2012 with the support of local informants, who, due to safety concerns, have not been identified by name in the report. It provides the perspectives of people currently residing within the sites proposed for agricultural investment and also highlights specific issues related to relocation while examining the risks associated with a large-scale agricultural project in the sensitive Ugalla ecosystem.