The collapse of Sun Biofuels has left hundreds of Tanzanians landless, jobless, and in despair for the future.
“People feel this is like the return of colonialism,” says Athumani Mkambala, chairman of Mhaga village in rural Tanzania. “Colonialism in the form of investment.”
A quarter of the village’s land in Kisarawe district was acquired by a British biofuels company in 2008, with the promise of financial compensation, 700 jobs, water wells, improved schools, health clinics and roads. But the company has gone bust, leaving villagers not just jobless but landless as well. The same story is playing out across Africa, as foreign investors buy up land but leave some of the poorest people on Earth worse off when their plans fail.
The tale of London-based Sun Biofuels’s misadventure in Kisarawe links the broken hopes of the villagers to offshore tax havens and mysterious new owners, tracked down by the Observer, and ultimately to petrol pumps in the UK and across Europe. The final link results from the mandatory blending of biofuels into European petrol and diesel. The aim is to reduce carbon emissions, but many say biofuels actually increase pollution. The G20 meeting next week will discuss the issue, following a stark report it received in June from the World Bank, World Trade Organisation, UN and others calling for biofuels subsidies to be abandoned.
“The situation in Kisarawe is heartbreaking, but the real tragedy is that it is far from unique. Communities across Africa and beyond are losing their land as a result of the massive biofuel targets set by our government,” said Josie Cohen at development group ActionAid, which works in Kisarawe. “Like it or not, everyone who drives a car or catches a bus is involved in this problem, as all UK petrol and diesel is mixed with biofuels.”
It was the promise of this lucrative export market that led Sun Biofuels to Africa to plant jatropha, the seeds of which can be processed into biodiesel. Mkambala’s first contact with the company was in 2006 through the former Kisarawe MP, Athumani Janguo. “People trusted him. We thought all our problems would be solved,” Mkambala told the Observer. He says no compensation has been paid for the land, on which villagers used to hunt animals, gather firewood, wild mushrooms and honey.
Mhaga has no electricity, and water has to be carried each day from a well several kilometres away, back to the small mud or concrete-block houses in which 1,000 people live. “Water is everything,” says local activist Halima Ali, sitting with three of her children on the earth floor of their home. “Because they promised there would be water available, everyone was happy.” There would be more time for farming and more time for her children to go to school, she says. But the company drilled only a 6in-wide hole in the village, despite having sunk a 100m well on the plantation. “We thought something very good had come to the village, to lift our standard of life, but now we are only crying,” she says.
Sun Biofuels was the first company to come to the area and about 50 people in Mhaga rushed to take jobs at its plantation, some queueing for days for the £42-a-month salary. Saidi Abasi was one, but he was soon unhappy. He asked his employer why a promised pay rise failed to materialise. “The reply was ‘if you want to work, work. If you don’t, get out’,” he says. [….]
The thirst for biofuels to meet the UK and EU’s rising targets has led British companies to lead the charge into Africa. Half the 3.2m hectares of biofuel land identified is linked to 11 British companies, the biggest proportion of any country. ActionAid’s estimate suggests that up to 6m hectares has been acquired. But with landowners frequently illiterate and unaware of their rights, the potential for exploitation is high.
In Kisarawe, the villagers do not know if the promises will ever be kept. They feel deeply betrayed and are increasingly angry as time passes without answers. “If we have not got our rights by December, we will slash the jatropha plants,” says Mkambala. “That will be the clearest sign that we do not need this company here.”