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May 20, 2015

EcoEnergy’s massive sugarcane project has “vanished into thin air”, according to initial media reports. The Swedish government has decided to withdraw its offer to invest $100 million in the project, citing the company’s failure to meet conditions for the financing by their April 30 deadline. The decision followed the release of ActionAid’s report which revealed that the land was being grabbed without the consent of local communities, and called for the project to be suspended.

However, ending a land grab is never so simple. An article published this week by Voice of America, “Tanzanian Farmers Criticize G-7 Initiative to Boost Agriculture,” highlights the fear of displacement and uncertainty that local farmers are experiencing as a result of the EcoEnergy project, and the concern that land acquisitions like the one at Bagamoyo in Tanzania will put food security at risk in other African countries, as the G7’s ‘New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition’ gets underway.

In Tanzania, EcoEnergy’s project in Bagamoyo was supposed to be the model sugarcane plantation – one of 26 mega-farms that were mentioned in Tanzania’s New Alliance progress report. In spite of the Swedish withdrawal, EcoEnergy announced they are not giving up, and that they will seek new investors for the project which has been in the works since 2007.

But the withdrawal of the Swedish investors gives important pause for thought.

The Government of Tanzania, and the key supporters of the New Alliance such as the United States and the European Union, must use this delay to rethink their approaches to investment in agriculture and food systems.

Farmers in the Bagamoyo area could grow a wider range of crops for the region if they had access to the irrigation water that would mostly be used for sugar production under the EcoEnergy project.

Decades of under-investment

Governments have failed to adequately invest in rural communities for decades. Communities need better roads, schools, and healthcare to support sustainable livelihoods. Solar panels can provide sustainable energy for basic needs. Over time, improved living standards could be accomplished through public investments which stimulate small-scale private investments, without setting up a one company town, as would be the case in Bagamoyo.

But if I still haven’t convinced you, then how about this?

We already know that the current focus of many governments on large-scale production of sugar, palm oil, corn and soy, leads to the displacement of farming communities by investors.

Large-scale farming results in greater carbon emissions through deforestation and fossil fuel use, and increased chemical contamination. The demand for these crops is propped up by government policies encouraging the use of biofuels, which are not sustainable and risk playing havoc with global food prices.

While images of safaris, mountains, and vast open spaces may come into your head when you think of Tanzania, it doesn’t actually have that much land that’s available for foreign investors to come in and take.

Tanzania has enough farmland for families to grow food for themselves and for other Tanzanians, and they could even supply food to deficit countries. Instead of waiting with the defibrillator at the ready for the EcoEnergy project to be revived by another investor, the government and development institutions should consult with local communities and explore how farming families can continue to grow food and improve their livelihoods, without taking the risk of losing their land or running up large debts to produce for a company like EcoEnergy.