A homestead for some of the villagers displaced from their land by the Green Fuel ethanol plant, Zimbabwe. (Photo: Platform for Youth Development)
Amid epic drought, villagers bitter over Zimbabwean ethanol plant
by Andrew Mambondiyani
Locals allege the Green Fuel ethanol plant has grabbed land and displaced families without compensation, polluted water supplies, and failed to pay its workers — leaving them with few options in a region beset by drought.
Lyben Minyizeya’s homestead in Chisumbanje in eastern Zimbabwe resembles a dumpsite for disused tractors and other agricultural equipment. The broken and rusty machinery reminds him of the good old farming days.
In this farming community near the border with Mozambique, it is sizzling hot in summer. Baobab, acacia, and mopani trees are sparsely scattered around the area, part of Manicaland province’s lowveld grassland ecosystem.
Until recently, Chisumbanje had thriving cotton and maize farms that sustained many households. During harvesting time each year trucks carrying bales of cotton shuttled between Chisumbanje and ginneries in the city of Mutare 230 kilometers to the north. But the cotton trucks have been replaced by trucks ferrying sugarcane and ethanol, and some of the cotton fields have been turned into sugarcane plantations to feed a giant ethanol plant that became operational in 2011.
Since then the livelihood of local people, already thin, has become dire. Community members offer a litany of complaints against Green Fuel, the company that owns the plant. They say the company has grabbed land and displaced families without compensation, polluted water supplies, impounded livestock, and failed to pay its workers. Things have gotten so bad, they allege, that some women have been forced to exchange sex for access to land. The villagers’ plight has been worsened by the current El Niño-induced drought wreaking havoc on the country, which has killed most of their livestock, wiping out their main remaining source of income.
“I lost my land to Green Fuel. And my source of income is long gone. I am no longer able to send my children to school and feed my family,” Minyizeya told Mongabay.
A homestead for some of the villagers displaced from their land by the Green Fuel ethanol plant. Photo courtesy of Platform for Youth Development.A homestead for some of the villagers displaced from their land by the Green Fuel ethanol plant. Photo courtesy of Platform for Youth Development.
Green Fuel is a joint venture between two private Zimbabwean companies, Macdom Investments and Rating Investments, and the Zimbabwean government’s agricultural development arm, the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority (ARDA). The project is comprised of more than 9,000 hectares (34 square miles) of sugarcane fields and an ethanol plant forecast to cost approximately $600 million upon completion in 2020.
With the capacity to produce up to 120 million liters of ethanol per year and 18 megawatts of electricity, according to the state newspaper The Herald, it is reportedly one of the biggest ethanol projects in Africa and the only one in Zimbabwe.
Part of the Green Fuel ethanol plant in Chisumbanje, Zimbabwe. Photo by Kenneth Matimaire.
Complaints pile up
But locals and advocates say the project has brought a myriad of problems to as many as 10,000 villagers in Chisumbanje and its environs. They say that while the company acquired 5,112 hectares (20 square miles) of land legally from ARDA, it grabbed more than 4,000 additional hectares (15 square miles) of agricultural land from villagers without compensating them as agreed. And they fear the villagers will lose more land as company sugarcane fields are slated to expand to 45,000 hectares (174 square miles) by 2020.
“I used to produce up to 900 bales of cotton per season but the land is gone now,” Minyizeya said.
The future looks grim to another Chisumbanje villager, Muchatiroto Mashava, a polygamist who lost around 250 hectares of his land to Green Fuel. Polygamy is common in Chisumbanje, where children and wives are considered a workforce in the labor-intensive cotton fields.
With 18 wives and over 80 children, Mashava has no source of income other than his land.
“I used to employ up to 100 local people but our land was taken by the ethanol company,” Mashava told Mongabay. “I was given only three small plots measuring half a hectare as compensation. My children are now scattered everywhere looking for employment,” he said.
Agricultural equipment at the Green Fuel ethanol plant. Photo by Kenneth Matimaire.Agricultural equipment at the Green Fuel ethanol plant. Photo by Kenneth Matimaire.
Claris Madhuku, director of a local pressure group called Platform for Youth Development (PYD) that has been working with the affected villagers since 2009, told Mongabay that villagers will continue to resist the project until their land has been returned or they are adequately compensated.
Madhuku further contended that the project failed to comply with the country’s economic indigenization law requiring local control of foreign companies, as well as various environmental laws.
A chief complaint is the project’s impact on local water quality. “The project has caused water pollution as the company is discharging toxic waste in the water system. This has resulted in diseases,” Madhuku said.
The polluted water has allegedly killed livestock and aquatic life and has reportedly caused partial blindness and sores on the feet of people who come into contact with it.
He said the project remains secretive in its operations and has been highly politicized, with the ruling party defending it while the opposition parties are perceived to be against the project.
Madhuku and others, including one of the area’s members of parliament, Prosper Mutseyami, also contend that Green Fuel has been abusing its labor force.
“There has been wanton arrests of people highlighting the negative impacts of the project, including the underpayment and exploitation of workers who had gone for six months without being paid” as of May 2016, Madhuku said. “When they ask for their pay, the military and riot police come and beat them up. The community is living in fear.”
The latest round of worker grievances emerged this month when a group of fired truck drivers claimed the company dismissed them surrepititously after they tried to advocate for witheld pay and better working conditions, according to New Zimbabwe. The workers also alledged overt racism among the company’s mostly white management.
A local villager named Wedzerai Gwenzi reportedly told delegates at a meeting in Harare this spring that poverty had become so entrenched in Chisumbanje as a result of the Green Fuel project that poor women were forced to exchange sexual favors with unscrupulous traditional leaders and others for pieces land.
Villagers affected by the Green Fuel plant during a meeting in Chisumbanje. Photo courtesy of Platform for Youth Development.
Government takes note
Villagers and advocates aren’t the only ones paying attention. The plant has caused a scandal nationally.
Chisumbanje residents’ grievances were captured in a September 2012 cabinet report by the deputy prime minister at the time, Arthur Mutambara. While praising the project as “a national project of great strategic importance,” a press release from Mutambara accompanying the report detailed numerous “community and social issues” resulting from the project.
It called on Green Fuel to compensate households for displacement, lost crops, and lost livestock, and to install a water purification system for contaminated water and employ more locals, among other recommendations that it said “must be implemented with urgency.”
Zimbabwe’s former Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara addresses villagers affected by the Green Fuel plant. Photo courtesy of Platform for Youth Development.Zimbabwe’s former Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara addresses villagers affected by the Green Fuel plant. Photo courtesy of Platform for Youth Development.
Two years later, in July 2014, a committee composed of members of parliament — called the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Youth, Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment —undertook a follow-up investigation that documented that many of the contentious issues remained unresolved, including the compensation for land taken from villagers.
The committee observed in its report that villagers’ accusations that Green Fuel discharged toxic waste into their water sources was backed up by the government’s Environmental Management Agency (EMA).
“EMA provided the committee with evidence (backed by an independent expert) that Green Fuel is illegally discharging millions of litres daily of harmful and acidic effluent …from its plant into the environment,” the report states.
The report further notes that Macdom Investments and Rating Investments had a 90 percent stake in Green Fuel while the remaining 10 percent was owned by ARDA, even though the law requires that local investors — in this case ARDA — have a 51-percent stake.
Sugarcane for the Green Fuel ethanol plant in Chisumbanje. Photo courtesy of Platform for Youth Development.
The local member of parliament Prosper Mutseyami told Mongabay that many local villagers initially had high hopes that Green Fuel would bring much-needed development to the area.
“People have lost hope. We no longer expect any benefits from the project,” Mutseyami said.
He claimed that there had been a spike in road accidents in the area caused by trucks carrying sugarcane from the plantations to the plant.
His claim is backed by the parliamentary committee’s report, which noted community complaints that Green Fuel’s drivers had caused 15 fatal accidents involving children.“Members of the community said the company did not even have the courtesy to assist with burial costs but arrogantly referred parents of the victims to its lawyers,” the report said.
Green Fuel spokesperson Ropafadzo Gwanetsa did not respond to Mongabay’s numerous requests for comment on the various complaints and allegations, even after requesting and receiving questions submitted in writing.
However, during a tour of the area last fall the Minister of State for Manicaland Province, Mandi Chimene, reportedly alleged that some villagers had confiscated and vandalized the company’s machinery and even attacked Green Fuel workers.
ARDA’s board chairman, Basil Nyabadza, has maintained that the disputes in Chisumbanje must be handled amicably.
“If there are problems lets engage each other and discuss,” the news website New Zimbabwe quoted him as telling villagers while urging calm late last year.
Suspicions of corruption
Controversy has also swirled around Muller Conrad (aka Billy) Rautenbach, the wealthy Zimbabwean businessman financing Green Fuel through Macdom Investments and Rating Investments, both of which he owns.
In 2008, Rautenbach was sanctioned by the U.S. treasury department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control for allegedly providing financial and logistical support to President Mugabe’s repressive regime. However, in 2014 the U.S. lifted the restrictions against the tycoon.
In 2013, Rautenbach used his political connections to bully the Ministry of Energy and Power Development to introduce mandatory fuel blending. As a result, all petrol now sold in the country is mixed with 15 percent ethanol from the country’s sole ethanol producer, Green Fuel.
Then this April, while farmers affected by the Green Fuel project sank deeper into poverty, Rautenbach was named in the Panama Papers as having offshore accounts related to other business interests that could potentially have been used to evade taxes. (He was one of 280 Zimbabweans named in the scandal.)
The revelation stoked widespread condemnation, prompting the opposition political party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), to call on the government to investigate Rautenbach and others.
The PDP is led by Tendai Biti, who during his tenure as finance minister between 2009 and 2013 raised questions about Green Fuel’s land deals, according to New Zimbabwe.
In an interview with Mongabay, PDP spokesperson Jacob Mafume insisted that an investigation into Rautenbach’s financial activities be launched in the wake of the Panama Papers revelations. “As a small country we cannot afford to lose money at the scale mentioned in those papers,” Mafume said.
In May the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe launched an investigation into companies illegally stashing money overseas, including those named in the Panama Papers, according to the Sunday Mail.
A call for land
Yet nearly four months after the Panama Papers revelation, it remains to be seen whether Rautenbach’s financial dealings will be subject to further investigation by Zimbabwean authorities. And two years after the parliamentary committee’s recommendation that Green Fuel should adequately compensate the villagers for their land, nothing has been done and the government has remained silent on the villagers’ plight.
Instead of compensation, some of the affected villagers want their land back. Many have a strong attachment to their land, which is often passed from generation to generation.
Seventy-four-year-old Robinson Nyakurwa could not hide his anger over the loss of his land — 20 hectares expropriated by Green Fuel.
“I want my land back, not their money,” a visibly bitter Nyakurwa told Mongabay at a local business center.
Nyakurwa remains optimistic that that might one day happen. For now, however, he is unsure whether his family will survive the next 12 months. They are teetering on the brink of starvation resulting from the current devastating drought.