Beyond Green Fuel expansion project, resentment echoes

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CHIPINGE – It is midday on a Friday. Journalists on a guided tour of the Green Fuel-run Chisumbanje estates are becoming restless due to the sweltering heat.

The expansive 8 000-hectare sugar cane green fields situated in one of Zimbabwe’s most arid regions provides throughput to one of Africa’s largest ethanol plants and plans are afoot to increase the hectrage.

But not everyone is happy about this project. While officials explain how this multi-million-dollar project will not only improve the economic fortunes of the southern African nation, but also fit into the increasingly growing climate change agenda, a group of five middle-aged women sitting on one of the irrigation equipment eagerly follow the proceedings from a distance.

Curious, The NewsHawks team gets closer to them while the tractor driver lays down drip irrigation pipes to prepare for the next crop.

After exchanging pleasantries, two things are easily noticeable — the popular Ndau dialect spoken in the district and a woman donning an old MDC T-shirt in a country where expressing one’s political views in a rural set up is often met with intimidation, threats of violence and, at times, death.

As the conversation continues, growing resentment becomes palpable. After working for Billy Rautenbach’s Green Fuel company for 12 years, there is despair and disgruntlement over long-standing land disputes.

“Hunger is stalking most of us… our wages are not enough to sustain our families,” the woman wearing an opposition T-shirt says, breaking the ice before her peers join in to express their displeasure.

After being asked to express their views on Green Fuel’s plans to partner villagers in its sugarcane out-grower scheme, she said:“ Not everyone has benefited after being displaced during the project. As it stands, it’s those close to the Mutapes (village herds) who are benefitting and it’s unfair.”

The simmering tensions of these villagers amplify that of hundreds of families in Chinyamukwaka who were displaced from swathes of land managed by the state-owned Agricultural Rural Development Authority (Arda) for the ethanol project.

The project, which was heralded as a key import substitution option for a net importer like Zimbabwe, has been at the centre of controversy for years. Conrad Rautenbach, Green Fuel general manager and son to Billy, says mis-communication and politics almost derailed this project at its inception and remains optimistic that the longstanding disputes will be resolved.

Probably not, for now. Green Fuel says it has invested US$10 000 in providing sources of water per hectare, with 1 000 hectares designated for the community.

According to Rautenbach, the entire project has seen US$300 million invested since launch in 2009. Pressure groups and critics alike say the villagers have now been confined to small pieces of land from the over a hectare they used to hold.

Green Fuel, a joint venture between the state-run Agricultural and Rural Development Authority (Arda) and the Rautenbach family, says the villagers are more productive on the small tracts of land as they have access to irrigation and can no longer rely on rain-fed agriculture. Since its inception in 2010, Green Fuel, a key player for mandatory fuel blending, has been engaged in legal wrangles with locals.

A local non-governmental organisation, Youth Platform for Community Development and lawyer Lovemore Madhuku have over the years resisted the displacement of villagers from an area they describe as their ancestral land.

But the company says the families had trespassed onto Arda land which it has been given under the joint venture. In an attempt to pacify the potentially explosive situation ahead of the 2023 general elections, the Rautenbachs, key allies of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, have rolled out a small-scale irrigation scheme for some of the villagers.

“I think a lot of disputes in the past were because of misinformation, maybe some of it was political,” Rautenbach told The NewsHawks on the side-lines of the handover of 253 plots to families in Chipinge South last Saturday.

“It was not Green Fuel; it was political and now it has been fixed and l think the community realises we deliver on our promise and we have got a very good relationship not only on the land but on schemes and also there is a lot of different community projects that we do.”

Before this compromise, villagers who will now get an acre of land would practice farming activities such as cotton growing on up to 150 hectares of land.

Joseph Mashava of Chinyamukwakwa area in Chipinge South, the only villager who was cited as the beneficiary of the new irrigation scheme, says he lost 150 hectares of family land and was replaced with a one-acre plot.

Mashava, who has 14 wives and several children, says over the years he laboured to produce two bales of cotton before his land was seized, but his yield has since increased to 4.8 bales on a one-acre plot.

As land disputes rage on, Agriculture minister Anxious Masuka, sprang to the defence of the Green Fuel project, saying the investment is key to the economy.

“The value of Green Fuel to our country is that every year it produces 80 million litres of ethanol which is ferried to Harare that will be blended with imported petrol to make it E20 petrol,” Masuka told Chinyamukwakwa villagers on Saturday.

“Green Fuel is a very important company in the country, that is why we will not tolerate disrupters. If we hear that Green Fuel has been disrupted from producing we start to question, wapindwa nemweya waLegion here? (Have you been possessed by the spirit of Legion?). Please reprimand each other against daydreaming and do not try to disturb national programmes.”

The acres, which form part of Green Fuel’s 40-hectare investment in the Chisumbanje area, occupy previously contested land in the lowveld, where villagers had been demanding compensation before development by the fuel company.

This land wrangle together with other fiercely contested commercial projects which have resulted in the displacement of villagers has brought into sharp focus the politics around Zimbabwe’s land tenure rights.

Chipinge South constituency is situated in Zimbabwe’s agro-ecological region five where average daily temperature can go up to 43 degrees Celsius and the area receives less than 500 millilitres of rain each season.

— NewsHawks

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