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Tension in Chipinge as Rautenbach encroaches into villagers’ land

Zimbabwe Voice Reporter

TEMPERS are high in Chisumbanje and Chinyamukwakwa as the farming season approaches amid reports that more villagers are losing their land to businessman Billy Rautenbach’s Green Fuel.

For the last decade, some residents of Chisumbanje and Chinyamukwakwa villages in Chipinge District have endured a strained relationship with their corporate neighbour, Green Fuel, which stands accused of displacing people off their native land without proper resettlement.

Rautenbach’s company commenced operations after signing a pact with the Zimbabwe government in 2009 and has since been dogged by controversy over accusations of unduely displacing villagers whose land is their only source of livelihood.

The land squabble between green fuel and Chisumbanje/Chinyamukwakwa residents reached a boiling point when Green fuel allegedly instructed its workforce to slush down farm produce for those villagers who defied instructions to stop producing on their land as it was earmarked for Green Fuel expansion.

Up to now villagers complain that nothing has been done to help the vulnerable peasant farmers whose land has been seized without proper resettlement but instead Rautenbach continues to displace more villagers from their native land.

Though some crops like maize experience humpered growth due to baking heat in the area, the rich black soils make the area very conducive for drought resistant crop like millet, sorghum, sesame and cotton that have been perennial sources of livelihood for the locals.

Green Fuel is a sugar cane based bio-ethanol plant. The biofuel project commenced as a build, operate and transfer partnership between the government represented by the Agricultural Rural Development Authority (Arda), Green Fuel Investments (headed by Rautenbach) and two other investment partners – Rating Investments and Macdom Investments.

The loaded benefits of the project to locals, the fuel industry, and adding value to the economy are frowned upon by critics who accuse Rautenbach of being a nexus for politicians. Critics of the project claim that the burdens far outweigh the benefits, especially with reports of land being taken away from local villagers.

Land is a sensitive issue in Zimbabwe that instigated the struggle for independence culminating in the first black government being installed in 1980. A protracted guerrilla war in Zimbabwe was triggered by the bitterness of how the land had been taken away from indigenous people through colonialism. The tales from the affected villages are laden with emotions and mirror the historical burden over the land issue.

This write up captures present and past views of the villagers affected by the ongoing controversial expansion of Green Fuel project. Since evictions started the situation has been so bad that some affected villagers were apparently fleeing to seek refugee in neighbouring Mozambique in frustration.

Those who remained behind are watching with grief as others prepare land for the forthcoming farming season. The situation is difficult for them to bear since they were used to make money through cash crops like sesame and cotton predominantly cultivated in the area.

Some villagers who lost their land were allocated 1.5 hactares under irrigation but others are still yet to get them, meaning they currently have no source of livelihood.
This was confirmed by local villager Mr Lovemore Muhehi who said: “…vakatotorerwa minda they have no minda at the moment (those who lost land are landless for now) except for the 0.5ha under irrigation but not all people benefited”.

Mr Muhehi described the situation in Chisumbanje/Chinyamukwakwa as bad arguing that evictions have not stopped and more people are being sent into the depth of despair as they lose their only source of livelihood.

When his family fell victim to the same evictions Muhehi thought something could be done, may be by the government for them to get a soft landing but he watched with pain as evictions continued unabated.

“…izvozvi varikuenderera mberi vachingotora (The company continues to take more land from the villagers)”, commented Muhehi.

As community members narrate, their bone of contention is not merely the coming of Green Fuel to do business in their vicinity but rather failure to introduce fair and sustainable means of survival for the locals who lost their land. Villagers accuse Green Fuel of not adhering to its promises to give community members a soft landing after losing land, which was their only source of livelihood.

Instead, the company is accused of focusing on its business expansion at the expense of the villagers and in some instances, forcibly destroyed crops, shelter and property for villagers who refused to vacate their land without proper resettlement and compensation.

The company denies this and has shared detailed information about its corporate social responsibility. Routinely the company has also helped clear roads, activities that critics argue to be tokenist in practice.

Locals confirmed that after their crops were slashed down, some villagers have given up and are seeking refuge in Mozambique.

“Gwinyiso vanhu vari kuambuka Mozambique (True, people are crossing to Mozambique) with tears after all has been taken. People are hopeless. Mozambique is not safe politically, no up to date Schools, Clinics, dip tanks”, lamented Reverend Ephraim Ngadziore, a community elder.

Some residents have reminisced on previous co-existence with the Agricultural Rural Development Authority (ARDA), lauding the parastatal as having been more friendly through offers of opportunities to support local farming as well as schools and employment opportunities among other things.

“Inini baba vangu vaishanda muARDA and you could see mabenefits … ARDA yanga ine love ARDA yaibatsira vanhu during its time. I can simply say we enjoyed our life nguwa iyoyo (My father worked in ARDA and one could see the benefits. ARDA was loving and helped people. I can simply say we enjoyed life during its time),” pours out Lovemore Muhehi as waves and waves of pent-up frustration could be perceived from his voice notes.

Residents also accuse the company of tribally segregating the locals in its employment criteria despite making them vulnerable after taking their only source of livelihood, land.

“Another problem with Green Fuel’s investment is that tribalism is rampant when it comes to employment(not only for highly skilled and technical professionals but even lowly qualified personnel)! I know several guys from this region with suitable and impressive qualifications who have failed to secure employment with the company.

“The few who happened to get it were often frustrated in one way or another. Some got fed up, packed their bags, and left. A thorough scrutiny of the company’s top management is advisable”, Onias Mabhoko submits.

We could not independently get feedback from the Public Relations arm of the company. Messages were not responded at the time of writing.

A community nember Wedzerai Gwenzi accuses Green Fuel of displacing about 40 000 people and subjecting them to hunger, contrary to the government’s Vision 2030 target for ensuring food security. As Gwenzi narrates, after realizing irregularities in Green Fuel operations the Government of National Unity (GNU) introduced Joint Ethanol Plant Implementation Committee (JEPIC) which was a tripartite forum with the government, the community and the company representatives and it was agreed that land that had been taken by green fuel was enough because ARDA owned only 5112 Hectors.

Any further expansion was supposed to go through the normal procedures and agreed upon by JEPIC members.

However, as Gwenzi explains, despite being very promising, JEPIC was disbanded by the councillors and MPs that came in after 2013 elections and corruption replaced normal business procedures until today.

Community members say they are interested in joining hands with the company under the pretext that they also benefit out of it and that is possible if the tripartite negotiating forum is resumed for their interests to be fairly considered.

Some community members claim that influential politicians have not advocated on behalf of the villagers. “It will be coward for ourselves to not mention that there is no political will in dealing with this issue (yet it is so critically needed), and the worse part is that the political arm is captured by Billy”, said Blardy Zinhuku, an economist who is also from the affected community.

Zindhuku was emotionally spitting venon on a community platform to which some of the accused politicians subscribed.

“I don’t know why are they not bothering coming to defend themselves here on these allegations or helping people on how it can be solved, let alone bringing this issue to parliament,” questioned Zinhuku.

Another key participant in negotiating on behalf of the villages, Dr Claris Madhuku blames everything on corrupt and selfish politicians. “Dialogue must not be private, Dialogue had been there already but was disbanded by greedy politicians who want to sideline community members. So the politicians must not have private Dialogue with Billy. They must have open Dialogue that involve the people whom they represent”, he fumed.

He added: “The community is powerful since it gives politicians power to rule through elections so people’s voice must be respected.”

Madhuku, who was a former community representative in the now defunct Joint ethanol plant implementation committee (JEPIC) said he believed that the government of President Mnangagwa also values the primacy of public interests being a democratic government and judging from the President’s popular confession: “the voice of the people is the voice of God”.

The land question between green fuel and Chipinge community has been an issue since the company began operating. Some believe hope may be waning. Sifiso Sithole-Barrow one of the respected elders of the community, daughter to the late founding President of ZANU, Ndabaningi Sithole believes: “Fighting worked in the past. What is required now is to be bold and talk upfront…spilling more blood than has happened already is not the solution,” she said.

Another community elder, Sinotheni Chibarirwa, also encouraged Dialogue rather than confrontation.

The bigger question has been seeking the best approach to resolve the impasse between the villagers and their giant corporate neighbour. Legal action is underway, but is this the best option? There are concerns that the laws may tilt against the villagers, primarily as the land is designated as belonging to the state.
Community elders like Sifiso Sithole doubt the legal pathway, concerned about the reliance on colonial era laws. Sithole argues that politicians are supposed to fight for the people by pushing for the removal of oppressive legislation rather than using the same laws to muzzle villagers and perpetuate oppression.

“… people still do not know that MPs who they elect are their servants. MPs serve the people and not vice versa…MPs are first and foremost members of the Legislative Council whose primary function is to review the countries laws. Are the laws in favour of the people or do they work against the people?”, Sithole says.

She said it is not proper to say the land being taken from the villagers is state land, but land-primarily belongs to the people for which the government is accountable.

“Mwari vakatipe nyika kuti tigare teshe zvakanaka (God gave us land for us to stay together well). The ownership of land is therefore vested in the PEOPLE individually and collectively, but NOT in the state or government. Government merely serves as custodian on behalf of the people to whom the land rightfully belongs”, she argues.

However, although the community accuse Green Fuel of destroying their livelihoods, some reports say the company have changed lives for the better in the area which falls under natural region 5 (where rainfall is eratic and temperatures are often baking) through development of an irrigation scheme of 0.5 hactare plots that have so far benefited more than 1000 households.

Commenting on that, Wedzerai Gwenzi says the reduction of their land to 0.5-hectare plots grossly undermined their livelihoods because not everyone benefited.

“The allocation yemaplots aina future nokuti pamhuri yese kana panga pane land iri kupiwa munhu one. Vamwe vese vari kumberi avo vari kunzi avasisipo (There is no future on how plots are being allocated because in a family only one person is allocated land and all the other family members are considered nonexistent)”, Gwenzi argues.

He added that the plots are too small to allow them to cultivate lucrative and marketable crops like sesame since they need larger plots of land and crops like beans being cultivated have no ready market.

Madhuku also blasted the 0.5 plots resolution arguing that it is totally unsustainable and recommends ougrower system that used to exist during the time of ARDA starting with 117 settler farmers who have a record of good performance during that time.

“I want to present that 0.5 ha plots are not sustainable and there is glaring evidence. The model that is sustainable is that of pushing for an outgrower model. We start with the 117 settler farmers whose record is there for all to see”, Madhuku says.

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