In yet another twist to a long-running land dispute in Zimbabwe’s Manicaland province, controversial white Zimbabwean businessperson Billy Rautenbach has been accused by black peasant farmers of impoverishing them by impounding their livestock and demanding thousands of dollars in fines.
At the centre of the dispute is the $600-million Green Fuel ethanol plant launched by Rautenbach in 2009 in Chisumbanje.
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Villagers say the project, a partnership between Green Fuel and the state-owned Agricultural and Rural Development Authority, entailed 9 400 hectares of land being seized to grow sugar cane to feed the ethanol plant. The villagers allege that with the rural development authority’s collaboration, the company was allowed to overstep the land granted to it by the parastatal and encroach on what was communal property.
According to a letter sent by lobby group Platform for Youth Development Trust to the Zimbabwean Parliament, 1 700 households, amounting to some 10 000 people, have been displaced.
Further displacements may be on the cards, because Rautenbach says he will need a total of 45 000 hectares for cane production when the factory is at full capacity.
Green Fuel spokesperson Nicole Rautenbach did not answer her telephone when amaBhungane tried to contact her for comment. She did also not respond to questions emailed to her on Monday.
In the latest development, the villagers say Green Fuel has been impounding livestock on the disputed land, including cattle and donkeys, and holding them in massive kraals from which they are only released after paying a fine of $4 for each beast.
They complained to amaBhungane that this has imposed further strain on their livelihoods, which have been hard hit by this year’s drought.
“Raising money to pay the fine is all the more difficult because we experienced poor harvests this year and we are even struggling to feed our families,” said Naison Mudhluli, a villager who claimed he was forced to ask for $56 from relatives to pay for eight cattle held by the company for two days.
Small-scale farmers say Rautenbach, with the blessing of Zimbabwe’s rural development agency, is encroaching on communal property to produce sugar cane for his company’s ethanol plant. (Martin Bureau/AFP)
AmaBhungane has seen a copy of a receipt that Mudhluli claims he was issued by Green Fuel after he paid the fine.
Another villager, Taurai Mubhongo, said that one of her cows had gone missing after having been impounded by the company. She said she had recovered only one of two animals that were impounded after paying a $12 fine.
“I’m appealing for help in recovering my beast,” Mubhongo said, adding: “The impounding of cattle should be outlawed.”
The practice of impounding livestock found on the disputed land is not new. It was extensively applied between 2010 and 2012, when $4 a day was charged for each animal impounded.
During that time, the company pursued other strategies to deal with “trespassing” livestock, allegedly including making the owners work on the Green Fuel sugar plantations when they could not afford to pay fines. They were also alleged to have organised auctions to dispose of animals whose owners failed to cough up.
“What the company is failing to appreciate is that in rural areas, people’s wealth is invested in livestock. Destroying people’s wealth in this manner is disheartening, considering that this is our source of livelihood,” said a villager, Oliver Chikumba, at the time.
Chikumba also claimed that the company auctioned livestock for a song, with cattle going for as little as $30 a head and donkeys for $3 each. Cattle are known to fetch up to $500 in rural Zimbabwe.
Resident Claris Madhuku accused the company of sidelining the wider community and dealing only with the district administrator (DA) and the local chief who, he claimed, could be paid off.
“Green Fuel should have consulted villagers who own the cattle, but what they are continuously doing is hand-picking one or two people to deal with, like the DA and the chief. They also say in their defence that part of the money goes to the district council and the chief. So the DA and the chief are among the beneficiaries.”
Madhuku called on the government to intervene, saying Green Fuel should not be allowed to punish people in cases where boundary disputes have not been resolved.
“When the boundary issues have been resolved, Green Fuel must erect a fence around their property. But they cannot do that now because that issue has not been resolved.
“We are appealing to Parliament and Cabinet to clarify the issue before it starts raining. Now we are in September, and next month people will be going to their fields,” Madhuku said.
Local MP Enoch Porusingazi, of the ruling Zanu-PF party, told amaBhungane that “discussions are under way to resolve the issue amicably”.
He said he is optimistic that all outstanding issues will be resolved in time for the start of the agricultural season next month.
“No one will be a loser. It is important that Green Fuel carries on with its expansion project while villagers benefit as well,” Porusingazi added.
Zimbabwe’s land dispute
Green Fuel’s latest moves suggest a hardening stance on the land dispute. In a report earlier this year, Parliament’s indigenisation and empowerment portfolio committee recommended that the long-running conflict should be resolved by consultation and negotiation.
“The committee recommends that Agricultural and Rural Development Authority board chairperson Basil Nyabadza must clarify the issue of land ownership … and that the audit on land, buildings, livestock, crops, family sizes and business enterprises lost to make way for the project be expedited to facilitate meaningful and realistic compensation before the 2015 farming season,” reads part of the report.
Zanu-PF legislator Mayor Wadyajena, who headed the parliamentary committee, could not be reached. However, a secretary to the committee, who identified herself as “Ms Zenda”, told amaBhungane that “we have to wait to know how the minister will respond to the report when Parliament resumes sitting this week”.
Nyabadza told amaBhungane recently that Green Fuel has different priorities centred on maintaining production “to make savings on the country’s import bill”.
The land and livestock issues are only part of Rautenbach’s conflict with the local community, whose members also accuse him of reneging on promises to give them a stake in sugar cane production as contract farmers.
They have also complained that he has failed to provide the promised jobs in his company and has been polluting rivers with effluent from the ethanol plant.
Nicole Rautenbach did not respond to questions about the alleged impounding of livestock, or to earlier queries about the land dispute and whether steps had been taken to carry out the recommendations of the portfolio committee.
In the past, Rautenbach has responded by saying that the plant has created employment, with more than 50% of the workforce being drawn from the local community. A company representative also told the parliamentary committee that Green Fuel had also given local villagers irrigable plots of land half a hectare in area.
Parliament supported the pollution claims, finding that “Green Fuel is illegally discharging millions of litres daily of harmful and acidic effluent (vinasse) from its plant into the environment”.
Agriculture Minister Joseph Made did not respond to calls to his cellphone.
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.