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Ethanol's African Land Grab

Mozambique has survived colonialism and civil war. But can it survive the ethanol industry?

driving down to the Rio dos Elefantes from Massingir along a rough track, I pass a rust-flecked sign announcing a relocation area for a community from the Limpopo park. I stop in some villages along the land ProCana has claimed and, following protocol, ask to speak to the headman in each. Everywhere, I hear versions of the same story. Yes, people from the park are coming to live with us here, but we don't know when. Yes, ProCana is taking a lot of land, but we think there will be enough for the project, the people, and their cattle. In every village, I'm told that ProCana has promised a house for the headman and jobs for others, but written evidence of those promises is nowhere to be seen.

Villagers have conflicting stories about how much land ProCana is taking; some direct me to Ernesto Bandi Ngovene, traditionally the leading headman for the whole area. I find him reclining in the shade outside his home, barely able to move after a stroke. He has not been to the disputed land for a while, does not know how to read a map, and cannot say exactly how much land has been promised to the people from the park, or to ProCana.

One afternoon I run into a couple of village elders when their headman isn't around. They say that in the middle of their negotiations with the park, ProCana came along and took all the valley's headmen away for meetings. These were not held in front of the communities or elders, as is customary. Afterward, their headman told them that he'd signed a paper giving ProCana a large piece of the village's land. They have never seen this paper. They do not want to give away their land, but ProCana came with powerful people, and they are afraid. They have been told that they have rights under the Land Law, that they can say no to ProCana, but they do not have a copy of this law. Can I please send them one?

We drive in the 4x4 into ProCana's claim. The bush rustles and sings; birds are everywhere, and the savanna is filled with gray-barked and butterfly-leafed mopane trees, some of the biggest and oldest I have ever seen. A giant baobab, centuries old, provides a backdrop for a screaming flock of parrots, while a black-breasted snake eagle hovers overhead. Holtzhausen told me his environmental people found no trees of value here—charcoal burners, he said, cut them long ago. I'm not sure where those experts looked, because here, in the perfectly cadenced afternoon light, is paradise.

I ask the Limpopo park administrators in Massingir what they made of ProCana swiping the resettlement land from under their noses. They won't say much on the record except some boilerplate about it's being a fait accompli, about the resettlement's being delayed but not scuttled, and that ProCana's 2,000 jobs could be a good thing for the region. Other locals tell me ProCana made it very clear that it had the support of "important people," including President Armando Guebuza—a millionaire politician-businessman who has his fingers in many pies and flew to Massingir to officially open the project. Ominous rumors even link Nyimpine Chissano, the late gangster son of former president Joaquim Chissano, to ProCana.

I try numerous times, to no avail, to get formal government comment on ProCana and Mozambique's broader plans for biofuels. A few administrators do agree to talk—but only in secret. "ProCana were smart," one official with intimate knowledge of the Limpopo park relocation tells me. "They approached the leader of Chitar village"—the stroke-hobbled Ngovene—"first. They made sure he said yes to the project because they knew the other chiefs in the valley would follow."

Details of land rights in the Massingir area prove hard to find, but after many quiet meetings I get my hands on several credible maps. They tell a story of cascading land chaos following ProCana's arrival. The company's claim on the Limpopo park land has left park officials scrambling to identify another place for the relocatees' cattle. They've found one—but much of this land was previously identified as a game reserve, in which a US conservation group had already allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars. The reserve project has now collapsed, and South Africans, Americans, and Mozambican military officers are claiming fragments of it for private safari operations. On one map, a big chunk of land adjacent to ProCana's carries the legend "Emelia Machel"—apparently a relative of Graça Machel. Local people tell me the Machel family keeps cattle there.

The maps make it clear that much of the land around Massingir has been allocated to two, sometimes three, different people or entities. This is widespread in Mozambique; in practice, land is owned by those who have the most influence, or the money to fence or patrol it, no matter what the documents say. Foreign governments and donor agencies—which supply fully one-half the government's budget—generally won't get involved in land disputes, even if these conflicts cause projects funded by their own donors' or taxpayers' money to go up in smoke (or into Mercedes-Benzes and Hummers for the corrupt elite). They refuse to upset the government—which, as it happens, is busy handing out rights to a string of potentially lucrative gas, oil, and coal deposits.

Carlos Castel-Branco, a respected local economist, tells me that the primary function of politicians in Mozambique is to mediate between competing private interests, including their own. They lack both the political will and the administrative capacity, he says, to build a modern state. The current land rush—for biofuel plantations, export-oriented farms, and private hunting concessions—is the first stage in a war over land that Mozambique's fragile democratic and legal systems might not survive. "The government is not politically capable of stopping this process of land speculation. People feel that the dignity of the state and of themselves has been taken away. It's not hopeless, but it's going to be a big fight."

I present a plausible nightmare scenario to ProCana's Corné Holtzhausen. His 75,000-acre farm/factory will have serious ecological impacts—lost wildlife habitat, greenhouse gases released as natural vegetation is destroyed, massive water consumption, fertilizer and pesticide pollution. On the greater scale of Africa, these might be considered small, but ProCana is not alone. What about the hundreds of other big investors who will rush in if he succeeds? Who will stop his beloved Mozambique, and much of the rest of the continent, from being turned into vast pesticide-and-fertilizer-soaked monocultures? He smiles, a great gotcha smile, and pauses. "People like you," he says. "People like you who wear cotton shirts that take 25,000 liters of water to make—you like to wear them, because they're comfortable. People like you who drive private cars and like to fly around the world in aeroplanes. The consumer. That's who determines what happens."

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