The world's quest for crops to produce biofuels has triggered a wave of controversial land acquisitions in Tanzania as foreign companies jostle for land that villagers and indigenous people claim as theirs.
Aid groups have accused investors backed by the government of grabbing swathes of village land to set up biofuel projects in the country's Coast Region.
"To state it bluntly, most of the lands that the government wishes to see developed will need to be taken away from the villagers and leased to investors," Doug Hertzler, a senior policy analyst with ActionAid USA, told the World Bank's annual conference on land and poverty in Washington DC, in late March.
Land tensions in Tanzania indicate that the country has insufficient state land to run commercial agricultural schemes, Hertzler added. "Given the push to get villages to agree to give up land to investors, there's a real risk that some villages will give up land without being compensated," he warned.
Biofuel advocates in Africa maintain that growing crops for fuel can help fight climate change, bridge energy deficits and generate incomes for local people. But critics say it removes food from hungry mouths, and leaves communities worse off.
"The expansion of biofuels ... is transforming forests and natural vegetation into fuel crops, taking away food-growing farmland from communities, and creating conflicts with local people over land ownership," said Mariann Bassey, a food campaigner with Friends of the Earth Nigeria.
Tanzanian law means that foreigners must acquire land through the Tanzania Investment Centre (TIC). But some firms are avoiding the official process and negotiating directly with locals according to Atakilte Beyene, a researcher who took part in a study on biofuels in Tanzania published by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) last year.
In Rufiji and Bagamoyo districts, a number of biofuel companies - including Swedish-owned Agro EcoEnergy which plans to grow sugar cane for ethanol - are embroiled in disputes over land use.
Local farmers in Rufiji complain that district officials have ordered them to vacate their land to pave the way for investors, often without receiving fair compensation.
"I had three acres of land where I could grow fruit (and) I also had access to more land where I could grow food crops, but ever since these companies came, I have not been able to access it," Riziki Mtongoni from Nyamwengwe village told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Villagers say most people who have moved to make way for investors have been offered only small amounts of poor-quality land in return.
Jumanne Kikumbi from Nyamisati village accused district leaders of double standards. "We are put in a vulnerable position - these investors have been making key land-use decisions without consulting us," he said.
According to the Village Land Act 1999, village councils have the power to decide how to use their land. Once a piece of land has been identified for investment, the village authorities must gain permission from the people before it can be transferred to the "general" land category and leased.
Villagers in Rufiji and Bagamoyo accuse district officials of colluding with investors to influence village council decisions and then taking their land without fair compensation.
Africa Green Oil Limited, for example, approached Nyamatanga village in 2007 after consulting with the district council, telling villagers it needed 1,500 hectares to grow biofuel crops like sugar cane, jatropha and oil palm.
After a village meeting, the company was allowed to take the land in return for providing a school, a dispensary, a clinic and water supply.
When villagers later complained to the TIC that the promises had not been met, they were told the government was not aware the company had started investing. It finally withdrew and handed back the land to villagers, they said.
A senior land officer in Rufiji district, Leo Rwegasira, denied allegations of "land grabbing". "The problem with the land policy is that it sets a one-time compensation modality without considering the value of land that increases with time," he said.
Analysts say the way foreign investors have operated not only undermines their credibility but also creates tensions with local people who need land for farming, fishing and grazing.
"In a situation where a land-use plan is not yet done, and where the investor foots the cost (of a plan), villagers risk losing their rights to prompt and fair compensation," said Godfrey Massay, a researcher with the Dar es Salaam-based Land Rights Research and Resources Institute (HakiArdhi).
Massay told Thomson Reuters Foundation the problem will get worse unless the government makes an effort to plug holes in its existing land policy. "There's no doubt there will be more land grabbing if the government keeps protecting investors who violate human rights," he said.
In response to questions, EcoEnergy managing director Anders Bergfors pointed to the company's website which states it has obtained land that will be used for a sugar cane estate in a transparent manner. A 25 percent share in the venture will be allocated to the Tanzanian government and local communities, who will also take part in production.
In Tanzania, all land is the property of the state, vested with the president who acts as a trustee on behalf of the people. The country has 70 percent village land, 28 percent reserve land and 2 percent general land. Individuals can own land through rights granted by the state.
According to TIC guidelines, any investor must present a business plan, before applying for land which TIC can allocate from its land bank. The investor is then introduced to the respective village, through the district land officer, and presents a proposal to the village council. If accepted, a process of land mapping is undertaken to identify, demarcate and value the land.
Analysts say the problem is that, once village land has been leased to investors, local people no longer have legal rights pertaining to it until ownership returns to the village, normally after a 99-year lease.
The 2013 SEI study, entitled Biofuel Production and its Impacts on Local Livelihoods in Tanzania, suggested that national policies on land-use planning have created ambiguities that are likely to be exploited by powerful investors.
While companies are well aware of legal arrangements, villagers do not fully understand that transferring land to the TIC for lease to investors means they could lose their rights for a long period of time, the study said.
'NOTHING LIKE LAND GRABBING'
In an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation, Adam Nyaruhuma, a senior official in Tanzania's ministry of lands, housing and human settlement development, dismissed land grabbing allegations as "mere speculation" propagated by activists.
Nyaruhuma said government policy on large-scale land acquisitions has always been clear and has followed procedure.
"There's nothing like land grabbing in our country - every single piece of land that is assigned to investors is acquired in a transparent manner. Under no circumstances has the government favoured investors at the expense of the people," he said.
With large-scale investments, village land must be transferred to "general" land before it can be granted to the TIC, which then leases it to investors.
"To protect communities and their customary land, the transfer of village land to general land requires participation of all village members through the village assembly. It also requires approval by the commissioner for lands, the minister for lands and the president," Nyaruhuma explained.
Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam. He reports on governance, corruption and climate change.