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At TICAD, clumsy diplomacy mars controversial Japanese aid project in Mozambique

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By Dreux Richard

During a development forum with the president of Mozambique and several of his ministers in Yokohama on Sunday, one observer asked whether the president was aware of an open letter that a delegation of Mozambican peasant farmers had presented to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday; the letter raises concerns about a development scheme funded by Japanese aid organizations.

In response, Minister of Transport Paolo Zucula pointed out that the letter suggested shadowy interests – after all, farmers in Mozambique are mostly illiterate. Caught between the fumble and an incredulous audience, the forum’s interpreter could only equivocate.

The blunder was the latest in a series of mishandlings that have turned one of Japan’s most ambitious aid efforts in Africa, the ProSavana project, into a magnet for criticism and controversy. ProSavana aims to turn Mozambique’s most populous geographical corridor into a global breadbasket by making millions of hectares of land available to multinational agribusiness firms, who are in turn expected to cultivate commodity crops for export. The project is modeled on the unprecedented transformation agribusiness has effected in Brazil’s Cerrado savanna, and Brazil is the third partner in the three party plan.

ProSavana faces opposition from a coalition of Mozambican farmers’ unions and civil society groups who sent their own delegation to TICAD this weekend. They claim that Japan’s aid apparatus, which is financing and implementing much of the project, has failed to solicit adequate community input, and that the project’s details weren’t presented to its supposed beneficiaries until this March, when the coalition requested a meeting with JICA. For coalition member Antonio Muagerene, who has been reading about his home region’s forthcoming fate in newspapers for years, the notion of Japanese aid agencies treating his nation’s farmland like a jigsaw puzzle is unnerving. “These are our lives you’re talking about,” he said on Sunday.

Muagerene, a civil society organizer in one of the Mozambican provinces targeted by ProSavana, takes personally the suggestion that Mozambique’s small farms are ineffective by design. At age seven, he purchased his first school supplies with money earned from a modest peanut patch his parents had given him to cultivate. His parents later paid for his college education with their farm’s modest revenues. He points out that some of the rhetoric underlying the ProSavana sales pitch is schizophrenic: aid donors seem fond of mentioning that Mozambique’s farms aren’t productive enough to feed the nation, but the ProSavana plan would encourage the cultivation of commodity export crops, very few of which would be sold by Mozambican companies or consumed within the country.

Insofar as aid donors are prescribing a strategy that would result in increased commodity exports, Mozambique finds itself in a situation much like the one faced by the government of Malawi in 2005, when Malawi defied the international aid community and instituted ‘smart’ fertilizer subsidies that favored the nation’s most impoverished small-scale farmers. The subsidies were a radical success, and as Malawi’s once-famished food supply improved, so did key human development indicators, including overall life expectancy – improvements which have eluded countries that have embraced agribusiness, and which are particularly difficult to come by in Africa, where growing GDPs have done little to budge quality of life indicators. Mozambique provides a particularly trenchant example: a 7.4% annual increase in GDP has been accompanied by downward trends in several human development indicators, remarkable for a nation that already sits near the bottom of most human development indexes.

On Sunday, I spoke with a member of Malawi’s delegation to TICAD, who asked that his name be withheld because he had not been authorized to comment on ProSavana. “Given what we’ve learned in Malawi, to even consider the implementation of this plan in its current, corporatized form is profoundly naive. It has nothing to do with food security in Mozambique and everything to do with the end of cheap land in Brazil; agriculture companies need a new source of cheap land to exploit.” he said.

Muagerene says the farmers’ coalition isn’t trying to prevent the implementation of ProSavana or discourage investment, but to create an adequate space for community input and the discussion of potential consequences. According to Sayaka Funada-Classen, a Tokyo University of Foreign Studies professor who has facilitated the coalition’s access to Japanese aid organizations, those potential consequences include land conflicts, urban drift and the loss of indigenous farming methods. “We’ve already seen this process begin,” she said on Sunday. “A land rush followed the project’s [initial] announcement, and the arrival of some large soybean producers has accelerated deforestation.”

At least some of these fears were confirmed in April, when a draft of the ProSavana master plan leaked. The draft called for rooting out local farming practices that might complicate the establishment of large-scale industrial farms. The leak also led to another series of fumbles in institutional diplomacy. Despite having already publicly disclosed portions of the draft’s contents, JICA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs began to disavow any knowledge of the leaked document’s origins.

According to Funada-Classen, coalition members detected a familiar note of neocolonial paternalism in the mishandling of the leak. “MoFA's attitude is ‘Oh, these poor, starving people. We have to save them because they’re incapable of helping themselves,” she said. For his part, Muagerene doesn’t object to the notion that Mozambique needs Japan’s help, but to the ProSavana plan’s methodology. “Unbridled investment in a nation with weak institutions will not benefit the people. We want a plan that will not just provide capital, but which will actually improve the well-being of Mozambicans.”

Read more stories by Dreux Richard. -- Nigerian government looks to Japan’s private sector for energy solutions -- Foreigners join weekly protest against nuclear energy: who they are and why they went -- The only phase-out we can afford

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Yesterday it was China grabbing land from poor and defenseless African peasants in the name of development, now is Japan. Who is holier than other? The answer is: no one, both are there to help themselves at the expenses of illiterate African peasants

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Sounds like the tip of the iceberg. Once they get in, it's going to be hard to get them out let alone feed yourself. They will be exporting all the products from the farm but none will be Mozambican!

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It is a well known fact that Japanese foreign aid benefits major Japanese corporations. This should not be a big surprise to anyone. In case of Mozambique, Japan Inc., is taking land for farming and exporting the products which will not help the Mozambicans except a very few in high places. You can bet that the local farmers will be let out in the cold.

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