CHISUMBANJE — Angry Chisumbanje villagers last week demanded the immediate stoppage of operations by ethanol producer, Green Fuel as tempers flared during a public hearing conducted by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Youth, Indigenisation and Economic Development at the plant.
By VENERANDA LANGA
A volatile atmosphere characterised the meeting at Checheche Growth Point in Chisumbanje as visibly agitated villagers told parliamentarians in no uncertain terms that the ethanol giant should stop operations forthwith until they meet demands of communities displaced by their operations.
The villagers alleged gross human rights abuses, with some of them showing deep scars under their feet which they claimed were caused by contaminated water sources in their area — contamination they claimed was caused by chemical waste dumped by Green Fuel into their water sources.
Villagers criticised their MP, Enock Porusingazi, alleging that he was conniving with Green Fuel management to gag the displaced villagers from speaking out about the company which displaced 1 754 households and resettled only 516 since its operations began.
Some villagers alleged Porusingazi had personal interests in the ethanol project, hence his failure to deal with human rights abuses taking place in the area.
Although Green Fuel management tried to paint a rosy picture of its operations to the committee led by Zanu PF Gokwe Nembudziya legislator Justice Mayor Wadyajena, angry placard-carrying villagers sang songs and shouted insults at the company.
During the tour of the plantations by the committee, the atmosphere was evidently polluted and the water that was flowing into the community gardens and which villagers claimed was the same water they used for domestic use looked contaminated too.
Darlington Chataitirwa, a villager, said Macdom Investments (Green Fuel) took his land without engaging him in consultations, resulting in him suffering together with his family.
“I am now suffering with my children as my land was taken without any compensation,” said Chataitirwa.
A female villager Chipo Chiri-pinda added: “When they started their operations, they polluted our water sources and the water is affecting us in the eyes and our feet have developed sores. Many people in the area are heavily affected by the chemicals. They forced us out using police that beat us up, throwing teargas and arresting us.”
Vhondai Mashava alleged some traditional leaders were bribed by the company and people watched helplessly as their ancestral graves were destroyed by graders.
“When the company came into the area, we were happy and thought we were going to benefit. However, when they were taking over our fields they destroyed our maize and cotton which was ready for harvesting and even destroyed graves of our relatives.
We are no longer in good books with our local police and some chiefs and headmen because of the conflicts here. There is only one grave that they did not destroy because anyone who tried to tamper with it died,” alleged Mashava.
Mike Siduna, an affected villager said about Porusingazi: “The MP is corrupt and is benefitting from the operations of the company. Last year the MP helped them to force us to give up our plots. We used to collectively own about 5 000 hectares of land but now after being displaced we were given less than 1 000 hectares. We are hungry and even if this is a commercial project, it is not benefitting villagers and has made our lives miserable,” he said.
But, Porusingazi, who is also a member of the committee and was present during the tour, dismissed the allegations.
“This is an organised group which is here for the sake of disrupting the good work of Green Fuel. If they allege that I work with Green Fuel — yes, I work with them for developmental purposes and for the benefit of the community and my constituency which is represented by the conglomerate, the community, cattle and even donkeys. I am very much satisfied by the investment of the company and we should understand it is still growing and cannot solve all these things overnight.
“People are crying for bigger portions of land and as the company progresses, it will increase their hectarage. Let us give them time and we urge them to move with speed. I do not take sides. If they have grievances with the company’s developmental approach they should visit the office of the MP,” Porusingazi said.
At Checheche Growth Point the committee was met by almost a thousand placard-carrying angry villagers.
Green Fuel management chickened out and did not attend the public hearings for fear of their safety after noticing that the villagers were angry. Junior officials — unknown to the villagers — were sent to accompany the MPs to the public hearings.
The emotional villagers almost fought each other as they jostled to give oral evidence and tried to silence those they alleged had been bought by the company to paint a positive picture of their operations.
Wadyajena had a torrid time trying to control the crowd and the public hearings continued for about three hours with speaker after speaker saying it was better for Green Fuel to cease operations in the area as they were not of any benefit to the community, but were affecting them as many people had allegedly been affected by toxic chemicals.
A man who had deep sores claimed they were caused by a sugarcane by-product called vinasse which is used as fertiliser for the sugarcane.
“I used to work for Green Fuel at the plantation and we had no protective clothing. I have not been given compensation for the injuries,” he claimed, showing his badly injured feet.
There were two camps of villagers — one which many alleged had been paid to speak well about the company, and these numbered about 20 people, and the rest who castigated the project saying they wanted their land back.
Some villagers suggested that they should be given back their land and be allowed to do sugarcane farming while Green Fuel concentrated on ethanol production.
A representative of war veterans James Maphosa said the Chisumbanje ethanol investment was tantamount to colonisation, and villagers suggested a halt to their operations until they consulted displaced communities.
“They should not be issued with indigenisation and environmental compliance certificates until they consult the affected communities,” a villager said.
Almost all villagers who spoke had negative things to say, with fired workers union committee chairman Alton Shumba saying workers were underpaid (some US$90 per month) and worked in very unhealthy conditions.
Villagers’ livestock is said to have died due to drinking water from contaminated sources.
The few who spoke well of Green Fuel were almost beaten up and some villagers were close to tears as they narrated how they lost their homesteads, shops, grinding mills and even graves of their relatives to make way for the sugar plantation which stretches up to 9 375 hectares of cane in the ground.
Those who spoke well of the project said it was a good development which was going to change the standards of living for the community and had created employment opportunities.
Green Fuel assistant manager Raphael Gwatidzo said land was developed for community farming at a cost of US$10 million (1 060 hectares) and the company was helping alleviate water problems through irrigation schemes, as well as producing thermal electricity and stock feed to assist the community.
Company spokesperson Lillian Muungani denied the allegations that people were developing sores on their feet while working for the company and due to contaminated water sources and other chemicals.
“We have Hippo Valley Estates and Triangle Sugar Estates that are in the same line of business and using the same chemicals — and we are saying if those complaints are genuine, then they need to be backed by empirical evidence,” Muungani said.
“This project is very big and indications are that there is bound to be a peak off period. During that period many voices in the community will have different views. We are positive that very soon the community will have different stories to tell. This used to be a cotton farming area and people are not yet used to shifting from cotton to ethanol production.”
However, some headmen and chiefs in Chisumbanje — Chief Tobias Garahwa and Chief Phenias Chinyamukwakwa — said initially they were happy about the project but after Green Fuel failed to compensate the affected communities, hunger had stricken the area.
“They promised the affected communities compensation, but up to now they still have not done that. There are no roads or schools and people are hungry and have not been given any farm implements as promised. People lost their land and now there are a lot of conflicts between the company and villagers,” said Chief Chinyamukwakwa.