Mozambique won’t be Mato Grosso

Local produce: small farmers grow much of Mozambique’s food, but ProSavana’s cash crops would be mainly for export By Adrien Barbier · AFP · Getty

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In the Mozambican village of Nakarari, deep in the bush of the Mutuali district, 2,000km north of Maputo, 40 villagers were meeting under a mango tree; children played around them, jumping with excitement whenever a fruit dropped. The villagers were hoping that a popular movement centred on Nakarari had dealt a fatal blow to Africa’s biggest agro-industrial programme, ProSavana.

This meeting was the latest in a long series. Village secretary Agostinho Mocernea, whose sun-baked face and calloused hands showed he had spent many years working the land, was adamant: ‘I still say we can’t trust the government. We must continue to say no.’He handed the meeting over to the representatives of small farmers’ associations who were visiting from neighbouring towns. Dionísio Mepoteia, 40, of the national farmers’ union UNAC, said: ‘The government is at an impasse. We have won a historic victory. We have prevented the pillage of our land, and reasserted that it belongs exclusively to us, to the people who have farmed it for generations. It is only because we are united that we achieved this. We must remain united.’ Mepoteia regularly tours rural communities to keep them up to date with developments in the city, as in this part of Mozambique, the Internet is non-existent, and mobile phone coverage is patchy.

Agricultural land rush

ProSavana began as a joint project of the government of Mozambique, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Brazilian Cooperation Agency (ABC), aiming to develop commercial agriculture in the Nacala corridor, which includes 19 districts in three northern provinces. The area covers 14m hectares and is considered suitable for cash crops such as soya, cotton and maize, to be sold on global markets. It has rail links to the port of Nacala, on the Indian Ocean, which would make it easy to ship produce to China.

ProSavana is part of the agricultural land rush that began in the southern hemisphere, especially Sub-Saharan Africa, after the global food crisis of 2008 (1), when basic foodstuffs doubled or tripled in price. Investors and speculators in search of a quick return are eager to acquire land for large-scale production. Besides major agrifood groups, they include brokerage firms, hedge funds and investment funds, set up by people who used to work for banks such as Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch (2). From Ethiopia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from Senegal to Sudan, hundreds of millions of hectares have been bought to grow crops, not for domestic consumption but for the more profitable export market (3). ProSavana has little to do with the local economy, and according to Olivier De Schutter, a former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, it reduces land to a commodity, taking no account of its importance to small rural producers (4).

Mozambique is a huge country (799,000 sq km) with a relatively small population (28 million), and has become an investment destination of choice in this land rush. At an international conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2010, agriculture minister José Pacheco was offering land, on a 50-year lease, for only $1 a hectare: ‘That’s the price we’re asking, because we believe in shared development. We must work together to create a new green revolution’ (5).

Behind the fashionable idea of South-South cooperation ‘in the service of development’, ProSavana reversed traditional relations of production, turning small farmers into subcontractors to big business, and Mozambique into a global export hub for agro-industrial products. The programme was created in 2009 at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, during private meetings between Japan’s prime minister Taro Aso and Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and aimed to reproduce a famous experiment: the transformation between 1970 and 1990 of the cerrado (humid tropical savannah) in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state into the world’s most productive soybean growing area. This was achieved with the help of Japanese engineers, and a substantial loan from the Japanese government. ProSavana drew inspiration from this example, seeking to develop northern Mozambique with the help of Brazilian technology, and entrusting the marketing of its produce to Japanese companies, especially in Asia.

World leaders praised the programme from the start. At the 2011 High Level Forum on aid effectiveness, in Busan, South Korea, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the efforts of ‘emerging economies that are embracing the responsibility to help solve shared challenges.’ Bill Gates, who sponsors development programmes in Africa through the Gates Foundation, called it ‘forging innovative partnerships’ (6).

GV Agro’s master plan

Working behind the scenes was GV Agro, a consulting firm linked to the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a Brazilian thinktank and higher education institution. GV Agro is headed by former Brazilian agriculture minister Roberto Rodrigues, a champion of agro-industrial development in tropical Africa, who also works as a consultant for Vale, which mines coal in the Tete area. Rodrigues is said to be behind the idea for ProSavana: he was first to draw the parallel between Mato Grosso and northern Mozambique, and to have the idea of developing monocultures in these ‘unexploited’ lands (7). He also organised field trips for potential investors from Brazil.

GV Agro drew up ProSavana’s master plan and established its funding mechanisms. The programme was launched with an initial investment of $38m from the Brazilian and Japanese governments, but relied on support from an ad hoc fund, the Nacala Fund, which hoped to attract $2bn of private investment. The fund’s stated aim was to generate long-term returns for investors by stimulating local and regional economic development. Mozambique and Japan also established a ProSavana Development Initiative Fund to support different models of participation for small farmers.

These plans for rural transformation and development were drawn up far away from the small farmers who actually live in the region. Jeremias Vunjane, director of Adecru (Academic Action for the Development of Rural Communities), a Maputo-based organisation that supports family farming, said: ‘We first heard of ProSavana in August 2011, in an interview agriculture minister Pacheco gave to a Brazilian newspaper (8). It was a great shock. The government was selling a national asset to foreign buyers, without telling us. The interview opened our eyes. We investigated, and found out the programme was intended to open up Mozambique to agro-industrial multinationals.’

Investigating was not difficult: in the same newspaper article, Brazilian entrepreneurs said they were eager to set up operations in Mozambique, as they had been told they could rent land at very low rates. ‘Mozambique is a Mato Grosso in the middle of Africa, with free land, few environmental barriers and far lower freight costs to China,’ said Carlos Ernesto Augustin, president of the Mato Grosso Cotton Producers’ Association.

Whatever the story that was invented by GV Agro and repeated by ProSavana’s promoters, the Nacala corridor is not at all like the Mato Grosso cerrado. They may be at the same latitude, but the Nacala corridor is much more fertile, and therefore more important to local farmers than is the cerrado. And unlike Mato Grosso, which was sparsely populated in the 1970s, the corridor is home to more than five million people, most of them small farmers who produce a large part of the food eaten in Mozambique.

As in many African countries, land in Mozambique belongs to the state and cannot be sold. This prerogative, established at independence in 1975, is guaranteed by the 1990 constitution. In legal terms, the government grants communities or individuals the right to use and exploit land (direito de uso e aproveitamento da terra, DUAT), by farming machambas or small plots. But not everyone in rural areas has a DUAT document, whose importance is often underestimated, and land can change hands without farmers realising what is going on.

People who used to live in Wuacua, 15 minutes’ drive from Nakarari, are well aware of the problem. One day in 2012, district government officials came to ask the residents to sign documents. In return the residents were promised a sum of money and the construction of ‘social projects’. In reality, they were explicitly signing away their DUAT. Mepoteia said: ‘They were tricked. They were told they were taking part in a rural development programme, and were made to sign documents they didn’t understand. They got between 4,500 and 6,000 meticais [$70-95] in compensation and were told to move out.’

Soon afterwards, AgroMoz, a Brazilian-Portuguese joint venture involving a Mozambican company owned by former president Armando Guebuza, acquired a 9,000-hectare concession on which it mainly grows soybeans. ‘They took advantage of the fact that most of the population is illiterate and that few people understand Portuguese.’ The company has hired guards to keep people out, and Wuacua is now a ghost village, surrounded by AgroMoz’s soy fields. The earth is bare, waiting to be planted, in stark contrast to Nakarari, where there are little patches of beans and cassava, mango trees, and children running about.

A symbol of resistance

Though the AgroMoz scandal is not directly linked to ProSavana, it reveals the promoters’ intentions. The story of Wuacua has spread across the region by word of mouth; farmers’ representatives have learned from it and are defying the government. Mapoteia said: ‘Government officials called us to the district offices to discuss development. They gave us a fine presentation using a projector. We asked questions about AgroMoz, but they wouldn’t answer. So we walked out.’ The Mutuali district became a symbol of resistance, which over the months has spread throughout Mozambique and into neighbouring countries.

‘Everything started with a trip to Brazil,’ said Vunjane. After learning about ProSavana and how it was like what had happened in Mato Grosso 30 years earlier, the Mozambican organisations decided to go and see for themselves, and in November 2012 a delegation of five representatives flew to Brazil. They were shocked. Abel Saínda, of the Rural Association for Mutual Aid (ORAM) said: ‘All we saw, for hundreds of kilometres, was huge soya fields. No farmers, no villages. There are no trees, and there is no animal life, because heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers has turned the area into a desert.We were horrified to think that our home could become an empty wasteland like that.’ A documentary based on the trip, dubbed into local languages, has been shown throughout Mozambique (9).

We never wanted to import the Brazilian cerrado model. Our priority is the food sovereignty of our people Antonio Limbau

Costa Estêvão, head of the Nampula branch of the UNAC was harshly critical of the government: ‘Nobody was telling us anything, so we decided to take action. We are not against development, but we believe farmers must be involved and consulted. But they drew up a complete plan without telling us. Then they tried to push it through. They were talking about rural development, but they were taking land away from people who had been farming it for decades.’ He worked steadily as he spoke to me, digging holes in the ground with a hoe and planting maize on his machamba, half an hour’s drive from Nampula. ‘When we finally saw the master plan, we realised it was a total rip-off.’ The plan, drawn up by GV Agro and Japanese consulting firms, Oriental Consulting and NTC International, talked of ‘[pushing] farmers out of traditional shifting cultivation and land management practices into intensive cultivation practices based on commercial seeds, chemical inputs and private land titles’ (10).

The resistance movement grew rapidly. In Brazil, Japan and Mozambique, farmers’ organisations and NGOs shared information and coordinated their actions; 23 Mozambican organisations wrote an open letter to the Japanese, Brazilian and Mozambican governments denouncing the ‘total absence of a deep, broad, transparent and democratic public debate ... on a matter of great social, economic and environmental relevance with direct impact on our lives’ (11). Forty-three international organisations co-signed and circulated the document. Estêvão travelled to Tokyo. ‘I was invited to meet Japanese politicians.I told them we were criticising ProSavana because it was a threat to our way of life.’

The demonstrations, the overseas missions, the open letter and the surge of popular feeling bringing Mozambican and Brazilian farmers’ organisations together with Japanese and European civil society organisations all helped to undermine the programme. Vunjane said: ‘The protests spread to every part of Mozambique. We organised publicity tours to inform local communities and urge them not to believe the empty promises of government officials. It was hard work. We covered enormous distances. But the result was fantastic: for the first time, the Mozambican government had to listen to the people, who told it loud and clear that they wouldn’t accept a model for development that was imposed top-down.’

‘A gross error of judgment’

The promoters of ProSavana started to back down. The Japanese, anxious not to be seen as the agents of a new agrarian colonialism, were the first to express doubts as to the programme’s relevance. The Brazilian entrepreneurs who had visited Mozambique at the invitation of GV Agro announced they were no longer interested in investing. The Brazilian Cooperation Agency’s technical experts went home. The Nacala Fund was closed down, and ProSavana is now suspended.

‘We made a gross error of judgment,’ said Hiroshi Yokoyama, responsible for ProSavana at JICA. At JICA’s modern offices in central Maputo, he admitted that no feasibility studies had been conducted. ‘At the start, we thought it would be possible to reproduce the Mato Grosso experiment. Then we realised [Nacala and Mato Grosso] were very different, and that it wouldn’t be appropriate to apply the Brazilian development model here.’ Yokoyama now talks of a need to support small farmers and rejects all large-scale agriculture, though that was central to ProSavana. ‘We are now rewriting the master plan to include a system for consulting the rural communities concerned.’ GV Agro is no longer part of the process. The promoters say they have learned their lesson and want to go back to square one.

We always intended to promote a model for rural development that was right for conditions in this country Antonio Limbau

Nearly a decade after its official launch at L’Aquila G8, ProSavana seems to have ended before really getting started. Japan has invested too much money to withdraw without losing face, but Brazil has already packed up and gone. The Mozambican government, which dreamed of turning the country into a hub for African agro-industry, is left with a mere cooperation plan that is still on the drawing board, and in which it seems to have lost faith.

A visit to the agriculture ministry reveals how far ProSavana has been downgraded. Once intended to be Africa’s biggest-ever agricultural development programme, it has been relegated to a bare office, without computers or telephones, in a minor wing of the ministry. Mozambique’s national coordinator for ProSavana, Antonio Limbau, sitting at a desk decorated with miniature Japanese and Mozambican flags, had the unenviable task of denying the obvious truth: ‘We never wanted to import the Brazilian cerrado model. We always intended to promote a model for rural development that was right for conditions in this country, favouring small, medium and large enterprises. Our priority is the food sovereignty of our people.’ He insisted the programme would go ahead ‘despite delays and misunderstandings.’

In the Nacala corridor, ProSavana has become a ghost. In the far suburbs of Nampula stands a soil analysis laboratory, one of the few elements of the plan to have been completed. In this lonely and largely empty building, a few students and an agronomist offered to demonstrate their equipment, without much enthusiasm. Americo Uaciquete, in charge of ProSavana in Nampula, recited the official line: ‘The programme is perfectly fine, but it was misunderstood. Everything is frozen at the moment.’

Under the mango tree in Nakarari, you only have to mention ProSavana to see the villagers’ faces darken with anger. ‘Even if they come a thousand times, they’ll never win us over,’ said Mocernea. Vunjane, though delighted with the historic victory, was more cautious: ‘The government has changed its tune. But we need to stay on our guard, because it will try again.’

Stefano Liberti

Stefano Liberti is a journalist and filmmaker. This article was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting, and is linked to a documentary on the global meat industry and soybean monocultures, co-produced with Enrico Parenti, to be released this autumn (
Translated by Charles Goulden

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(1) See Joan Baxter, ‘Great African land grab’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, April 2010.

(2) See Ward Anseeuw, Liz Alden Wily, Lorenzo Cotula and Michael Taylor, ‘Land rights and the rush for land: Findings of the global commercial pressures on land research project’, The International Land Coalition, Rome, 2012.

(3) See the Land Matrix database,

(4) Olivier De Schutter, ‘How not to think of land-grabbing: three critiques of large-scale investments in farmland’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, vol 38, no 2, Routledge, Abingdon (UK), 2011.

(5) Main basse sur la terre: Land grabbing et nouveau colonialisme (Land Grabbing and new colonialism), Rue de l’Echiquier, Paris, 2013.

(6) Jun Hongo, ‘ODA transforming Mozambique’, TheJapan Times, Tokyo, 6 January 2012.

(7) See Alex Shankland and Euclides Gonçalves, ‘Imagining agricultural development in South-South cooperation: the contestation and transformation of ProSavana’, World Development, vol 81, Amsterdam, May 2016.

(8) Patrícia Campos Mello, ‘Moçambique oferece terra à soja brasileira’ (Mozambique offers land to Brazilian soybean growers), Folha de S. Paulo, 14 August 2011.

(9) ‘Face oculta do ProSavana’ (The hidden face of ProSavana), 7 October 2013,

(10) ‘Leaked ProSavana master plan confirms worst fears’, 30 April 2013,

(11) ‘Open Letter from Mozambican civil society organisations and movements to the presidents of Mozambique and Brazil and the Prime Minister of Japan’, 3 June 2013,


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