Villages have been left as small islands of habitation surrounded by square kilometres of intensively farmed land where villagers can no longer grow food, or graze their cattle.
China has spent several years reclaiming the largest abandoned rice cultivation site in Mozambique, located in the south, in Xai-Xai district. The project promises great benefits for the country in food security and employment.
When you visit the Xai-Xai rice project its sheer scale takes you aback. Black soil, perfectly ploughed, extends for miles until it touches the horizon.
NGOs allege: 80,000 people displaced
But there have also been severe negative consequences for local communities - consequences that should have been foreseen and averted, say observers. Set against a growing back drop of controversy over Chinese 'land grabbing' across swathes of Africa, the Xai-Xai case is growing increasingly controversial.
Local NGOs allege that 80,000 people have been displaced by the project; that villages have been left as small islands of habitation surrounded by square kilometres of intensively farmed land where villagers can no longer grow food, or graze their cattle; that crops have been run over or ploughed under; that cemeteries have been despoiled to make way for new developments.
Most worrying of all, they say these impacts are set to multiply as the farming project expands into new territory. The same NGOs also accuse the project of being led with lack of consultation with local communities, and violations of the International Labour Organization's convention 169 which protects the rights of indigenous peoples.
Mozambique requests Chinese help
There are plenty of good reasons for Mozambique to increase its rice production and introduce new technologies and expertise. Rice is a staple food in the region and producing it domestically will improve food security for the country's predominantly-poor citizens. That's why, in 2005, the Mozambican government asked China to help reclaim an abandoned 12,000 hectare rice farm in Xai-Xai, Gaza Province.
Properly known as the Regadio do Baixo Limpopo (RBL) - it is usually called the 'Xai-Xai irrigation scheme'. It is one of the largest irrigation schemes of Mozambique, second only to Chokwe.
Created in 1951 during Portuguese colonialism times, the scheme was later abandoned. But in 2006, China's Hubei Provincial Farming Bureau and Gaza Province assigned the project to Hubei Lianfeng, a Chinese state-owned company, and enlarged its area from 12,000 to 20,000 hectares.
During 2008 and 2009, a group of scientists from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), supported by the 'Green Super Rice Programme' of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), successfully tested 30 varieties of hybrid Chinese and Mozambican rice called 'Limpopo rice', some of which were chosen for cultivation.
As soon as rice hybrids were chosen, Hubei and Gaza provinces agreed on demanding Lianfeng to help local communities by transferring technology to boost their productivity. Out of 150 candidates 46 farmers were selected and together assigned 285.5 hectares. But Chinese technical assistance was not free, and many of the 46 could not afford it.
By late 2010 it became clear that the company had little respect for the terms of the agreement. The project was unsuccessful and failed to improve the cultivation of rice and unutilised the 300 ha plot. This is when Hubei Provincial government understood that only by calling in a private company the project could succeed.
Wanbao makes a fresh start
In late 2011 a Chinese private enterprise, China Wanbao Oil and Grain Co Ltd., was called in to manage the farm instead of Liangfeng, with an initial investment of US$95 million. Today, this has increased to US$250 million.
Wanbao recently received an additional US$10 million by the Fund of Cooperation to develop relations between China and Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) countries. This inaugurated a new phase of China's south-south cooperation strategy in Mozambique - the first Lusophone country to obtain cash from the fund - highlighting the importance of the Xai-Xai rice project.
From 2011 onward, Wanbao, through the subsidiary Wanbao Africa Agriculture Development, set about implementing the second most extensive irrigation system in Mozambique. And two years later they can proudly say to have succeeded with the first goals. Channels, roads, bridges and perfectly ploughed land now stands where before was mainly wasteland.
Wanbao's project leader Mr Luo Haoping explains: "From 2011 Wanbao, our company in China, joined the project and increased the investment to US$250 million. We started contracting from June 2012, we employ 1,340 people, of which 500 are Chinese - many are engineers. This year we have planted 4,000 hectares of rice and 3,000 of corn."
Flood disaster strikes
Wanbao's first year of production was 2012, but most of yield was destroyed by an immense flood that hit the Baixo Limpopo plain - the result of a massive release of water from an upriver dam in South Africa. The little rice that survived was left was sold locally. The original plan was to reach a good regime of cultivation for the 20,000 hectares in a three-year term, but the company now admits needing more time.
"We lost US$10 million because of the flood, but this did not scare us, it didn't stop our project", says Mr Luo.
"But we lost a lot - about 3,000 hectares of corn and 3,500 of rice were destroyed. As soon as the flooding was over, we gave 10 tonnes of rice for free to the local government, to feed the people. In short, we lost a whole year of work, because all the system we had built was washed away and we had to reconstruct it and we still have to finish that."
Xai-Xai district's communities, like that of Marien G'Ngouabi, says they never saw the rice, nor was it made available locally. But the company replies by saying that most of the crop was destroyed by the flood, which was confirmed by neighbouring Italian farmer Michele Sammartini, who suffered similar losses.
Local people suspect Wanbao's motives
Many Mozambicans fear China is planning to build its own granary for its own domestic food security, and that the rice from Xai-Xai will be secretly exported elsewhere. But this is firmly denied by Wanbao's Mr Luo, who says that export to China is not happening because Mozambique's demand is, for current production rates, simply unmeetable.
"We are not free to do whatever we want. We have to respect Mozambique's will. We have to cover all Mozambique's demand before even thinking about exporting, and even then, the exceeding rice would be first exported to neighbouring African countries like Zimbabwe, before being shipped to China ... We are here to help Mozambique developing its agriculture and increase farmers' yield and income, this is our purpose."
The rice that survived the flood is stocked in brand new storehouses at Wanbao's in Xai-Xai a great innovation in a country that lacks storage for crops. As Luo exclaims: "Mozambique's lacks the structures, not even the government owns storehouses!"
Project manager Jose Faruk Lalgy Guirdar is also proud of this achievement.
"We are building many of them. Once they are ready, we will be able to buy products from the local farmers, store them here and sell the rice when there are no crops in the fields."
Storehouses in Xai-Xai have the potential to really change the life of local people, and could have incredible benefits also in the rest of Southern Mozambique. However it still unclear to what extent local population will be able to benefit from the storehouses, and whether Wanbao's food prices will be accessible to the vast majority of people.
Undoubtedly Wanbao, in less than two years, constructed the most impressive irrigation system of Mozambique and set the basis for the country's rice industry from scratch. But the great agricultural strategies and construction capacity of Wanbao's project is not as smooth as it first appears.
The missing Environmental Assessment
The joint Mozambique-China project in Xai-Xai still has not been subject to the required Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), despite being operational for over 4 years. EIAs are most needed in large and intensive farming projects, such as the one at Xai-Xai, in order to assess any potential environmental damage.
But to this day, no research has been undertaken and no reports produced, and the likely consequences remain a mystery. Not that the blame is entirely Wanbao's. The company inherited a project with no EIA. According to Wanbao, an EIA is provided only after the company pays the 0.2% of the foreseen US$250 million investment.
But when FONGA (a forum of Gaza's NGOs), asked the government for information relating to the EIA, the Ministry of Environmental Affairs (MICOA) stated that the study was submitted, but rejected. Gisela Zunguze, a researcher for the NGO Justicia Ambiental (JA), says it never had the chance to look at the EIA. When JA asked for a copy of the EIA, the government claimed it did not exist.
Farmers cut off from their lands
Problems are not limited to the environment. The Xai-Xai rice production project has had a massive social impact, causing displacement and restrictions over a huge area, affecting not only Xai-Xai city itself, but a great number of villages whose inhabitants are all subsistence farmers.
These farmers live in villages that looks down upon the Regadio du Baixo Limpopo floodplain. Before the arrival of Wanbao, they would walk down every morning to the fertile floodplain to cultivate their 'machamba' (crop land) and come back to their village at night. Every village would have its own machambas close by, just down the slope. Most of these local farmers have now lost access to those lands, which in Mozambique are always state-owned and only given in lease.
So this sovereign land of Mozambique, once farmed by locals, has now been given in concession to Wanbao for the derisory sum of $1 per hectare on a 50-year lease, with the option to renew for another 50 years. People still own their houses, but the vast majority of local farmers have lost access to the arable land on which they depend for their food each year.
To be fair, Wanbao simply followed what the Gaza Provincial government instructed: run over their crops and give them new lands. The result is that the farmers, who often have nothing but their own feet as mean of transport, must now travel miles to reach their new machambas. According to a report by the TV channel Canal de Mozambique on 25 October 2012, about 80,000 people have lost access to their machambas.
A similar figure is also supported by the activist Carlos Mhula, coordinator of Xai-Xai office of the Liga Mozambicana dos Direitos Humanos (The League of Human Rights). Mhula claims that more than 10,000 families lost their machamba, all self-sufficient farmers from the villages of Dlhovukaze, Laguene, Chicumbane, Pessene, Chimbonhanine and Inhamissa.
Wanbao insists: This project benefits the people
"Those people that brand our project as land grabbing haven't quite understood the positive impact this company is bringing to Mozambique", replied Wanbao's Mr Faruk, when faced with displacement allegations. He adds that many of those who initially opposed the project, are now happy.
"Considering we teach them how to plant the rice and we buy it from them, they understand it's an improvement. They now welcome our project. We train the local farmers and give them land and seeds without any pay. And then we buy products from them.
"In 2011 we trained 20 farmers, and we gave then 1-2 hectares, while this year they got 5 hectares and in the future they will get about 20, 50. Since we planted the rice we started to get 10 tonnes per hectare. Local farmers would only get 1-2 tonnes per hectare - so local understand why our technology is important."
Mr Luo adds: "We have to understand that 99% of the land given to Wanbao by the government had no irrigation system, and nobody planted there, it was just growth grass there, wasteland. Wanbao constructed the power station, the roads, all the canals system, ploughed and turned wasteland into a rice farm.
"There was, yes, 1% of land that was being used and cultivated by locals. We found another place after holding a local meeting, and we ploughed there for the displaced locals."
The truth is that Wanbao is the kind of company that diligently does as it is told. They are from China, where the power of the State is absolute. "Run over their crops", and Wanbao runs over it. "Train the farmers", and Wanbao does it too. And in some ways Wanbao has succeeded, where the previous Xai-Xai rice farm manager Hubei Yangfeng had failed.
"It is true Wanbao is training local smallholders in their production scheme", says Juliana Porsani Jarkvist, a PhD fellow from Södertörn University in Sweden who has been conducting a research on Wanbao's project.
"These farmers invest their efforts hoping that, by the end of each harvest, the cash they will receive will suffice to buy sufficient food. They seem satisfied with the new prospects of a more food-secure future, prospects which are still to be proved."
But the creation of jobs itself is one of the biggest benefits acknowledged at the local level. Wanbao only hires young people, but these youngsters end up contributing to the sustenance of the entire family.
Making the numbers add up
Amid the claims and counter-claims, there are wide discrepancies in the numbers. On one side, the company talks about 20 farmers being trained; on the other, civil society and human rights organisations claim about 10,000 families being displaced. Jarkvist believes that some of the claims are exaggerated:
"10,000 is way too many, considering they usually farm 2 hectares per family. That would mean the whole Wanbao's area, the 20,000 hectares, were occupied by farmers. In fact only 12.000 hectares have been currently occupied by Wanbao, so it is most likely that less than 6,000 people lost land. But it is hard to be sure because of the lack of previous land titles. Also it is true that local people used that land as a pastoral area, for their cattle, so I do think people are facing resource constraints."
Jarkavist did some field work in one of the areas, Jovucaze, and calculated that at least of 217 people have been affected by Wanbao, losing 537.75 hectares of the 582.5 hectares they previously used. Only 44.75 hectares are still available to local farmers for cultivation.
As with many things in Africa, hard facts are difficult to come by. The project enveloped a massive portion of land, taking it from poor people most of whom had never heard the term 'land rights'. The Chinese company that reaped the rewards, like a hostile alien invasion, has 'conquered' - dismissing any doubt regarding its right to be there. But it is the Mozambique Government that has allowed this to take place - and even encouraged it.
Cemetery moved - locals told to collect remains
So deferential were the government to its new Chinese overlords, that it granted permission to move an ancient graveyard to make way for farm land. Director of FONGA Anastacio Matavel says:
"The exhumation was done without any communication. From one day to the other families had to collect the remains of their beloved, and find another location. Some were moved to family's cemeteries, other to the public one."
These actions may not cause sustained hardships, like walking many kilometres to cultivate a meal. But to disregard the feelings and traditions of the indigenous people is considered a violation under ILO's Convention 169 - which protects the rights of indigenous populations.
Where does the blame lie?
Anastacio Matavel, Director of FONGA, is certain that blame lies with the Mazambique Government - for the violations of the ILO Convention, and for the lack of proper consultation process:
"We have addressed the problem in a letter we sent to the President of Mozambique on 5 September, and it is still laying unanswered. The consultation process was not carried out properly. You see, most farmers are poor and illiterate, and they feel that the consultations did not take into account their traditional relationship to the Earth and the environment."
When FONGA asked for a copy of the executive plan, local government officials replied that it existed only in Chinese, but it was going to be translated into Portuguese and local dialects and distributed to the community. These documents have still not been shared with the local communities and NGOs.
As Jarkavist reports: "Consultation did take place around Chicumbane, where some of the families that lost land actually received land in another area. In all other areas, consultation did not take place. But consultation only means people were basically informed of what was going to happen, without having a say."
This is confirmed also by Gisela Zunguze of Justicia Ambiental (JA), who claims the "so-called consultation process" only consisted of meetings where government officials and Wanbao's representatives informed people that they were going to lose their machambas.
Carlos Mhula of the Liga Moçambicana dos Direitos Humanos adds: "they never got to know which benefits they would get out of it." Yet Jarkavist found that some people are thankful to Wanbao for the drainage system it has implemented:
"Some farmers told me that if it weren't for Wanbao, they would still see the traces of the last inundation, water could still be on these plots. The government provides very little services or infrastructure. Many of them fetch water from the Limpopo River, do not have access to electricity, and walk several kilometres per day. They are grateful when a road, bridge or drainage system get built."
A few benefit - but most are "worse off than before"
Mr Luo, Wanbao's project manager, proudly talks about expansion plans. "If we will accomplish our mission, we will then look for new areas where to bring our knowledge, to help and collaborate with Mozambique."
He seems to genuinely believe in the good of the project he leads. As does China's government back home. But the reality is that governments often lack the ability to hear the cries of the people - and especially the poorest.
And in Mozambique, in Xai-Xai farmers are asking for their machamba back. Some have found a job with Wanbao, some hope to find it in the future. But many are suffering and have no future until their own government decides to listen to them. Jarkvist concedes that some people are indeed content under the new regime. But she firmly believes that "the majority of the affected population is worse-off today than a year ago."
The Hubei and Gaza bilateral agreement which set for the Xai-Xai rice project has an incredible development potential. Setting such an irrigation scheme not only means greater agricultural production, but also less stagnating marshes in an area that is malaria epidemic. Wanbao's work is potentially enormously precious.
Mozambique Government must find solutions
But while dedicating all the project area to monocultural intensive farming might satisfy Southern Mozambique's rice demand, it will certainly not solve the problems of hunger in Xai-Xai district. A partial solution could lie in allowing local farmers to continue using the machambas close to the villages, while contracting local farmers to work on Wanbao's rice production project.
For its part, Wanbao only does what it is ordered to do. This is not a battle against the company. It is the Mozambican government that should find a solution - one that should not be unreachable. And if the friendship between China and Mozambique - the oldest, most solid friendship Mozambique has had with a foreign country - is to take root in civil society, a sustainable resolution must be found.
This story is part of a project by Jacopo Ottaviani, Andrea Fama, Isacco Chiaf and Cecilia Anesi, supported by the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Programme operated by the European Journalism Centre.