Zimbabwe's first green power plant produces ethanol from sugarcane and could help the country achieve energy independence. But its detractors say it has one big drawback: it has displaced local cotton farmers.

The Green Fuel Private Limited ethanol plant sits about 500 kilometres south of Harare near the Mozambique border, amidst 11 500 hectares of sugarcane.

About 500 families lived near the plant until construction began in 2010. These farmers now say they were booted by government and company officials who promised them compensation, but never delivered.

“I was chucked out by government,” says Sam Rugare, a 78-year-old farmer who told dpa that he worked on the land for 35

years. Ruramai Garwe, a widowed mother of seven, said that she can no longer afford to pay her kids' tuition fees.

“We used to raise school fees from proceeds of cotton sales. Then we were promised new jobs, but we've been waiting three years now for those jobs,” Garwe said.

Officials from Green Fuel did not respond to a request for comment, but a local government official countered the villagers' claim that they were not fairly compensated.

“People genuinely displaced by the ethanol project received land and irrigation facilities to improve their livelihoods,” said James Mundoma, a local government official.

Member of parliament Meki Makuyana disagrees, and recently asked the federal government to look into the compensation program.

But that's not enough for displaced farmers like Matthew Karikoga, who say they heard promises of thousands of new jobs associated with the green plant.

“It is not a development but a destruction project,” Karikoga said. “We are not employed. They give employment to other people.”

General Manager Graeme Smith told The Zimbabwean newspaper in 2010 that the project would generate 6000 jobs and assist 3000

small-scale farmers. But the actual number of jobs generated seems to have been considerably less, critics said.

The farmers have threatened to invade the sugar cane irrigation plantation and replant their cotton.

Yet the plant itself could bring significant benefits to Zimbabweans. Green Fuel says it has already generated 2 million litres of ethanol that it can sell as soon as tax authorities give them a licence to do so. The facility generates 160 000 litres of ethanol fuel daily.

According to the government, the Chisumbanje ethanol plant is set to be the biggest in sub-Saharan Africa with an expected output of over 40 million litres a month when fully operational.

This would potentially allow Zimbabwe - which consumes about 2 million litres of imported fuel every day - to achieve energy self sufficiency.

Despite its promised societal benefits, however, the 600-million-dollar joint venture between state-run ARDA and a group of white private investors led by Muller Conrad Rautenbach and Graeme Smith has been controversial.

Rautenbach, or Billy as he is known, was dubbed a “Mugabe regime crony” by the United States and the European Union, and added to their travel ban lists in 2009.

Rautenbach's involvement in the project raised concerns because he has, in the past, “enabled Robert Mugabe to pursue policies that seriously undermine democratic processes and institutions in Zimbabwe,” the British newspaper The Guardian reported. - Sapa-dpa

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