East Africa Profile

Forest Conversion for Commercial Agriculture and Associated Exports

Though commercial agriculture is a less important cause of deforestation in East Africa than in most other tropical regions, it is becoming increasingly important. Industrial forest plantation development is an increasingly important driver in some parts of Mozambique, for example, as are both commercial banana and cotton plantations. Other commercial cash crops responsible for deforestation include tobacco and sugar cane. A study of drivers of deforestation from 2007 to 2010 in one sample area in Manica Province found that the largest driver (responsible for 46 percent of deforestation) was large-scale agriculture (Ministry for Coordination of Environmental Affairs 2012). Though subsistence agriculture, firewood, and charcoal remain by far the most important drivers of deforestation, commercial plantations for biofuel production have been an increasingly important threat to Tanzanian forests in recent years (United Republic of Tanzania 2010).

The Land Matrix database lists 242 contracted, ongoing, or concluded large-scale land deals for commercial agriculture or forestry plantations in East Africa, with an aggregated current area under contract of 4.4 Mha (The Land Matrix 2016). Southeast Asia is the only region with a greater number of such deals. The most common planned crops are eucalyptus, acacia, jatropha, oil palm, and sugarcane. Very little is known about most of these investments, and there is therefore no information on the proportion that may involve conversion of natural forest, or the proportion that is intended to be primarily export-oriented. Many of the developments are for the production of feedstocks for biofuel, however, for which the main driver is overseas demand. And of the handful of cases that have been investigated in depth, a number have involved conversion of woodlands.

Illegalities in Conversion

Though there are no systematic studies or data, case studies from Uganda and Tanzania suggest that the kinds of illegalities seen in other regions are being replicated during large-scale land conversion for agricultural and timber plantations in East Africa.

In Uganda, the country’s first commercial oil palm plantation project has been mired in controversy. The development, a 40,000 ha joint venture involving (among others) the Ugandan government and international oil palm giant Wilmar, is located on the Kalangala islands in Lake Victoria. Around 7,500 ha have been planted so far. The development, which was estimated to have destroyed 3,600 ha of forest by May 2013 and is also converting small farmers’ land, has been accused of violating numerous local laws. The compulsory purchases of land for the project are alleged to be in breach of the Ugandan Constitution and the Land Acquisition Act. The clearance and planting that has taken place so far is also alleged to have violated environmental buffers and the deforestation is alleged to have caused pollution of water sources. The expansion of the project is also reportedly proceeding without the required EIA. Though the palm oil from the plantation development was originally slated for local use, when it is complete the project is expected to produce double the current consumption when it is complete, suggesting that a large proportion will actually be destined for export (FoE International 2013). In 2015, local farmers filed a lawsuit against the development, claiming restitution of grabbed land and compensation (FoE 2015). Wilmar refutes the allegations against it (Wilmar 2015).

There have also been many controversial “land-grabs” in recent years for the planting of biofuel feed stocks in East Africa. In Tanzania, for example, during the global bio-fuels boom of 2005 to 2008, more than 200,000 ha of land was leased to foreign companies for the planting of biofuel feed crops such as sugarcane and jatropha. Many of the projects are located within the East African Coastal Forests, an eco-region regarded as a globally important conservation priority (WWF Tanzania 2009). The Tanzanian government has admitted that these industrial plantations have become an increasingly important driver of deforestation in the country (United Republic of Tanzania 2010). Some of these projects have involved the conversion of natural forests in questionable legal circumstances (see Case Study below).

CASE STUDY: Bioshape Jatropha Plantation, Tanzania

One of the largest planned agricultural plantation projects in Tanzania in recent years was a 34,000 to 80,000 ha jatropha plantation to be developed by Dutch company Bioshape in an area of East African Coastal Forest near the town of Kilwa on the coast of southern Tanzania. In 2009, the NGO Resource Extraction Monitoring (REM) worked with the Tanzanian authorities to examine the legality of the development. By that time, Bioshape had cleared and planted a 70 ha “trial plot.” Government officials confirmed to REM that Bioshape had cleared the area before all required procedures had been completed and payments made. Local officials also told REM that Bioshape were already cutting timber outside the trial plot, which central government officials claimed was illegal because the full forest inventory for the plantation had not yet been produced. In its official report, REM also highlighted concerns raised by NGOs regarding the legality of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the project. Two of the three persons listed as authors on the EIA did not in fact contribute text, see a copy prior to publication, or agree to be listed as authors. The inclusion of these well-respected scientists’ names on the report may have influenced the decision to allow the project to go ahead. REM noted that Tanzanian law makes it an offense to misrepresent the authorship of EIAs. REM noted that Bioshape had the largest and busiest sawmill in Southern Tanzania at the time and calculated that, if the entire plantation area was developed, the company was likely to become the largest logging company in the country (REM/HTSPE 2009).

Allegations were also made that regulations had been breached in the manner in which the rights to the land were obtained from local villagers by the local government and handed over to the company. Though villagers signed relevant documentation, later research showed that they did not fully understand the implications of what was being signed. One villager claimed that when they eventually obtained a copy of the agreement they had signed, they found some of the key terms did not match what had been agreed (Oxfam 2013).

As with many other biofuel projects of the period, the Bioshape plantation never came to fruition. After its energy-company backers pulled out, Bioshape went bankrupt in June 2010 (Massay 2012). The villages affected remain barred from the land, yet never saw the benefits they were promised. With help from NGOs, they have brought formal complaints to the local and national authorities, demanding that the lease is cancelled and their land returned (Oxfam 2013).


Ministry for Coordination of Environmental Affairs, Mozambique. 2012. Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) Readiness Preparation Proposal (R-PP), March.

United Republic of Tanzania. 2010. Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) Readiness Preparation Proposal (R-PP), October.

The Land Matrix Global Observatory. 2016. “Eastern Africa.” Accessed Sept 13.

FoE International. 2013. “Land grabbing for palm oil in Uganda: Factsheet.” Friends of the Earth International, Amsterdam.

Friends of the Earth Europe, ‘Ugandan oil palm project taken to court over land-grab claims’, 19th February 2015.

Wilmar, ‘Wilmar Refutes Allegations of Land Grab in Uganda’, 25th February 2015,

WWF Tanzania. 2009. “Biofuel Industry Study, Tanzania: An Assessment of the Current Situation Final Version.” WWF Tanzania Programme Office, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

United Republic of Tanzania. 2010. Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) Readiness Preparation Proposal (R-PP), October.

Resource Extraction Monitoring (REM)/HTSPE and Tanzania Forestry and Beekeeping Department (FBD) Forest Surveillance Unit. 2009. Test Independent Monitor Field Mission Report.

Oxfam. 2013. Short film on Bioshape. Presented at the Pan Africa Land Grab Hearing. Published August 21.


This summary was last updated in September 2016. For more recent information, please see individual news stories.