Rastetter controversy explained

Dan Mackenzie

Bruce Rastetter has been in the news recently, and, more importantly, Iowa State has also been included the issue. The reasons, however, can seem complicated. 

The issue at hand concerning Iowa State is an allegation that Rastetter used his position as a member of the Board of Regents to influence the university’s involvement in business deal. The deal was to lease land in Tanzania and build a large agricultural operation.

The university’s role was to set up an education extension program to accompany the agricultural operation set up by three companies that Rastetter has leadership roles with. The education programs would have been similar to existing programs in Uganda or to the university’s role to Iowa farmers: to educate small farmers and families in ways they could improve quality of life through better agricultural practices.

The accusation is that Rastetter was using his position on the board of regents to influence the university to become involved in the deal, a benefit he may not have had access to had he not been on the board.

The university has since separated itself from the issue and the business deal. It has also stated that even while it was involved, it never had a financial stake in the arrangement.

Rastetter’s company, AgriSol Energy, LLC, has also halted development.

The Back Story

This information was brought to light in a report released by the Oakland Institute, a progressive think tank based in California that deals with social, economic and environmental issues.

Rastetter is the CEO of Pharos Ag Management, director of AgriSol Energy, LLC, and CEO of Summit Farms, all three of which are agribusiness firms involved in the deal to build large scale farms in Tanzania.

This fact in and of itself is not necessarily the issue. An editorial published in the University of Iowa’s Daily Iowan on July 12 pointed out that making money should not be stigmatized.

The issue is at the other end of the deal. The problem is that the lands where the companies want to build the enterprise are already populated. The main area has nearly 60,000 people living on it, and another nearby has nearly 70,000.

According to the report, the operation would necessitate that the area be cleared of existing farmland and people for production of corn and soy.

The areas in question are villages that began as refugee camps back in 1972. Burundian citizens fleeing violence in their home country were allowed to stay in Tanzania as refugees. They are still considered refugees, and do not have a legal right to the land. This is another issue. The people have lived there for nearly 40 years, but they are not legally citizens of the country.

In reports conducted by AgriSol, the land is described as abandoned, or soon to be emptied. The Oakland Institute alleges that this was done intentionally to take advantage of the legal grey area that the refugees inhabit.

AgriSol says that the information regarding the inhabitants came from the Tanzanian government. The Tanzanian government has made it clear that they have decided to relocate the refugees.

Another issue is whether the Tanzanian government made the decision on their own, or whether AgriSol influenced the decision.

The Tanzanian government has since been accused of harassing the refugees, and even of committing human rights violations against them by burning down crops and refusing to allow new construction of homes. The Tanzanian government clams that they are preparing the refugees to be relocated, although no moving has taken place.

There is no link tying AgriSol to these abuses.

Other Players

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food and Water Watch are two independent groups that have become involved in the issue.

ICCI became involved because they believe that Rastetter attempted to use his dual positions as owner of the companies and member of the board of regents to influence Iowa State University to provide resources for the deal, to enhance the appeal of the business venture. They believe this attempt is just cause for Gov. Terry Branstad to remove him from his position.

Food and Water Watch is worried that land grant universities, as public institutions, are being used by corporations to fund private research for private gain. They argue that AgriSol is one among many private companies that have attempted to use donations and business partnerships as leverage to get public universities to perform scientific studies that are beneficial to the companies, and not necessarily to the benefit of the public. In this case they see AgriSol as co-opting the university for its private gain.

Where the Issue Stands

Rastetter has denied that he and his companies have done anything wrong. AgriSol has said that while they did indeed make a plan to purchase the land, the Tanzanian government told them that the land was already slated for clearing. They state they had no influence over the government’s decision to relocate the refugees.

As to whether to whether not Rastetter acted unethically in his position as member of the board of regents; that issue will be decided by a meeting of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board being held next month.