By Hannah Furfaro
While Iowa State University pursues more private dollars to help support important research, at least one of these public-private projects is raising a whole new crop of ethical questions.
The project, a large-scale agricultural venture by Iowa-based AgriSol Energy to lease thousands of acres in Tanzania and bring modern seeds and technology to the region, has drawn fire from the news media, ISU affiliates and members of the international community since June 2011.
The reason: Two of the parcels, Katumba and Mishamo, are home to 160,000 refugees from Burundi who have called the land home for more than 40 years.
One professor from ISU has traveled to Tanzania on behalf of AgriSol Energy as recently as November, and another has stayed actively involved as a consultant for the project, the Ames Tribune has learned. Top administrators at ISU also were aware as early as April 2011 that refugees were living on two plots of land that AgriSol Energy planned to lease.
Citing negative media attention and a perceived conflict of interest with Bruce Rastetter, co-founder and managing director of AgriSol Energy, who became member of the Iowa Board of Regents in May 2011, Wendy Wintersteen, dean of ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said ISU withdrew its direct involvement in the project in September. AgriSol also has backed off development of the two plots in recent months.
As of the fall semester, Wintersteen said, relevant ISU faculty would offer only advice on an informal basis to AgriSol Energy, based on expertise learned from a development project ISU conducted in Uganda in previous years. The university no longer was officially a partner at this point, she said.
But until September 2011, a number of individuals at ISU spanning departments from economics to agronomy had actively engaged in conducting feasibility studies and designing education and extension services for Tanzanian farmers affected by AgriSol’s plan.
As reports on the project have continued to unfold over the past year, top university officials have maintained they were never asked to develop programs for areas where refugees were living.
Two opinion pieces published within the last week in the Des Moines Register from Rastetter and Wintersteen have reawakened questions as to how heavily ISU was invested from the start, and whether individuals at the university continue to have stakes in the project.
The story of ISU’s involvement with AgriSol Energy begins in 2009.
At that time, Rastetter had given $1.75 million to endow a chair position in ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He’d also given $500,000 for a renovation project in ISU’s Curtiss Hall.
When Rastetter approached members of the university to consider working with AgriSol on the Tanzania project, Wintersteen said his charitable donations to ISU were seen as a “very positive occurrence.”
“Because we had the opportunity to work with a company, of which he was one investor, to try a new model to address hunger and poverty, we thought that was a critical opportunity that should be looked into,” she said.
The partnership moved forward, but ISU never signed a formal contract or agreement with Rastetter or AgriSol. Discussions continued throughout 2009 and 2010.
In early January 2011, ISU became more actively involved in planning an outreach and educational program for small farmers in the regions AgriSol selected. On a trip in January 2011, ISU economics professor Kevin Kimle, the Rastetter Chair of Agricultural Entrepreneurship at ISU, traveled as a private contractor to Mpanda, Tanzania, to work with Tanzanian officials on the project.
He returned for a second trip with ISU Associate Dean David Acker in February 2011 to attend a workshop and listening session with local Tanzanians who were involved.
ISU agronomy professor Andrew Manu also was involved and conducted land studies as a private contractor for AgriSol in 2010 and early 2011, according to Acker.
By April, AgriSol and individuals from ISU’s team began lobbying an outside group, the Oakland Institute, a California-based policy think tank, for support.
The refugee question
On April 26, 2011, the executive director of the Oakland Institute attended an informational meeting on the Tanzania project in Curtiss Hall on the ISU campus.
Anuradha Mittal said she was invited to Iowa to learn about the project because of her interest in writing a report about successful agricultural investments in impoverished nations.
“We were looking to showcase agricultural investments that can be supported and can be highlighted as a way to invest or support national economies and small-scale farmers,” she said. “(AgriSol) was very keen for me to meet with people in Iowa to learn about this project, which on paper looked very good.”
During the meeting, Wintersteen, Acker and Manu gave separate presentations on why ISU was involved, what they’d done so far and how the university planned to proceed over the next few months. Manu’s presentation focused on private work he conducted on behalf of AgriSol.
Manu’s presentation, Mittal said, included a brief discussion of the refugees in both Katumba and Mishamo.
“Manu, in the presentation, said, ‘Well the Lugufu site is empty, and you know there’s some moving out that has to be done in Katumba and Mishamo,’ and they didn’t give the numbers,” Mittal said.
Those plots, she later learned, accommodated more than 160,000 refugees from Burundi.
Since June 2011, critics including Mittal have argued that AgriSol’s $100 million project will displace Tanzania’s most vulnerable population and destroy the livelihoods of more than 100,000 refugees who have farmed the Katumba and Mishamo regions for more than 40 years.
Neither AgriSol or ISU were involved in encouraging or facilitating the relocation of refugees. At the time of Mittal’s meeting with ISU in April, the Tanzanian government in conjunction with the United Nations had already resettled refugees from one Tanzanian region, Lugufu, into other areas in the country. Similar plans were scheduled for Katumba and Mishamo, but had not yet begun.
“They all sat through it, they all knew it,” she said.
A review of ISU’s online policy library found the university has no formal policy on projects that impact refugees.
In an interview Monday, Acker said he learned “well before” the April meeting that refugees were living in both Katumba and Mishamo, but ISU was never asked to develop education programs for those regions.
“At that time, there was no specific site determined,” he said. “So what we were asked to do was just talk about western Tanzania in general, because at that point they were still deciding which site to work at.”
But a preliminary memorandum of understanding between AgriSol and the local government in Mpanda, Tanzania, says the company had plans to “come and invest in the land currently designated as the Katumba and Mishamo refugee settlements” as early as Aug. 11, 2010.
It was not until resettlement of the refugees was delayed in fall 2011 that AgriSol decided to halt development of those plots.
Joe Murphy, director of public affairs at Summit Farms, which oversees AgriSol, said the existence of refugees on the two plots was “no secret” at AgriSol.
“We always knew, obviously, that at one point there were refugees living there since whenever, but the fact remains that there was an agreement brokered by the United Nations,” he said. “(The United Nations) came in and started to facilitate that movement, or that settlement, of those refugees.”
Wintersteen denied learning about the refugees at the meeting in April.
“I have no recollection of refugees being discussed at that meeting, so it could be simply that I was gone by the time it was discussed, but I have no recollection of that,” she said. “The interesting thing for me and I think for David (Acker) is the meeting started and everybody arrived late. It’s unclear to me how long either of us were at the meeting.”
When asked what month she personally learned refugees were present in Katumba and Mishamo, Wintersteen said, “What I was aware of in this project was that a site had been selected that had no refugees being moved off of it.”
No minutes were kept for the meeting. A request for Manu’s PowerPoint presentation was denied.
Professors still involved
The picture of ISU’s current role as “advisory” in the AgriSol project has remained murky since the university ceased its direct activities with the company in September.
The facts that one university professor has traveled to Tanzania since September and another has stayed actively involved as a consultant have complicated the picture even further.
“We view the advisory capacity as being able to provide additional insights about what we are doing in our Uganda educational program,” Wintersteen said of ISU’s current advising status. “I would assume as we had opportunities to share something new we have learned, we would certainly provide that information.”
Wintersteen said Mark Westgate, director of ISU’s Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods (CSRL), which houses ISU’s Ugandan outreach and education programs, Acker, or others with expertise could be involved in this type of informal advising.
But according to AgriSol representatives Eric Peterson and Murphy, individuals at ISU including Westgate and Kimle have continued to stay more deeply involved with AgriSol.
Westgate traveled to Tanzania to do private consulting on the project as recently as November 2011, Murphy said.
The 11-day trip included work in Uganda for ISU’s CSRL program, time in Tanzania to do research funded through a U.S. Agency for International Development grant Westgate received, and a three-day span that Westgate used to do consulting for AgriSol.
Wintersteen said Westgate used vacation time for his three days of private consulting work.
“Common maybe isn’t the right word, but it’s allowable,” she said of Westgate’s decision to take vacation time during a work-related trip.
ISU paid for Westgate’s flights overseas, but did not pay for hotels or meals on the days Westgate spent consulting. AgriSol covered his expenses for the three days he spent consulting, Murphy said.
Multiple phone calls and emails to Kimle were not returned. Murphy confirmed Kimle has not traveled to Tanzania on behalf of AgriSol since September 2011.
Public vs. private duties
Nearly three years after ISU started working with AgriSol, some are wondering what checks exist to keep these types of complicated partnerships between the public and private sector above the table.
Rastetter, who could not be reached for comment on this story, currently serves as the president pro tem on the Iowa Board of Regents, which governs ISU and Iowa’s two other public universities.
His roles on the board and with AgriSol have drawn many questions about what legal policies regulate conflicts of interest, and whether these guidelines are enforced.
After officially beginning his duties as a regent on May 1, 2011, Rastetter submitted a conflict of interest disclosure form detailing his role at AgriSol. Rastetter also stepped down from an advisory council he served on in ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
But according to Dennis Keeney, professor emeritus of agronomy and agricultural and biosystems engineering at ISU, “there’s probably not much of anything” when it comes to keeping tabs on these types of potential conflicts.
“I think we’re talking about the press and public exposure as the only real check on this,” said Keeney, former director of ISU’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. “(Universities) can do things without the public having any idea what it is.”
Cornelia Flora, distinguished professor of sociology at ISU, said “there’s still a lot of concern” among professors at ISU about the university’s partnership with AgriSol.
“(The university) is used to operating in these known parameters in terms of donors and partners,” Flora said, “but a for-profit firm has very different reasons of being than do government-to-government agencies or a nonprofit philanthropic entity.”
Cuts in state funding, she said, have put pressure on ISU to seek more and more private partnerships.
“Because there is a whole lot of pressure with our new financial model here to generate funds from the outside, we don’t want to make it too burdensome for people to give us money,” she said. “But, that also means sometimes we lay ourselves open to acting in haste.”
But in the case of Westgate and Kimle, who have played both public and private roles in AgriSol’s venture, sorting out what constitutes an actual conflict is more complicated.
Charlotte Bronson handles conflict of interest files for faculty at ISU.
Bronson, vice president for research and economic development at ISU, said because Rastetter isn’t a faculty member at ISU, he’s not required to submit a conflict of interest form through the university. Westgate and Kimle, however, would be required to disclose the type of contract work they do for AgriSol.
“A wise person would (say), ‘Well here’s Rastetter who is now my boss. At the same time I’ve been working on a project that could benefit Rastetter’s company,’ and so they would say ‘No, I’m not going to be involved in that situation’,” she said.
Bronson couldn’t discuss whether Westgate and Kimle have disclosed their consulting work, but in an interview last week Westgate said he’s turned in the necessary forms.
In the interview, Westgate said his private consulting duties for AgriSol would not conflict with any advising he gave to AgriSol in his public role as a professor at ISU.
“Consulting, as any consulting activity is, is a private activity,” Westgate said. “Nothing to do with the university. I did it on my own time just like any consultant would.”
When asked about his trip to Tanzania in November, however, he said, “We don’t need to get into the details.”
“It raises the question: ‘How best used is the time of faculty that the taxpayers pay, especially given the concerns that are raised? What are the ethical guidelines for people to be involved?’ It’s almost like saying, ‘OK, on my private time, if I’m displacing people, that’s fine,’” she said.
Mittal said using the work week for closed-door meetings with private companies on the university campus, such as the meeting she attended in April, is also problematic.
“The fact that you cannot shy away from is while the classes were meeting, the entire team was there and meeting with me and sharing information about the time they spent on the ground,” she said. “That was all happening when the university is in session … There’s something terribly wrong, even if you don’t care about Tanzanians.”
Correction: This story originally listed Bruce Rastetter as the CEO of AgriSol Energy. Rastetter’s official title is co-founder and managing director.