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Hidden victims of the 'green revolution'

Biofuels are nothing new to Simeon Mayimel. He's been burning charcoal and elephant dung for years. He had never expected that they would change his or his people's way of life.

One of the elders in his village, Nangene, Mr Mayimel is the leader of a community of two dozen or so families facing an uncertain future. They are Shangaan people, whose way of life in the borderlands of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe, based on crops and cattle, has altered little for generations.

That is about to change. Nangene and seven other villages have been consumed by the recently created Transfrontier Limpopo National Park, which straddles the three countries, and the villagers along with more than a thousand other families are to be resettled outside its borders. They have been promised houses, electricity, running water and grazing at a new site.

But now the government has given a huge tract of the same land to a biofuels company, Procana, and their putative home is set to become Mozambique's largest sugar-cane plantation.

"They have told us there is room for both [villagers and plantations] but we haven't seen it," Mr Mayimel complains. "All the time we are told we will be moving next month. Then when next month comes we are told it will be next month."

The resettlement plan was only agreed after three years of fractious negotiations and the intervention of a local human rights group, Oram, which taught the villagers how to stand up to the authorities.

Issuto Tankar, who led Oram's fight, says that without support they would have been driven off their land as others have been elsewhere in the country. "They would have left by now without compensation. The people would have lost everything."

The Limpopo park headquarters is only a few miles from Nangene but it belongs to a different world. The park commissioner, Rodolfo Cumbane, receives visitors in a polished boardroom with leather chairs. He admits that the sudden arrival of the biodiesel revolution has delayed the resettlement of the villagers but insists the promise of a better life will be kept. "We are trying to improve the environment and create job opportunities together with the resettlement," says Mr Cumbane. Then he adds: "Work will start later this month, or next month."

Is there enough water for industrial agriculture, small-scale farming, grazing, hydropower and irrigation? "Yes," he replies, before admitting that rainfall varies sharply from year to year.

This week the streets of Chokwe and Maputo were transformed into battlegrounds after the government dropped price controls and the cost of bread soared. At least 11 people were killed with many more wounded.

Fears remain that there is more of this to come as the twofold effect of the biofuel boom is felt: global agricultural commodity prices surge and local food security is undermined by the switch from food to fuel. Places such as Chokwe and Massingir will feel the worst of it.

In Maputo, Tanja Kleibl, from the Catholic development agency Cafod, which funds Oram's work, says that Mozambique's economic miracle – hailed by the president of the World Bank this week – could prove a dangerous illusion. "It is all political," she says. "The government supports big agricultural interests ... not small-scale farmers who are 80 per cent of the population." There is already serious malnutrition in one province, she adds, and recent floods show how quickly people become dependent on food aid. "They are storing up conflict for the future."