Nakarari, Mozambique–Elena Vito had never heard about ProSavana when government officials came to her village and asked her to sign a paper. She refused and today she is more than happy not to have complied.
"It was not clear what they were proposing. They told me they would provide me with tools to improve my yields but at the same time they wanted me to change the crops I usually grow," Vito told Al Jazeera.
The farmer, in her 40s, lives in Nakarari, northern Mozambique. She sustains her four children with the products of her family's machamba (farm), a tiny piece of land of 0.5 hectares where she cultivates peanuts, maize and cassava.
The village is at the heart of the Nacala Corridor, a 14.5-million-hectare area where the government wants to implement the Programme of Triangular Cooperation for Agricultural Development of the Tropical Savannahs of Mozambique, more commonly known as ProSavana.
The project aims to convert the whole area into commercial agriculture, increasing the productivity and producing cash crops such as soybean, cotton and maize for export.
The railway crossing the corridor and the Nacala port, on the Indian Ocean, seem perfectly suited to reach the global market, especially China, the world's largest importer of soybean.
Although the government says ProSavana will benefit smallholders, many farmers in the area fear they will lose their land to make way for foreign companies.
According to Mozambican law, the land is owned by the state. Farmers and communities can refer to customary occupancy and use it. But they would need a paper stating their "right of use and benefit of land", known as Duat (a Portuguese acronym for Direito do Uso e Aproveitamento da Terra). Not everyone has a Duat, nor is everyone in these rural areas fully aware of its actual value.
In the Nakarari community, not far from Vito's field, some farmers sold off their Duat to a Brazilian-Portuguese company, Agromoz, which now produces soybean on 10,000 hectares.
"They were given minimal compensation and found themselves without land. Many of them eventually quit and resettled somewhere else," Agostinho Mocernea, secretary of the village said. "We have learnt our lesson with Agromoz. We will never accept ProSavana."
ProSavana is inspired by Brazil's Cerrado Development Programme, a plan that received Japanese support from the late 1970s till the 1990s and turned the "unproductive" land of Mato Grosso into a breadbasket and an important soybean producing region.
ProSavana itself is a triangular cooperation arrangement involving the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Brazilian Cooperation Agency (ACB).
Though not yet implemented, the project has already sparked big controversy. "ProSavana has been discussed in secrecy without the involvement of people living in the area," Jeremias Vunjanhe, director of Adecru, a Maputo-based NGO supporting rural communities, said.
"The first time we heard about the programme was through an interview that agriculture minister Jos Pacheco gave to a Brazilian newspaper, claiming he wanted to replicate the experience of Brazil 30 years ago," Vunjanhe said.
In the same article, some Brazilian entrepreneurs were quoted as enthusiastically embracing the idea of moving to Mozambique, where they were promised land for very low rent.
Carlos Ernesto Augustin, president of the Mato Grosso Cotton Producers' Association, reportedly said that Mozambique is a Mato Grosso in the middle of Africa, with free land, without environmental impediments, and with much cheaper freight to China.
Since then, a campaign called Nao ao ProSavana (No to ProSavana) has been launched to challenge the project. Together with other activists, farmers organisations and religious leaders, Vunjanhe has extensively travelled across the region to gather information and carry out his advocacy work among the communities.
Demonstrations have been organised both in the capital, Maputo, and in Nampula, the largest town in the Nacala corridor. "We urged the government to give us more information. It was clear they wanted to lease our land to foreign companies. We could not accept it. We are already lacking land for ourselves," Costa Estevao, provincial president in Nampula of the Uniao Nacional de Camponeses (UNAC), Mozambique's national farmers' union, said.
Started as a local grassroots movement, the campaign has gained momentum. In 2014, 23 Mozambican and 43 international organisations signed an open letter to the governments of Japan, Brazil and Mozambique, complaining about the "lack of information and the absence of a broad public debate" about the plan. The advocacy work and the letter proved successful.
Some Japanese civil society organisations joined the campaign and a debate was eventually organised in Tokyo, at the national parliament. As a result of the concerns voiced by the organisations, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency reviewed its first draft plan.
"Initially we wanted to replicate the Mato Grosso model. But, after a while, we realised the conditions here are different, the territory is much more densely populated and also the needs are not the same. Now, we focus on smallholders. We want to provide them with the necessary know-how to produce more and increase national food sovereignty," Hiroshi Yokoyama, responsible for ProSavana at JICA, said.
At the agency's headquarters in central Maputo, the capital, the officer recognises there have been some "problems and delays" but he is still confident the plan will go ahead.
Meanwhile, the Mozambican government says it has no intention of throwing farmers off their land.
"We have never meant to evict local farmers, nor to lease their land to foreign companies," Antonio Limbau, national coordinator of ProSavana at the Ministry of Agriculture, said.
"The actual goals of the project have been misunderstood. ProSavana has always been a programme in support of agriculture. It will benefit small, medium and big famers in an integrated way. We want to enhance development," Limbau added.
The national coordinator of ProSavana stands firm on the view that the programme will be implemented: "ProSavana right now is stalled, but it will be resumed."
Yet the initial highly ambitious goals have been scaled down; the Brazilian entrepreneurs expected to come from Mato Grosso never showed up; the funds promised by Japan are still frozen; a new master plan is in the process to be written. "We are involving the local communities in the discussion," Limbau said.
"We have experience of many failed projects because the government thought that it alone was capable of deciding. The new draft indicates a change of attitude," Antonio Mutoua, president of Provincial Platform of Organisations of Civil Society of Nampula (PPOSC-N), said. "In the new framework that takes into account local needs, we are eager to collaborate."
"We have undoubtedly obtained a great victory," Vunjanhe said. "The mobilisation forced the government to change the narrative and stop offering publicly our land to foreign actors. But we are afraid their original idea has not really changed. We therefore need to remain very vigilant," he added.
"No to ProSavana has been one of Mozambique's most successful civil society campaigns, proving that an alliance of local groups and international NGOs can change policy," says professor Joseph Hanlon, expert on Mozambique at the Open University of Milton Keynes, UK.