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December 09, 2011

Tanzania tries to get to grips with land grabs

by David Ralph

Long regarded as one of Africa’s most stable countries, Tanzania celebrates 50 years of independence from colonial rule. But as huge tracts of the country’s land are leased to foreign investors, unrest is spreading as some see in these deals the return of colonialism.

“Zuia uporaji wa ardhi,” reads the Swahili headline of a poster on the wall of the community building in Mhaga, a densely populated village in Kisarawe, a district 100km (62 miles) southwest of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital. It means “prevent land grabbing” and the image beneath depicts a demonic-looking white man hovering in mid-air above a Tanzanian village, poised to snatch the ground from under the villagers’ feet.

“This poster teaches us many lessons,” says Hakuin Hussein, Mhaga’s village chairman. “It tells us everything about investors.”

The investors are Sun Biofuels, a British company that leased 8,000 hectares of land in Kisarawe in 2006 to grow jatropha, a non-edible plant that can be converted to biofuel and exported for sale in petrol forecourts across Europe and the US.

In return for the villagers’ land, Sun Biofuels promised to pay 100,000 Tanzanian shillings (€50) an acre, as well as provide the village with badly needed roads, electricity, school materials and a dispensary. “Some people got compensated for one or two acres, nothing more. The social services never came,” says Hussein. “They broke all their promises.”

Sun Biofuels closed the Kisarawe operation recently, and has now refused to transfer the land back to its original owners, stating they signed a 99-year freehold lease in 2006.

With support from Oxfam, locals have given the company until early December to vacate the land. Beyond this date, Hussein warns their grievance may not stay peaceful. “So far we have not challenged the security at the plantation. But we are getting tired; that land is ours.”

Scenes like this are not confined to Kisarawe but are playing out across Tanzania’s countryside, where 80 per cent of the country’s 40 million population still lives.

Unrest has erupted in several districts in recent months, says Reginald Martin of the Legal and Human Rights Centre in Dar es Salaam, with displaced smallholders accusing foreign investors of bypassing proper land titling procedures. “These,” Martin says, nodding at stacks of manila folders piled high on his desk, “are all land disputes.”

Land is the key productive asset in subsistence agriculture, which remains the backbone of Tanzania’s economy. Despite this, many smallholders now find themselves in direct competition for land with foreign investors, with the government aggressively promoting large-scale agricultural projects as “win-win” deals for Tanzania.

Since 2006, the government, which is promised jobs, enhanced food security and a boost to state coffers, has leased some 600,000 hectares of farmland – an area roughly the size of Munster – to Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indian, US and European companies.

Critics say the idea that foreign investments represent “win-win” scenarios for host countries is a myth. In an analysis of more than 400 land contracts from across Africa, Oxfam’s 2011 Land and Power: The growing scandal surrounding the new wave of investments in land report found that the clear beneficiaries were investors.

Deals were struck only when major tax concessions, vague job-creation agreements and unrestricted export clauses were written into contracts, the report found, while the most vulnerable populations were often “evicted from their land with little or no recourse to justice”.

In Tanzania’s case, part of the reason locals can be summarily evicted from their land, Martin believes, rests with poor implementation of the country’s somewhat unusual land laws.

At independence in 1961, Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, created a socialist republic, abolishing private property and becoming sole custodian of all lands.

Since 1985 the country has gone over to a more open market economy, and the 1999 Village Land Act has significantly strengthened villagers’ land rights. The two main land types today are village land and general land, with only general land reserved for use by investors.

“But the problem,” says Martin, “is the best land is village land, which is what investors want. The government still has the Nyerere mentality of controlling everything, so they just seize land for investors.”

The way the government has handled some recent land transactions with its foreign suitors has disappointed Marc Wegerif, economic justice campaigner with Oxfam in Dar es Salaam. “It is ironic for a country about to celebrate 50 years of independence from colonial rule,” says Wegerif, who has closely monitored the stand-off with Sun Biofuels in Kisarawe, “that it is signing off on 99-year leases for huge tracts of land.”

Some 500km (311 miles) west of Kisarawe, the mood is lighter in Mkungugu, a village high up in the Great Rift Valley in the Iringa district. In a simple corrugated structure serving as the village pub, locals are gossiping about rumoured land grabs in nearby villages.

Mkungugu borders Ruaha National Park, and the adjacent land is in high demand. Ruaha’s safari tourism is booming and tour operators, many of which are foreign-owned, are keen to develop tourist resorts along the park’s boundaries.

Yet Mkungugu’s residents are unfazed by this outside threat. And the reason: they have just had their land officially surveyed and registered with the land registry in Iringa, receiving a certificate of customary right of occupancy in the process. Similar in legal standing to a deed, such certificates guarantee villagers’ tenure on their demarcated plots.

“For me, it’s about security, knowing this land will go to my children when I die,” says Danisia Mikomgoni, a widow with five children, of her certificate.

“Grabbing will not be a problem here,” her eldest son, Ali, adds. “Nobody will tamper with our land.”

Measures like these are a vital defence against land grabs, says James Davey, Tanzanian country director with Concern Worldwide. “What they are doing is building the confidence of people to say, ‘This is my land.’ Because a deed for your land is the basis of a secure economy.”

Nyerere’s legacy is that “most Tanzanians don’t see land as a commodity, even today”, says Davey. “I heard of one farmer giving away the deeds of his land for a few beers. Land had no intrinsic value to him, so ownership of it was pointless.”

With so many “land-hungry” countries sizing up investments, the danger as Davey sees it is that Tanzanian smallholders will get a raw deal in this latest land rush. “Investors feed on the ignorance of villagers about their land rights. So what we’re trying to do is sensitise people about these rights.”

Beyond Iringa, the threat of land grabs remains. Sizya Lugae, a land-use expert with Irish Aid in Dar es Salaam, worries that more land will fall into the hands of investors, with just 4 per cent of the total stock of village land having “clean” deeds. “There is a big potential for grabbing if the government is not careful,” he says. “What they are doing in Iringa is very progressive, but Iringa is a small dot in a big hungry mouth.”

Irish Times

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