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February 15, 2009

Growing 'land question' alarm over foreign biofuel investors in Tanzania

by Henry Muhanika*

There is this saying common in most tribal vernaculars and other languages which simply states that where there is smoke there is likely to be fire. In this case the saying is evoked in reference to public complaints heard in various parts of the country, which revolve around land-related complications.

Such a trend gives a hint that fire is quietly smoldering in the land sector and is likely to explode one day, unless timely measures are taken to put it off.

The importance of the land resource to countries like ours, which are not industrialised and are not likely to do so in the near future, need not be unnecessarily belaboured.

Land is the soul of more than 90 percent of the population, which depend on it for food and shelter, as well as making a little money to meet other essentials of life. Under normal circumstances, even a good acreage of land which happens to be rich in a variety minerals has a potential to lift the people of this country from the ranks of the ``poor`` to the well off states. In other words, issues related to land have life-and-death implications to our people, and are consequently too sensitive to be handled casually.

Currently, there are a number of land-related complications, which are a headache to parties involved, especially those on the losing end.

There is a big conflict between smallholder peasants and pastoralists on the use of land in some areas. Clashes in these areas have been common of late, at times leading to loss of lives and property. In some cases Government intervention at local level has not been able to resolve the differences, especially where arbitrators take side, for reasons best known to themselves - and corruption cannot be completely ruled out.

Then there is another looming conflict between the Government and land users in areas which the former has strategically identified as water catchment areas, thus preventing peasants and pastoralists from utilizing them for personal use. The latter do not necessarily see sense in this protection.

Public education to enlighten the peasants on the fact that national interests override individual ones and providing the affected stakeholders with ideal alternative land can help to resolve the matter.

What however, is raising eyebrows and becoming a source of public concern is the ongoing land-grabbing syndrome, which is threatening to leave peasants completely marginalised in some areas.

There are two scenarios in regard to this aspect. First, you have substantial chunks of land in some areas which were allocated to government companies engaged in agricultural commercial activities like ranches and state farms during the years when we were experimenting on building socialism. When the experiment hit the rock, failed state companies had to be privatised, as we all know.

What happened then is that investors, both real and briefcase ones, took over the land as part of the privatisation package. Deal makers did not take into consideration the fact that in some cases such land belonged to people in the respective areas before the state took it over.

Observers and human rights activists are of the opinion that this issue must be revisited to ensure those short-changed in the process get their right.

They say that as public demand for state repossession of Kiwira coal mine, believed to have been sold dubiously is in the air, land deals made under similar circumstances should be revisited.

The second scenario is one where foreign companies are now being allocated millions of hectares of fertile land in order to invest in agriculture, especially bio-fuel plants cultivation.
These promise to increase employment, food supply for home consumption and export, as well as boosting Government coffers through tax payment. Surely these are good intentions, which make economic sense.

But does this necessarily justify allocation of land to foreigners without taking precautions like putting a limit to the acreage they can secure, and ensuring villagers are left with enough land for expansion purposes ?

It is important to note that not only foreigners are engaged in the scramble for land in Tanzania. Local businessmen and women as well as some professionals are also chasing the previous resource for use and speculative purposes.

The concluding remark is that, land allocation in Tanzania must be approached with caution, for it is a source of instability in countries like Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe and others where colonialists mishandled it. Whom shall we blame if we recklessly make the same blunder?

*Henry Muhanika is a Media Consultant.

IPP Media

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