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August 10, 2011

Allocating land to investors not easy despite vast non-farmed land

by Nimi Mweta

Global strategies for commercialisation of agriculture and their specific application to African countries in particular remains a problematic equation, due to the reason that few countries in the world have a liberal land acquisition policy like the United States.

In many countries, as far apart in political or cultural terms as Australia and Tanzania, acquisition of land by foreign companies or citizens remains a problem.

Indeed, precautions placed on actual purchase of land are proving to be more of a disservice to local people than if land purchase on a freehold basis was permitted, but that is virtually beyond reach – and only sparely the case in other countries.

Some data bases indicate that total land held on freehold basis in Kenya, whose colonial status structure of land ownership at independence facilitated a breadth of land ownership to be converted to a freehold basis, is around 10 to 12 percent of total arable land.

South African figures are much higher, as used to be the case for Zimbabwe before the traumatic land reform program took off in 1995 or slightly later.

Trying to shift agriculture in Tanzania from peasant farming on a smallholder basis to commercial agriculture is crashing against these realities, and in many cases it is sociopolitical reality which prevails, cramping policy initiative for decades.

When Kilimo Kwanza was promulgated late in 2009 the basic intention was assurance of abundant or at least adequate supplies of food, on account of rising prices in the world market.

This price rise at a global level spelt both dangers and opportunities, the danger being likely inability of the country to import sufficient amounts of grain were acute shortages to arise in future, while opportunities were evident as to how the country’s vast stretches of arable land could be used to earn considerable foreign exchange.

That is why land was being allocated to firms companies to invest in agribusiness (just farming or plus processing and packaging, on a case by case basis).

The framework situation in policy development is to compare the size of arable land with the actual amount of land that is farmed, and then seeking to allocate the rest to agribusiness, in which case it appeared that ‘the sky is the limit.’

Data of the late 1990s had indicated that only three per cent of arable land is actually under cultivation, with a marginal fraction of it under irrigation agriculture, in which case enabling agencies for attracting foreign investors to virtually think of en El Dorado of agribusiness opportunities in the country.

The fact that it is the world market that is in need of vast amounts of crops was an added assurance, where the usual risk element in relation to marketing of produce, or pricing at the local level, was absent.

This kind of strategy is also consonant with the provisions of the land regime in the country, where the president is the custodian of all land on behalf of society, for current and future generations. The need to assure that future generations will have access to land, and won’t have been bought (or as the current term preferred in internet activism and networking, grabbed) reinforces a land ownership regime that militates against commercialisation.

... small peasant holdings....large scale farmers ... have to live side by side.

Were it that there are arable lands where ethnic groups have no tie or connection... it wouldn’t be a problem.
But the reality on the ground is different; there are few such lands. Even national parks find their boundaries constantly encroached by villagers nearby, while experience indicates that no region or district is immune from land contentions.

The problem tends to be more acute when the sort of investment involved relates to acquiring an existing public asset, like the old dairy and wheat farms, or the most controversial case so far, the Mbarali rice farm, as peasants also lay claims. In that case it becomes impossible for authorities to favor investors without risking suspicions of bribes, etc.

Were the government to stick to this format, of allocating vacant land by observing existing law on what is village land and public land that the president (via investment and land authorities) can allocate to investors, it would appear to be a workable formula.

The problem is ‘how to chase away small holders’ who seem to prowl, like hungry wolves near a sheep farm, thus a new dispute seems to arise in an erstwhile peaceful district, once an investor appears on the scene. It isn’t allocating vacant land that causes most problems, but rather reallocating use of village land.

Part of the problem is that it isn’t villagers who decide on the use of the land but authorities at the local level, whose principal level of interest isn’t land use per se, for instance whether it is vacant enough to be placed to an investor.

More often allocating authorities, almost always the district council, see such application (from the Tanzania Investment Centre, ordinarily) as a revenue garnering opportunity, in which case the peasants are replaced for a more tax-efficient user of the land, upon which howls of protest for ‘corruption’ will arise.

The reason for these protests aren’t what activists claim to be, that peasants are denied their land, as in the final analysis the peasants and local authorities don’t quite differ. The issue is whether they actually gain in such deals, and without having titles to the land, they aren’t in a position to negotiate. Despite that there are mechanisms to settle conflicts, often they are intractable because of the deliberate character of land invasion by local residents.

It isn’t investors who invade nearby land for they know the limits of what has been allocated to them, but on the contrary, local people habitually cherish land grabbing, like cattle rustling, as it proves manliness.

In addition, once it is known that a major company wants to farm say biofuels and is negotiating a land ‘deal’ in a district, proposals are swiftly written for financing, with studies and activists of all hue and mode set to prove numerous contentions, from environmental damage to gender impacts of investment.

Once the whole ‘human rights’ fraternity is up in arms, like a crowd banging on empty cans to chase wolves away, prospective investors would to tire and leave – a victory for ‘land struggles.’

IPP Media

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