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Saturday, April 9, 2011

BEYOND THE MYTH OF PLENTY OF LAND

If you want land just ‘go to Africa’. It ‘has plenty’. In essence that is how it all begun – the myth.

This is the myth that there is lot of land up for grabs. Strange enough it still persists years after being used to justify colonial conquest. Now it is used to legitimate investment land acquisitions.

But how plenty is this land? In the case of Tanzania we are told we have more than 44 million hectares that are potential for agriculture. To buttress the myth we are also told that we barely cultivate 11 million hectares. We are thus lambasted for not utilizing nearly 75 percent of land.

Yet we are not really told that 44 million hectares divided by 44 million people is equals to what.

Recent killings in Madale village in the outskirts of Dar es Salaam have ironically brought this myth to the fore. In what should not be regarded as an isolated case, two people were killed after villagers clashed with a group of ‘bouncers’ who were hired to demolish their houses said to be built on a piece of land owned by what land rights activists would regard as an absentee landlord.

Why such a conflict in a country with plenty of land? That seems to be central question in debates that continue to rage on in social media platforms. In an otherwise well researched article, Angel Navuri props it up and, probably unwittingly, thus perpetuates the myth of plenty.

She thus states categorically: “Arable land in Tanzania is plentiful” (The Guardian 09/04/11). In an ironic twist she uses Kiteto District as a case in point. The irony lies in the fact that land is also central to pastoralism that defines a number of dwellers in that district. Probably due to the ‘Agriculture First’ (Kilimo Kwanza) mantra she succumbs to the same anti-pastoralist discourse. To her credit though she ends up providing the following quote from the District Land Officer which demystifies the myth of plenty: “Kiteto is experiencing apprehension because of influx of land speculators who are acquiring huge chunks of land and keep it idle” (Ibid.) If there is such plenty of land why then do villagers, pastoralists in particular, are apprehensive of land grabbers?

She also offers this Malthusian demystification: “The availability of land for agriculture is not uniform in Tanzania. This is usually dictated by the population pressure. Some areas are sparsely populated, for example in Rukwa, Tabora and Kigoma regions, whereas in other regions like Kilimanjaro, Arusha, Mbeya and Kagera, the population per square kilometer is relatively dense”. Yet this does not sufficiently explain why even in other areas land is not that accessible.

All this brings us back to the question of the state’s landlordism. By vesting so much power in the presidency as far as land control is concerned, Tanzanians do not have plenty of land. We are talking of a country that has been setting aside more than a quarter of its land through these reserved land variants: National Parks, Game Reserves and Wildlife Management Areas. Important as they are, the state expands them even at the expense of our own land and livelihood.

We are also talking about a country that is consolidating its ‘land bank’ through the Tanzania Investment Centre (TIC) primarily for the sake of foreign investors. TIC’s official website which is not that regularly updated estimates the bank to be holding about 2.5 million hectares. Moreover, this is a state that even displaces its citizens for the sake of foreign mining companies.

Land Rights Research and Resources Institute (LARRRI/HAKIARDHI) has recently published a book entitled ‘Accumulation by Land Dispossession and Labour Devaluation in Tanzania: The Case of Biofuel and Forest Investments in Kilwa and Kilolo.’ It shows that over 14 thousands hectares were shrewdly acquired, by a British investor, from 12 villages of Kilolo District in Iringa Region. This is only a tip of an iceberg as land alienation continues unabated countrywide.

Whilst land conflicts are simmering, from Kiteto to Kilosa and from Tegeta to Tarime, why are we still blindly wallowing in such a colonial and neo-colonial myth of plenty of land? And even if it is plenty is it plentiful according to and for whom? After all plenty is a very relative notion.

As it has been invoked in ‘Why Land matters to Africans regardless of Agriculture’, nothing can really compensate us for the loss of our land. That reality should be our focus. Not just any myth.

If there is one last strong demystifying argument against the myth of plenty of land in our country then it is contained in this question: Why do large-scale investors in Hanang, Mbarali and elsewhere sublet local small-scale farmers? The answer is obvious: Our land is not so plenty!

© Chambi Chachage

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