By Kizito Makoye
DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tanzania has begun a nationwide program to seize land left undeveloped by investors and return it to poor farmers, in a bid to quell conflicts between farmers, herders and developers.
For more than a decade, foreign investors have bought up large tracts of land for agriculture or for energy projects, but many have left the land unused.
Agriculture is the backbone of Tanzania's economy and more than 80 percent of the population depend on it for their livelihood.
William Lukuvi, the minister for lands, housing and human settlements development said the government would start to identify farms or land parcels larger than 20 hectares (50 acres) which are deemed "idle" in preparation for their re-distribution to other users.
"Our intention is to identify those holding large areas and farms without developing them. We will revoke their title deeds and give the land to those in need," he said last month.
Lukuvi said the government aims to target and discourage investors who buy and hold onto land solely for its speculative value instead of investing and developing their assets. This encroaches on the livelihood and rights of local farmers, he added.
About a quarter of Tanzania's 48.7 million hectares (120 million acres) of agricultural land is cultivated by peasant farmers, according to Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries estimates.
CONFLICTS OVER WATER, LAND
For decades, often deadly conflicts have broken out between farmers and herders over access to land and water.
Frequent drought has forced herders, who usually stay in the mountains, down into the valleys where most farming takes place, raising tensions between the two groups.
Godfrey Massay, an expert on land investment at Arusha-based charity, Tanzania Natural Resource Forum, said the government's initiative could help ease clashes over land.
However he warned that it should not be seen as a panacea for recurring conflicts without government investment in supportive infrastructure.
"Herders need access to water sources without any encumbrances and farmers need to farm peacefully," he said.
Both groups need to be consulted on their needs, before decisions are made about land use, Massay added.
Tanzania's national land policy aims to protect the customary rights of local communities to land. Despite this, village lands have been bought up.
Massay described landlords who buy land and hold it for speculative value alone as "boils that need to be lanced".
One of the conditions attached to the land title is for the holder to develop land within three years from the time the title was issued, he said.
"When a landholder fails to develop without any good cause, the Commissioner for Lands is allowed to revoke the title."
Since he rose to power, President John Magufuli has taken steps to monitor and improve statutory control over the country's land sector in an effort to tackle inefficiencies and corruption.
William Ole Nasha, the deputy minister for agriculture, livestock and fisheries told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the government is currently reviewing land titles for a total of 549,000 hectares (1.3 million acres).
In May, the government revoked ownership of more than 1,800 hectares (4,400 acres) of land to redistribute it to local people in an effort to resolve recurring conflicts between farmers and herders.
"Everybody has got his share. I don't see why farmers and herders should ever quarrel again," said Andrew Jaka, a farmer in the Mvomero district in the country's eastern Morogoro region, who received 5 hectares (12 acres) as part of the deal.
Residents of Luhanga village in the Mbarali district in Tanzania's southern highlands who had lost 5,000 hectares (12,350 acres) of land to an investor told the Thomson Reuters Foundation of their gratitude to the government for giving it back to them.
"Our rights had been violated by this investor but we thank the government for bringing back our land," said Ismail Chungu, Luhanga village's executive officer.
Most people in the village opposed the investors' move to take their land which threatened their day-to-day livelihood.
Others told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they had been forced to find odd jobs to survive.
"We could hardly get enough food for the entire year. I had to work for others in order to support my family for the rest of the year," said Rozalia Mashaka, a resident of Luhanga.
"I am happy that we have got our land back. I will grow enough food to feed my family," she said.
(Reporting by Kizito Makoye, Editing by Paola Totaro and Alex Whiting; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)