Does Tanzania Land Data Tell the Full Story?

Like the red soil flowing through Dicaprio’s fingers in the last scenes of “Blood Diamond,” there are few topics more evocative of the conflicts and complexities of Africa at the crossroads as “The Land”. It would seem a wonder that within a single syllable you could fit so much history, loss, hope and opportunity. Land-Grabbing is today’s defining issue, and certainly in urgent need of attention and consensus, but the debate seems disturbingly disengaged. Like a Russian arguing with an Inuit, neither having a clue what the other is saying, and more worrying perhaps, not caring.

There was an example recently at the World Food Prize Conference in De Moines Iowa. On the one side, the NGO Land Matrix was of the view that Land Grabbing is rampant in Tanzania, while on the other representatives of Tanzanian Farmers disagreed and opined that it didn’t exist at all. It’s interesting because both the international NGO and the National Associations support and promote farmers rights and are in effect farmer advocacy platforms. But from their different perspectives they come to completely different conclusions about land-grabbing. How can an interested observer come to a fair appraisal?  

Without looking under the hoods of their institutional interests, it’s very difficult.

For the aficionado of African land conflicts, or even the distant spectator, the first thing you notice when you open the Land Matrix website is a little jolt of hope: Hard Data! Before you pursue any particular line of inquiry, the lay out with its six analytical graphics immediately implies answers will be forthcoming. If not the mother-load there must be pay dirt of some kind.

After all there does seem to be consensus that greater openness, more transparency in the modern vernacular, is part of the solution. Everybody seems in agreement on that one, small holders, their associations, International NGO’s, development partners and African Governments. And indeed, the Tanzanian Government recently signed The G8-Tanzania Land Transparency Partnership as part of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.

Land Matrix should be congratulated for delivering a big slice of the transparency pie that everyone has agreed is required. But beware the dish turns out to be stronger in presentation than sustenance.  After the jolt of hope, you start to go through the various data packs, sliced and diced by the Land Matrix brainiacs and you will note the repeated caveats that the data is inherently unreliable. And when you consider that a lack of transparency is agreed to be a core sticking point in coming to grips with the problem, a question mark instead of a light bulb appears over the fantastic graphics.

Are we looking at a very professional presentation of the appearances or the actuality? This is an existential question for an NGO like Land Matrix. They need to be rigorous, they need the disclaimers, but more than anything they need the land grabbing. It is their meal ticket. Land Grabbing though is a vague expression, implying immoral or even illegal activities and it cannot be carelessly thrown around without legal risk. Land Matrix uses a much wider and more inclusive term: Land deals. Into this hold-all goes everything from farm land to forest and mining concessions. And out comes a terrifyingly huge number. On the platform of that huge number any number of crusades can be waged and thus the raison d’etre validated.

Considering the issue land grabbing from the National Association’s point of view is like changing which end of the telescope you are looking through. These groups have been working for decades to create strategies, together with government, that will result in the surest, most inclusive and fastest road to development. They need to come up with positions that reflect the views and interests of their members, often including thousands of small holders, while at the same time fitting into the big picture of government policy. In that ongoing process, when risks of this or that option are discussed predatory corporations are often mentioned and discussed so the idea there may be a slippery slope in the vicinity is well understood.

A ubiquitous figure in Tanzanian Land Policy and Agricultural Development position papers is that Tanzania has some 30 million hectares of undeveloped agricultural land - an area ten times the size of Belgium.  A huge number. This is a common situation in Africa. The numbers for the Sudan and the Congo are even larger. It is absolutely incumbent on all parties participating in the development debate to consider how this massive resource can help the country move forward. There is a complicating factor here. It is all owned.  Or at least owned in some sense of the word.  Not a scrap of land of all those millions of hectares is unclaimed. Just as the Masai say that they own all cattle everywhere. Every ethnicity in Tanzania (and the Sudan and Congo) had a traditional claim on territory, often very significantly more than they actually used.        

Tanzania, like other African countries, has done its best to formalize and delimit these tribal claims, while at the same time putting in place systems of titled land tenure that will better mesh with the development needs of a market economy. There is also a considerable international effort to accelerate the metamorphosis of traditional tenure in pursuit of the envisaged developmental benefits. The activists behind this push sometimes seem unaware that while development benefits are easily articulated and impressively quantifiable, there can be considerable social reticence to accelerating the change in land tenure legislation. Though rarely enumerated in strategic discussion, we are talking about land: Land in traditional terms can have more than political, economic or geographic dimensions; it can form part of the very definition of one’s humanity. And while such a suggestion may seem to some the merest fluff before the urgent need of development, it does raise the volatility stakes to consider that those parties closest to the land are literally staking their souls.

African policy makers have been moving forward with the transformative project to reorganize tenure to fit a role in a globalized future. In Tanzania, as in other countries, it is agreed that this is a work in progress. A percentage of arable land is held under title and zoned for commercial farming but most land is held under traditional tenure. In principal, commercial farmers are obliged by law to use their land productively. The “huge number” referred to above is owned, but not used under traditional tenure. If there are viable agricultural projects then investors can approach local communities and initiate processes to get the land titled.

Now perhaps we are getting closer to a perspective from which it’s possible to distinguish between land deals and land grabs. Some anecdotal evidence may bring better definition. From where I am sitting I look onto the slopes of Mt Meru in Tanzania where the Wameru people live. On the south slope of Meru the family plots have been subdivided so often that the gardens are only a few strides across and you couldn’t hammer a shim into a border between brothers without drawing blood. In comparison I prepared a production study in the villages around Chilinze near the coast not many years ago. My question was whether the small holders there that were growing pineapples could expand their production to supply a concentrate plant. I remember a certain village secretary’s answer very well: They had 625 families. Each family was allocated four acres. The village had set aside another four acres for any family that wanted to expand with a cash crop. In addition the village had 20,000acres available. 20,000! Could the project develop a commercial farm? They had land and they wanted to sell.

Again in a way very similar to other African countries, Tanzanian Agricultural policy tries to strike a balance between creating an advantageous environment for Small Holders, while at the same time encouraging commercial farming. In recent years International Development has increasingly laid emphasis on supporting small holders as the fast track to economic growth. With a slowly maturing democracy Small Holders also hold real political power in parliament and also in the associations and representative private bodies which advocate over development policy.

If Tanzania is an example, it would seem that agricultural and land policy are taking a very sensible and well thought out route through a three dimensional mine field of quite some complexity. Land Matrix’s approach is taking surface data from this evolving process. It’s pointing out that the numbers are huge and allowing the audience to assume land deals imply land grabbing. But the fact is, the numbers are huge. African governments have been trying to point this out for some time. We are discussing a transformation on the heroic (or tragic) scale of the American West or Soviet Collectivization. Both in terms of the amount of land and the opportunity represented by that land: It is huge.  As is the social benefit that the process moving forward could potentially bring to Small Holders. That’s the plan. It is what the Tanzanian Government and the other governments are trying to do: Something Huge.

In the end, Land Matrix is a very useful tool but very difficult to draw any conclusions from it on its own without context. It’s very much within the new algorithmic take on understanding things. And that is a little worrying along the lines of American data crunchers having had all the information they needed to stop 9-11, but not enough understanding to draw the right conclusions. It’s a reminder of how complex the problem is and how common are unintended consequences. The Land Matrix implies massive land grabbing and yet from another perspective it’s evidence of just what African Governments are trying to achieve. The Tanzanian Farmer representatives in De Moines are certainly right to discount land grabbing accusations from Land Matrix and its supporters as comparing apples and oranges. But does that mean that land grabbing by any definition doesn’t happen in Tanzania?

Absolutely not.

This issue is not about Land Policy. It is not about registered deals. This is about what is not policy, what is not registered and what is always left unsaid. Between the rarified upper strata where policy is established and the ground where it is executed there is a void. On the one side of that void good intentions propose clear moral limitations, on the other the free-for-all and ethical chaos of how things actually work. Marginal economic gains fall into the hands of the few rather than the many. Land is the safest bet for their future. Appetite for it is sharpening and the maneuvering between individuals, communities and classes insinuates itself into all aspects of life. Scheming to buy land, keep land, get land provides many with a focus not found in the meager opportunity otherwise apparent. As traditional social structures develop toward the future, who wins the struggle to control the land will be a defining factor. Corporations, elites, small holders are all at the table. I have tried to point out that Land Matrix’s graphs aren’t the best approach to come to grips with this reality. More importantly they don’t capture the profundity of the true stakes which, like the blood red soil, are somehow far from statistics and much closer to the soul. 


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