Responsible land based investments, rising benefits, reducing conflict

IPP Media | 29 August 2023

Responsible land based investments, rising benefits, reducing conflict

Investors in the land sector have something in common: acquiring large tracts of land that they are unable or unwilling to develop. Only a small part of the land is put into good use, usually with the aim to silence people who might wonder why the investor, a company or an individual, acquired the land.

It so happens that in some cases investors acquire land not for the sole purpose of developing it but for using it as collateral when they apply for loans from banks and other financial institutions. Such land could remain “idle” for years while communities nearby face shortage of land for agriculture and other sources of livelihood.

The situation has often created conflicts between communities and the investors, some of which have turned bloody. When the situation becomes too hot to handle, such investors have sold the land to other investors and in so doing, transferring the conflict to another party instead of solving the problem.

Cases of investors hoarding large parcels of land abound in Tanzania. Examples can be found in Mvomero and Kilosa Districts in Morogoro Region, and Rufiji District in Pwani Region, among others.

However that story is now set to change. In a recent development, probably the first of its kind in Tanzania, GRL Tanzania Lt relinquished a total of 14,173 hectares of land to three villages in Mufindi and Kilombero districts. The company handed back 4,670 hectares to Ukami Village in Mufindi District which it had acquired way back in 2016, 3,500 hectares to Chogo village also in Mufindi District which it had acquired in 2016 and 6,003 and to Kitete village in Kilombero District which it had acquired in 2013.

The company also shall offer 14,477,000/- to Ukami village to enable it to implement various projects to improve social services, according to a contract signed by the two parties on August 16, 2023.

Currently GRL manages three plantation blocks in Uchindile, Idete and Mapanda with approximately 15, 500 hectares of planted forest. The company’s objective is to grow trees for a wide range of forest products.

The decision to give back land to communities has improved the cordial relationship with the villages to a new level and reduced any chances of conflict between the two parties. It has also built mutual trust between the parties as both have no reservations about each other.

Fedy Lubida, the Chairperson of Ukami Village government says that pressure on existing village land will be reduced after the company has relinquished land which the village had sold to them nine years ago. Over the years villagers have understood the importance of land and tree farming has become the lifeline of the community as a result of which pressure has been mounting on the village government when it comes to allocating land to meet the needs of community members. “It is unusual for a company to return land to the community even if it doesn’t use it. Villagers are grateful because the company has realized there was no point of hoarding this land while the demand for land in the community is growing due to rising local population and an influx of people from other areas in the country who want to try their luck in tree farming. Apparently, there is never enough land for a community,” he says.

Ukami village has scored a double in the sense that they got their land back and 14, 477,000/- with which to undertake projects that will improve social services. “The village council will decide which projects to fund but certainly the money will not be squandered,” he adds.

Women were not left out in the process that finally saw Ukami Village getting back their land from the investor. Besides those who are members of the village council, other women participated in the process through other channels including village assemblies. “We took part in the discussions to get back our land so the final decision has taken our views into consideration. Women are also beneficiaries of operations of GRL as some are employed in the farms while others run supporting services like food vending and earn money,” says Upendo Nguge, a resident of Ukami Village.

When GRL acquired land from the village, some people sold their land with the hope of improving their lives. However today they regret their decisions and won’t repeat the mistake if given another chance.

“I sold my piece of land to GRL nine years ago. I got good money at that time which enable me to build a house and buy a motorcycle but now I am a poor man. The motorcycle is gone, the house is dilapidated because I have no money to refurbish it and I have no land to my name. I have learnt that selling land is inviting poverty in the family because land is the only wealth that never loses value,” says Apolo Athanas, a resident of Ukami Village. He hopes to get another piece of land from the land that has been given back by GRL, in which case he says he will not sell it.

GRL Ltd has made it clear that they have relinquished land to the three villages for operational and economic reasons and not because of pressure from anyone. It is a decision made without duress. Neither was the decision made because of conflicts between the said villages and their neighbours. “We conducted an evaluation of our investments and came to the conclusion that the land which we have given back to the villages is not good for planting trees. It would also be difficult to manage the farms because the slopes are very steep and the soil is not suitable for pine and eucalyptus plantations. There was no point for us to keep the land and we could sell it to other companies but we found it wise to give it back to the communities because they need it,” explains Victor Kimei, GRL Environmental, Social and Governance Manager “It is also one way of acquiring a social licence so that we work and live with the villagers in harmony,” he adds.

GRL Ltd has been operating in Mufindi and Kilombero Districts for close to 20 years during which they have made significant contributions to the improvement of social services in various villages. In Kitete Village, for example, they have built a dispensary, the village government office, classrooms and teachers’ houses. Similar infrastructure has been constructed in Ukami and Chogo villages while the government has complemented these efforts with provision of electricity in all the three villages.

“Forget about the social services that we enjoy as a community but GRL provides employment opportunities to all villagers, especially the youth. People have built good houses, others have bought motorcycles and some are running small businesses and you can trace all that money back to the presences of GRL,” says Alex Gerald, Chairman of Kitete Village government. “We are happy because we have regular and reliable income due to operations of the company,” he adds.

Hyacinth Edward Libandama is the District Land officer for Kilombero District. He has taken part in the process that culminated into the handing over of land to Kitete Village. He explains that all stakeholders from village to district level participated in the process that was also transparent. “No one was left out at any stage of the process. Villagers know what has transpired and have given their consent for GRL to return the land to them. I commend GRL for their wise decision because they could also have sold it to other companies or just keep it as it is for years. But they realized that the village needs land as its population is growing and demand for land is rising,” he says. Libandama who also represented the District Executive Director for Mlimba District Council of Kilombero District looks forward to undertaking land use plans for the land which has been handed back by GRL. “We welcome other investors as we have set aside enough land for the purpose,” he adds.

Behind the process to transfer land and the ultimate hand over of the 14,173 hectares to the three villages stands Landesa, a land rights organization that designed the modality of the transfer process and coordinated the negotiations. Masalu Luhula, the Land Tenure Expert at Landesa Tanzania Office says that during the negotiations, parties were guided by the responsibility to balance needs of villagers and those of the company so as to arrive at a win-win situation for both parties.

“This is a typical case of responsible land based investment and the first of its kind in Tanzania where the investor decides to hand over land that they don’t use so that communities can make good use of it. And mind you, the company has not demanded compensation or refund of any costs incurred. It could have decided to sell the land to another company but it was keen to protect secure land rights and tenure of locals instead of violating them,” he explains.

One of the principles of responsible land based investment requires that investments should protect the interests and livelihoods of locals and investors are required to comply to this principle voluntarily. It also tasks NGOs and CSOs to build the capacity of community members to negotiate with investors when it comes to selling their land and other matters related to land rights and ownership, hence the participation of Landesa in this case.

“This is a lesson that responsible land based investment can be implemented successfully in Tanzania. What we have found out is that legal compliance alone is not enough. Companies have a moral duty to recognise and protect legitimate tenure rights of those affected by investment projects and facilitate social services projects that benefit local communities.” says Luhula.

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