Irrigated farming in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (Photo: Peter Arnold, Inc. / Ron Gilin)
by Bernard James
Dar es Salaam — National elites in developing countries, including Tanzania, have been singled out as among the most notorious land grabbers. The accusation is one of the highlights of a major study on the issue that was conducted last year, which points out that while influential personalities in the countries grow wealthier off land acquired through unfair means, many of their poor, and largely voiceless compatriots are rendered poorer.
Some of those people are displaced from their ancestral land without being satisfactorily compensated, to create room for investments in sectors like mining, the report of the report based on 28 case studies says.
It blames the media for being generally silent on the negative deeds perpetrated by local elites, focusing, instead on land problems with an external dimension.
The report reads in part: "National elites play a much larger role in land acquisitions than has been noted to date by media reports that have focused on foreign investors," and proceeds to note that this was a growing phenomenon among nations, and that the manner in which the land grabs were carried out left more harm than benefits.
Published for the first time on December 14 by the International Land Coalition (ILC), it says evidence indicated that the insensible and in some cases violent grabbing of land in rural communities by foreign individuals and institutions was actually made possible by the learned elites and politicians in the name of investment.
The researchers have warned that public outcry over the wave of land grabbing was likely to continue unabated because the rural poor whose livelihood is under threat from such acquisitions have little or no political and policy influence to tip the balance in their favour.
Other highlights are that food is not the main focus of the land deals, with findings showing that out of the 71 million hectares in deals that the authors could cross-reference, 22 per cent was for mining, tourism, industry and forestry and three-quarters of the remaining 78 per cent for agricultural production was for bio-fuels.
The researchers also found that while large land deals can create opportunities, they are more likely to cause problems for the poorest members of society while promised jobs had not yet materialized.
The researchers furthermore blamed governments, which didn't exercise patience to negotiate beneficial deals, and instead rushed into contracts whose net effect was loss of potential long-term tax and lease revenues.
More than 40 organisations collaborated on the Global Commercial Pressures on Land Research Project, which synthesised the 28 case studies, thematic studies and regional overviews.
The report also includes the latest data from the ongoing Land Matrix project to monitor large-scale land transactions, and covers a full decade of land deals from 2000-2010. Those deals amount to more than 200 million hectares of land.
Tanzania is among countries currently faced with increased pressure from foreign investors acquiring unprecedented sizes of land for various bio-fuel projects and food production.
Lack of transparency features prominently in land deals that are usually shrouded in secrecy, and in which local land holders seldom have a say."Governments in many Asian and African countries are not only the main legal landowners but also the legal controllers of land disposition over most of the lands traditionally owned and used by their citizens," says the reports.
The link between land grabbing and the influence of the political elite is confirmed by the Land Rights Research & Resources Institution (HAKIARDHI) which says the elite have taken the centre stage in facilitating land grabbing.
"That is the truth...we have established it in many of our findings that politicians plays a very big role to facilitate acquisition of big lands to investors," says HAKIARDHI Program Officer, Mr Godfrey Massay.
One of the key findings of the reports is categorical that the challenge by governments and land rights activists is to stop dispossession and land allocations that do not serve a genuine public interest, to legally recognise the rights of the rural poor, and to steer towards more equitable models that give a key role to existing land users.
According to the report, weak democratic governance has provided a loophole for the national elite to help people in the name of foreign investors to grab lands of unprecedented size."Despite advances in democratisation around the world, huge deficits of transparency, accountability, and popular empowerment exist and contribute to elite capture of resources," says the report.
The growing demand for food, feed, fuels, and other commodities, combined with a shrinking resources base and the liberalization of trade and investment regimes are among factors driving a new global rush for land.
The report says that urgent action is needed to bring harmful land transfers to a halt, and to redirect capital into more fruitful forms of investment where possible.