Tanzanian farmers are paying for “conservation” with their land and lives

For over 15 years, small farmers and pastoralists in Tanzania’s Mbarali have been facing threats of eviction, criminalization and violent attacks by the state to expand the Ruaha National Park

October 16, 2023 by Tanupriya Singh
Photo: Tanzania National Parks/Facebook

Located in Tanzania’s Southern Highlands, the district of Mbarali in the Mbeya region has long been considered the country’s “rice basket”. However, for the past year, smallholder farmers in the area have been unable to cultivate the grain even to securely feed themselves, let alone produce for the market. 

These farmers are among 21,252 people in Mbarali who are facing eviction from their land under the guise of a ‘biodiversity conservation’ project— namely, the expansion of the Ruaha National Park (RUNAPA) — being undertaken by the Tanzanian government, with funding from the World Bank. 

There is an extensive history of displacement of local communities along the Great Ruaha River, that runs through parts of Mbarali. But much of what is unfolding now in the district dates back to a government notice (G.N. 28) issued in 2008, when the government initiated plans to expand the area of RUNAPA. Among the areas demarcated for this expansion, which included the Usangu Game Reserve and the Ihefu wetlands, were local villages. 

Speaking to Peoples Dispatch, Esther (name changed), who has been among those at the forefront of the struggle in Mbarali, stated that at the time, residents of one ward as well as one village and two hamlets in a separate ward in the district were slated for removal. However, she said, the people were not given any compensation and were essentially left to fend for themselves. 

“Over 90% of elders [among the displaced] have died since 2008 because it was difficult for them to move and adjust to a new environment,” Esther said.

Trespassers on their own land? 

A report published by Tanzania’s National Audit Office in 2009 also noted that there was no evidence to suggest that a sum of USD 3.3 million which had been authorized as compensation to affected people had indeed been disbursed.

Over the next few years, there were further reports of expansion plans. However, after president John Pombe Joseph Magufuli assumed office in 2015, these plans were halted. 

“During this time, the president was provided with differing narratives regarding the situation in Mbarali,” Esther said. “The district and regional commissioners insisted in their reports that the villagers were trespassers, that the area was not residential, that people were claiming land that was not theirs.” 

“Meanwhile, independent commissions were saying otherwise,” she added. “They documented that there were schools, hospitals and houses in the area. That these were recognized villages and people had been living there since 1974.”

In January 2019, President Magufuli ordered the immediate suspension of the removal of villages and townships said to be located in reserve areas. He further called upon relevant ministers to determine the process of formalizing these villages, and to identify areas within reserves and forests that did not have wildlife or tree cover but with fertile soils to be distributed to herders and farmers who were struggling to find land to raise animals and cultivate crops. 

In 2020, a ministerial delegation was dispatched to Mbarali to see the “real situation” in the district and to advise the president accordingly. After president Magufuli’s death in 2021, the situation began to change, Esther said. “The authorities of RUNAPA started putting up beacons (boundary markers)”. 

On October 25, 2022, the Minister for Lands, Housing, and Human Settlement Developments, Dr. Angeline Mabula, made a public announcement that the villages of Luhanga, Madundasi, Msanga, Iyala, and Kalambo, along with 47 hamlets within the Mbeya region would be deregistered and their residents evicted for the expansion of RUNAPA. 

“Since then, people have not been able to cultivate anything. They do not know the fate of their land. Legal actions have been taken against people in the area…women have been harassed, they have been stripped of their clothes,” Esther said, adding that brutal violence had occurred at the hands of rangers from the Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA), including people being attacked with machetes that had been heated on fires.

Similar, and often fatal, violence was also recorded in a report prepared by the Mbarali Pastoralists Association. It details attacks on pastoralists in search of forage areas by TANAPA forces and the police between the period of 2017 and 2021.

The incidents of violence include people being shot, their cattle being slaughtered, people being chased, run over with a vehicle, and multiple cases of people being hung by their neck, including a 14-year-old child. 

“The people are asking a simple question— How can you remove us?” Esther said. “People do not know where they will live, they do not know how they will feed themselves…if you [the minister] say I should leave, where should I go? What will you give me if I leave? This move of the government, what does it really want to do, if not to kill me?” 

Mbarali villagers seek court action

Approximately 1,000 families in Mbarali have now approached the High Court of Tanzania, Mbeya Division against the government’s plans to evict them.

A group of farmers also spoke about the conditions in the district in front of the then Chairperson of the Permanent Parliamentary Committee during the 2022 Annual General Meeting of Mtandao wa Vikundi vya Wakulima Tanzania or the National Network of Small-Scale Farmers Groups in Tanzania (MVIWATA) — the largest smallholder farmers grassroots movement in Tanzania with over 300,000 members. 

MVIWATA has organized farmers in Mbarali, including by building farmers’ groups and cooperatives, to facilitate collective marketing of rice, savings and credit mechanisms, and the establishment of an Igurisi rice market. 

“Faced with the harsh reality of being displaced from their land, the farmers joined and forged a collective from the affected villages and took the lead in pursuing legal action against the eviction order,” Asha (Name changed), an activist, told Peoples Dispatch

“All those who have been affected, they are mobilizing, be it to attend court hearings or even to organize financial resources,” she said. “There are those who may have lost their spouses, or their child may have been shot, or they might have been taken into police custody, but there is a belief that they will win and go back to their land.” 

In March, the High Court of Tanzania in Mbeya heard one such petition brought by three applicants— including one person from Iyala village (among the five villages slated for removal) — against the Minister for Lands, Housing and Human Settlement Developments, her Permanent Secretary, and the Attorney General. 

The petition sought the orders for the writs of Mandamus and Certiorari to quash the October 25, 2022 decision by Minister Mabula, highlighting that no prior notice or right to be heard had been granted to the communities. The applicants had also notified the court that the government was currently carrying out evictions without prior notice nor any compensation.

The applicants had maintained that following their relocation under G.N. 28, there had been no formal allocation of the reallocated areas through a registration process. However, they stated that they had been residing in their villages for more than 20 years.  

In a welcome development, the High Court ruled in favor of the petition in August, noting that Mabula had not followed established procedures regarding the transfer of land, and that the people of the village had been “denied their fundamental right to be heard”. 

It is also important to note that the evictions and violence facing farming and pastoralist communities in Mbarali is not isolated to the area. Tens of thousands of Maasai people in northern Tanzania are currently resisting displacement, and facing immense violence, in a bid by the government to expand the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and build a game reserve. 

Meanwhile, RUNAPA is one of the main beneficiaries of the World Bank’s USD 150 million Resilient Natural Resource Management for Tourism and Growth (REGROW) project. Under this it is one of the four “Protected Areas” slated for “improvement” in a bid to boost tourism in the country.  

According to Planetary Health Alliance, this approach, called Fortress Conservation which seeks to “preserve” “pristine” or “untouched” nature finds its roots in colonialism, “where colonial state authorities, seeing the need to police “savage” wildlife-encroaching peoples, undertook technical acts of surveying the biological resources of an area.”

This kind of conservation rhetoric, which when deployed leads to the violence displacement of Indigenous peoples and local communities from their lands, has found currency in official discourses around the climate crisis. 

An overlooked yet critical perspective of protected areas is their primitive accumulation function to transfer wealth and immaterial values of nature from colonies to colonizers,” notes Aby L. Sène-Harper, an environmental social researcher and professor at Clemson University.

“They start with the violent dispossession of Indigenous communities, followed by militarized control over the territory, and commodification of lands and wildlife resources by the corporate imperialists.

“Colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy birthed this incommensurable ecological crisis including the rapid decline of wildlife populations… But the propaganda machine in the capitalist core has convinced its population that the poor African and their exploding population are the major drivers of wildlife extinction.” 

Highlighting the colonial undertones of conservation, Asha says that “these pacts on climate change, on mitigation, on adaptation that are coming out of COP meetings, that try to decide on the fate of the majority of the population are basically greenwashing…they create more crises.”

“You cannot have a model of conservation while you are displacing people from their land. You have people that do not know what they are going to eat tomorrow or where they are going to sleep, if they will have a place to call home.

“Conservation at the expense of displacing people is a trend that is growing and people have warned against this. If we talk about issues of conservation, of actions on climate, without centering the rights of Indigenous people and local communities, we are going to endanger their lives.”