Investments that aim at eliminating poverty, creating jobs, and promoting prosperity are generally lauded and promoted. But when investments compromise the ability of the individual or community to achieve prosperity, enriching the few on the back of the others, that investment should be called out and outlawed.
Large scale agro investments have potential gains and the possibility to advance prosperity, but unfortunately not in Africa, where these investors exploit the people, disrupt their way of life and ignore the needs of the people while pursuing their gainful interests. Rather than these investors engaging the land owners, respecting their dignity and rights, and bringing them to a negotiation table when need arises, they intimidate, coax, and bribe them. These investors’ self-seeking interests have often hindered the achieving of prosperity that such investment could bring to the people.
Since the sharp increase in the international food prices in 2007−2008, foreign agro investors and their African surrogates have doubled their steps in Africa, acquiring large communities’ fertile land, while offering the people little or no compensation. These investors often focus on satisfying their own selfish needs and have failed to consider that land represents major economic resources for Africans and is therefore critical for the survival and achievement of prosperity for the people.
Tanzania is one of the countries in Africa that has been hit by the wanton quest for large fertile farmlands by large agro investors, with the result that the quest for farmland has reached a crises and conflict between the locals and investors. The ongoing conflict in Southern Highlands regions of Tanzania; Ruvuma, Njombe, Iringa, Mbararli and Sumbawanga provides a good picture of large-scale agro investment that has turn out to be a curse rather than a blessing to the local communities.
Given the concern of the sisters working in this region of Tanzania over conflicts between the local communities and big agro investors concerning the acquisition of land and land resources the sisters reached out to Africa Faith & Justice Network (AFJN) in Washington DC, inviting the organization to work with them to ensure that these vulnerable communities are protected and their voices heard where it needs to be heard.
Advocacy Training for the Sisters in Tanzania
From 8−12 October 2018, AFJN held an advocacy training workshop for about 60 Catholic Sisters from various religious communities in this region. With the sisters were 13 representative farmers from these rural communities gathered at Kamaldolis retreat center at Mafinga to reflect on issues Africa faces in global world, the meaning of land to the Africans and the impact of agro business investment on socio-economic life of individuals, families, and society. The group also reflected on Catholic faith, the dignity of the person and Christian expectation when the dignity of the individual is at stake as well as what to do when the government has failed to protect the people it is meant to protect. Sisters were also prepared to hold town hall meetings where they listen to those who are directly suffering the impact of unjust systems and discuss various ways of holding accountable those who have the power to change the system.
1. Town Hall Meetings
On October 11th, the sisters travelled to two of the communities impacted by the large scale agro investment − Ludodolelo and Muwimbi villages, both in Mafinga and Iringa districts– to conduct town hall meetings. In these communities, Silverland Ltd, a large agribusiness company, has acquired thousands of acres of community farmland for commercial farming.
On the sisters’ arrival, the communities’ centers were already filled with both men and women, young and old. The people greeted and welcomed them with delight, especially for recognizing their struggle and having come to be with them. During the meeting, the sisters offered the people the opportunity to express their concern. The people in general were delighted to have the opportunity to express their concerns and to be listened to attentively. They opened their heart and mind to share with the sisters their plight and received with gratitude encouragement from the sisters.
1.a. Silverland Company, a less known agribusiness in the Community
When the sisters engaged the communities, they learned the hard truth that strengthened them for advocacy visits to the district commissioners responsible for these communities. The sisters learned that the community had received no prior information about the agro investments in their communities nor regarding the activities of the investors. In Muwimbi community, for instance, no one, not even the community leader, was able to provide the identity of Silverland Company. They have no knowledge of the owner or of the country of origin of the company. All the community knows is that the company is managed by a white man and that the company is linked to South Africa and to the former Tanzania’s minister for agriculture.
1.b. Intimidation, Corruption and Lack of Community free and prior consent
The sisters also learned that the community were forced and coaxed into accepting a long term (99 years) lease of their land. In Muyimbe community, the people told the sisters how some of them were offered the sum of 57,742 shillings, an equivalent of $25, to sign the land lease. The people recalled how Silverland company’s representatives bombarded their community one evening with water cannon, police and police dogs to intimidate the community and its leaders into signing the land deal. The community told the sisters that the company promised them better jobs for everyone, yet have employed only women who must work 12 hours every day with little pay. This pattern of employment, they lamented, has impacted negatively their family life and changed their traditional way of life where men, not women, are the sole providers for the family.
1.c. Leased Land becamea private property, no more Community access
The communities further grieved about the loss of their access roads that connect community members to one another; these have been closed down by the company. The closure has forced the community members to walk miles to visit each other, go to market, school, or attend any social or cultural events. Because the community land has been taken, the local farmers have to trek long distances also in search of land to cultivate. These communities are hurting because, as they said, they can no longer go into their land to pick wild fruit, search for leaves for medicine, nor can they shelter again under their own tree when it is too hot during their long treks now that it is fenced around with electric wires,. An elderly woman lamented that since the confiscation of their forest, her natural pharmacy, she can no longer practice her native healing.
1.d. Community Water Confiscated for Irrigation
The sisters also learned that not only did the agro investors take the communities’ land and source of employment; the companies also confiscated their water supply. Again, in Muwimbi village, the community told the sisters how the Silverland investors confiscated the only stream that gave water to the village and, in addition, channeled the water to irrigate the wheat farm. The people, especially the women, expressed great fear over inadequate sanitation due to lack of access to water. Evidently, when a community lacks clean water and adequate sanitation, the health and the economy of that community will likely be severely affected. It was very disturbing when an elderly man shared how he was now hardly able to attend public gatherings due to lack of personal hygiene resulting from lack of water.
1.e. “…injustice speaks for itself!!”
What the sisters heard from these communities, including the oppressive attitude of the security personnel in Muwimbi community, who refused the group access to the farm, made the sisters so sad and concerned that one of them screamed, “This is where injustice speaks for itself!!” It was obvious to the sisters that these local communities are suffering physically, psychologically and economically and that their greatest pain and suffering were the confiscation of the water supply and the restriction on moving from one place to the other in their own communities.
- Advocacy Meeting with the District Officials in Response to Community Engagements
The plight of the community to the obvious injustices elicited sadness and anger in the sisters. These feelings propelled the advocacy visits made to four district officers. The sisters raised up their voice against the injustice to these communities, demanding that the district officers use their position to protect the interests of the communities and not the big investors. In each office, the sisters spent time arguing their case, basing their arguments on the principles of Catholic Social Teachings and the UN Environmental Impact Assessment. Some of the officials were warm and welcoming to the sisters, promising to look out for their constituents in future investment negotiation while some were very confrontational.
2.1. In Muwimbi the district commissioner’s threat did not work
In Muwimbi for instance, the district commissioner threatened the community members for attending the town hall meeting and calling off the already scheduled appointment for the visit but the sister were relentless and decided to go to sit in his office until he listened to them. During the visit, he tried to intimidate the sisters by telling them that it is not in their domain to get involved in land issues because he had the right and power to take their convent and church land. He also told them how he planned to arrest the AFJN staff for organizing the town hall meeting. When the sisters stood their ground and refused to be intimidated, but rather confronted him for his use of threats and power to subdue the community, he became sober. At the end of the sisters’ engagement with him, he promised to hold a town hall meeting with the community to listen to their concerns. He actually kept to his word because the community called to say that he continues to meet with then, listening to them and promising to see that the contract with Silverland is reviewed. The community also said that at the end of the meeting with them, he ordered the company to open up the flow of water to the community, which the company did immediately. As of the writing of this report, the community has their water back, thanks to the power the sisters’ advocacy.
2.2. Sisters’ appeal to President of Tanzania John Magufuli
The sisters’ advocacy effort did not end at the district levels. They sent advocacy letters to the regional minister and the President of Tanzania John Magufuli, requesting them to protect the vulnerable communities in Tanzania from big agro investments. In the letters left behind with all the government officials, including the president, the sisters warned that the Tanzanian people, and their land, seeds, and cultural values could be destroyed by these big agricultural investors if the government continues to invite them into the country without putting the interest of the people first.
In all, the sisters are not against any investments that bring prosperity to the people. They support the idea of investments targeted at eliminating poverty and creating employment for the people, but not investments that enrich the few by depriving the poor in local communities. The sisters see big agriculture as having potential to create joy and help the community to build prosperity. Nevertheless, they caution the government and those in power on big agricultural investments. In the word of Benjamine William Mkpapa, the former president of Tanzania (1995 to 2005), “We can’t win the war against poverty with weapons that we do not have. The most reliable weapon of every Tanzanian is Land. By using land as land or collateral, we can overcome poverty… Land is the only resource capable of pulling every Tanzania out of poverty”