It is unbelievable that anyone with the nation’s prosperity at heart could stoop this low. It is ridiculous that anyone can contemplate stealing reserve forest land from the state. And this is especially so when some of the thieves are “decorated” government officials.
Ruvu Forest Reserve covers some 67,000 hectares. It takes in parts of Kisarawe, Kibaha and Bagamoyo districts. It is the northern part of the reserve which is reported to have fallen into the hands of unscrupulous people, some of whom are affluent traders. Part of the grabbed land is reportedly being prepared for construction of structures including fenced residential houses.
Villagers, who have a constitutional right to live off the proceeds of the land, are not allowed to undertake any activities on the appropriated land. The Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Mr Ezekiel Maige, who visited the area during the week, was told by forestry officials that there are high ranking government officials who have decided to acquire land illegally inside the borders of the forest reserve.
A forest officer asked the minister to kick the invaders out. Indeed, encroachment into reserve forest land must be seen as a crime. Those who do so must be evicted. Prompt legal action should follow. The invaders at Ruvu are said to be so rude that they have even threatened to use their influence to engineer job dismissals of some forest officers who have “dared to raise their voices” in condemnation of the encroachment.
Minister Maige has promised to have the invaders kicked out of the forest and the matter investigated thoroughly. The incident calls to mind a sorry spectacle in which a quarter of village land in Kisarawe district was acquired by a British biofuels company in 2008 with the promise of financial compensation, 700 jobs, water wells, improved schools, health clinics and roads.
But the company went bust, leaving the villagers not just jobless but landless as well. Quite often, no compensation is paid for the grabbed land on which the mostly poor villagers subsist, growing crops, hunting animals, gathering firewood and collecting honey. The same story is playing out in other parts of the country as foreign investors buy land but leave some of the poor people worse off when their plans fail.
This is crude, ruthless and insensitivity to other people’s suffering. In Kisarawe, the villagers do not know if the promises will ever be kept. They feel betrayed and are increasingly angry as time passes without answers. They have threatened to slash the jatropha plants if the promised benefits remain elusive.
The situation in Kisarawe is heartbreaking, but the real tragedy is that it is far from unique. Communities elsewhere in the country are losing their land as a result of the massive biofuel targets envisaged by foreign and local companies. Many of the deals with so-called foreign or local investors are in fact 'land grabs' where the rights of the people previously living on the land are ignored, leaving them landless.
While some investors might claim to have experience in agricultural production, many may only be purchasing land speculatively, anticipating price increases in the coming years, is an anti-social practice known as 'land banking.' In fact, the blinkered scramble for land by investors, which eventually ignores the people who live on the land and rely on it for survival, is unwelcome.
The government should ensure that local people are consulted on land deals and that greedy village leaders do not side with incoming investors. The government should also avoid pandering to investors' wishes. It should prioritize existing land use rights.