A total of 852 smallholder farmers from Mbarali, Mbeya have filed a case in the High Court of Tanzania at Mbeya as they seek to prevent the government’s plans to evict them from their land.
Ezekia Kimanga and his 851 other applicants in the case are suing the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Land, Housing and Settlement Development (First Respondent) and the Attorney General (Second Respondent).
The applicants are villagers residing and engaging in agricultural activities within 23 villages situated in the Mbarali district which are Mahango, Mkunywa, Ikeha, Nyangadete, Magigiwe, Vikaye, Igunda, IvalanjiIkanutwa, Nyeregete, Mwanavala, Ibumila, Songwe, Warumba, Ukwavila, Kapunga, Iyala, Luhanga, Madundasi, Msanga, Simike, Kilambo and Udindilwa.
The move follows the pending expiration of the 90-day notice the applicants had served the government, informing it of their intention to seek a court’s intervention in the matter concerning the threat of eviction from their land.
Jebra Kambole, an advocate who is representing the applicants in the case, told The Chanzo on Tuesday that they have decided to sue the government because efforts to resolve the matter outside the court have failed to bear any fruit.
“This application is of extreme urgency as the government has prohibited the farmers from tilling their land which has already been cleared for cultivation,” Kambole noted during an interview.
“The farmers need to plant their seeds by latest mid of February 2023 and if they fail to do so in this rain season, they suffer poverty and hunger in the coming months,” added Kambole.
“Also, the intended eviction is about to be carried out at a time when villagers have not been shown, or allocated, any alternative places for the settlement by the government,” Kambole told The Chanzo. “This, in essence, reduces the status of these Tanzanian citizens to that of refugees in their own country.”
Responding to the question from The Chanzo regarding the case, Minister of Land, Housing and Human Settlement Development Dr Angelina Mabula said she has no information about the case.
Tensions between smallholder farmers and government authorities in Mbarali have existed for quite some time now, particularly between the 23 villages in the district and the Ruaha National Park, with the latter claiming that the villages exist in its land.
On February 15, 2020, eight ministries responsible for conservation visited Mbarali as part of the government’s efforts to find a solution to the 10-year-old conflict but no solution was brokered.
Authorities say that the villages are inside the Ruaha National Park according to the GN No. 28 of 2008 but have failed to work on the advice of former President John Magufuli who advised against destroying the villages, demanding their formalisation.
On January 16, 2019, Magufuli, who died on March 17, 2021, ordered an immediate stop in the authorities’ exercise to destroy villages said to be in the areas of conservation, which were estimated to be around 366 across the country, urging “wisdom” to apply in the demarcation exercise.
But smallholder farmers in Mbarali woke up to shocking news on October 25, 2022, thanks to the government’s announcement that five villages and 47 hamlets from 14 villages should be evicted to allow the expansion of the Ruaha National Park.
Making the announcement, Dr Mabula mentioned the villages that would be affected 100 per cent by the exercise namely Luhanga, Madundasi, Msanga, Iyala and Kalambo with a population of 21,252 people, saying people should not be around those areas and the villages’ registration should be revoked.
On January 17, 2023, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa visited Mbarali where he announced that 34 villages out of 39 which had been pronounced to be within Ruaha National Park will be spared from evacuation, while the residents in the remaining five villages will be removed from the reserve after being compensated for their land.
“The team of ministers from eight ministries which has been dealing with this issue has done a great work leading to an adjustment of the boundaries of the national park, which was proclaimed in the GN. The five villages have to be removed because they are in sensitive areas,” the government-owned Daily News newspaper quoted Mr Majaliwa as saying.
Majaliwa also said that the government has approved requests by residents of the five villages who have been lined up for relocation to continue tending to their crops until they are harvested, according to a report by the Daily News.
But according to reports that The Chanzo received from smallholder farmers in Mbarali, the dust is far from settling as far as the tension between them and government authorities is concerned.
Between January 1 and January 2, 2023, this journalist visited Mnazi, one of the villages located in the Mbarali district, whose people have been ordered to leave, and listened to people’s frustrations caused by the government’s directive.
Many people here seem to be unsure about their future and are very sensitive to talking to journalists as they fear that that would put them on a collision course with authorities and make their lives difficult.
Not knowing what to do to make the situation any better, Paulinus Msigwa wonders how come can the government order him and his fellow smallholders to leave a land which he has a title deed for.
“We are not refugees here,” Msigwa, 38, tells The Chanzo during an interview. “We have been living here all our lives; living and cultivating our land. Our village is legally recognized. The land we cultivate also has government-issued customary title deeds.”
During the course of its work in Mbarali, The Chanzo had an access to a number of customary title deeds issued to many villagers in Mnazi, some going as back as 1999.
Farmers even established their cooperative society, Nguvukazi Mwanavala AMCOS Limited which was legally registered by local authorities.
Abdulkarim Abasi is a sixty-year-old smallholder farmer in Mnazi who told The Chanzo that he “feels bitter” when he thinks about how he’s going to raise his family now that they have been ordered to leave the only place he has ever known in his entire life.
“I’ve lost like Sh4.8 million by renting a farm and buying other essential agricultural needs as we speak,” Abasi, wearing a white robe and supporting himself with a walking stick, tells The Chanzo. “I can no longer cultivate the farm. How am I going to recover my money?”
Villagers complained about their inability to go out and tend their farms as that would risk arrest and other unknown forms of mistreatment from authorities, choosing to stay inside their houses and wait “for miracles to happen,” as one villager put it.
On January 19, 2023, Mbeya regional commissioner ordered Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA), the state-run conservation and tourism agency, to “deal effectively” with anyone who will be found in Mnazi and other areas where people have been ordered to leave.
An urgent plea
The litigation strategy that affected communities in Mbarali is taking to save themselves from the government’s plans to evict them follows the previous strategies taking a long time to produce expected outcomes.
These include the one that involved engaging the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) and asking for an intervention where Paulinus Msigwa led a delegation of four people to see the party’s deputy chairperson (Tanzania Mainland) Abdulrahman Kinana in late December 2022.
Jebra Kambole, the lawyer representing affected communities in their lawsuit against the government, said that the case will be brought for mention on February 15, 2023, at the High Court of Tanzania, Mbeya.
He said the case is of high importance as the land in dispute is resided by applicants with their families, including children who are also attending school in the same area and the action by the government will affect the people and their families.
“Within the land in dispute, there are village government offices, churches, schools, burial places, and traditional and cultural places,” noted the lawyer during an interview with The Chanzo. “All these will be affected if the action by the government or its agencies will continue.”
“Some applicants took loans from banks and pledged their title deeds, on the land in dispute, and they expect to pay the loan through cultivation and farming,” he added. “That will not happen if people get evicted from the land.”