This week our columnist Gerald Kitabu talked to Rukundo Solomon, a Ugandan lawyer and volunteer researcher attached to the Tanzania’s Lawyers Environmental Action Team (LEAT) in Dar es Salaam on the environment and land resources in East African countries. Excerpts:
QUESTION: How did you manage to volunteer at LEAT?
ANSWER: Well, first of all my name is Rukundo Solomon. I am 25 years old and I am a Ugandan. I completed my law degree at the University of Dar es Salaam in 2011. I had been studying under the Inter-University Council of East Africa Exchange Programme Scholarship, which is now currently in abeyance. I got a volunteering post at LEAT through recommendations of my professor at the University of Dar es Salaam.
Q: Why did you decide to venture into land law and the environment in general?
A: I took keen interest in Land Law and Environmental Law during my undergraduate studies because I realised that land and environment together form the very foundation of our existence. The two are in fact inseparable. Land is the very livelihood of the peasant farmer but it is also the base on which the industrialist must build his factory and also the same ground on which we all have our homes. I was therefore attracted by land law which governed the distribution and ownership of the land.
I was further attracted to land law by the unique nature of Tanzania’s land law system. Mwalimu Nyerere bequeathed to Tanzanians a land ownership system that was meant to guarantee that land would forever belong to the people of Tanzania.
With uncanny foresight Mwalimu clearly saw that at one point land-grabbing would become an international norm and that Africa would be particularly prone unless the people were protected by a barrier of impregnable land laws. It was with this prophetic spirit that the Arusha Declaration and all his other speeches that touched on land were made. These prescient documents and speeches have continued to inform many of Tanzania’s land laws and land related policies.
Although it is true that sometimes Mwalimu would go beyond the need such as with his Ujamaa policy, these were in essence correct interpretations of the importance of land. Today many try to downplay the value of land but it is in reality invaluable. It is still the very essence of what makes up a nation along with its people. Once the two are separated, a nation ceases to exist.
I was therefore eager to learn more about another East African country’s land laws so as to be able to compare them with those of Uganda. In Uganda the common law freehold system continued to exist along with peculiar designations like crown land for government land and mailo land.
Freehold allows the land owner to hold it in perpetuity. It was because of the paucity of serious land law reforms in Uganda that even to this day cries of ‘federo’ among the members of the Baganda can still be heard today.
They hope through federo to regain a form of ownership over land that was taken from them by the colonialists which is now government land. This is unthinkable in Tanzania today thanks to Mwalimu’s farsighted policies and laws that ensured that land belonged to the people as whole and not isolated groups in Tanzania.
This knowledge of Land law of another East African country can now be useful to me both in bringing about reforms back home and in ensuring the smooth transitioning into the East African Federation which is another of Mwalimu’s innovative ideas.
Environmental law was an obvious choice of specialisation for me because given my interest in land law, the two would move well together. It is useless to own pieces of land while the environment around and within it is being degraded. Therefore environmental law necessarily moves hand in hand with land law.
Globally today, environment has become a major issue because our ancestor’s anthropocentric approach to the environment, which emphasised man as the master of his environment lad to its massive degradation with the dawn of the industrial age.
Therefore today all kinds of efforts are being made to curb the pernicious destruction of the environment both at a massive scale through industrial pollution and at an individual level through polyethene bags that are non-biodegradable. It was this that informed my interest in environmental law.
My final year dissertation was on environmental law, an analysis of the application of the law relating to wetlands in Uganda with my home district Kanungu as a case study. I did some research at one of the leading environmental NGOs in Uganda, Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE) and was therefore able to get a clear picture of the efforts made at conservation of the environment in Uganda.
It is the desire to make a comparison and also to learn from the efforts made in Tanzania that induced me to take up a position as volunteer researcher here. LEAT was an obvious choice for me as it is a leading NGO in environment matters in Tanzania. I was both humbled and privileged to be accepted here as a researcher.
My work involves collecting both secondary data and field research as well. I sometimes carry out research over the internet or through LEAT’s extensive library.
I am keen on writing as much about environmental law in East Africa and I am currently working on two articles, one is a review of the law relating to wetlands in East African Countries. This involves an in-depth analysis of what efforts have been made in conserving wetlands in each individual country in East Africa.
This has been easy with the laws in Uganda and Tanzania because of my familiarity with them however Rwanda’s laws have been a bit tricky for me. I am very circumspect in my approach to Rwanda and Burundi’s laws because they use the Civil law system while I have specialised in the Common law system but I expect that I will eventually be able to fully understand even the Civil law system.
My analysis will also look at the possibilities of harmonisation of the law. I am also working on writing a summary of 50 years of environmental legislation in Tanzania and another one for Uganda when it marks 50 years next year. This will involve a look at the evolution of the environmental laws in Tanzania highlighting the seminal points in environmental law history and culminating in the 1990s watershed when framework legislation was made and environmental bodies became active. I am hardworking and committed and determined to make a contribution to resource management in the whole of East Africa.
Q 2: How do you compare environment and resource management between the two countries?
A: It is a bit difficult to compare the two because Tanzania has a phenomenally large amount of natural resources. Without a doubt Tanzania is in the class of countries like Congo and South Africa when it comes to the amount of natural resources.
Uganda on the other hand has few resources and is making every effort to conserve the little that it has. On the whole therefore I would say that Uganda has managed its resources better although the fact that they are fewer may be a major contribution.
I think that despite the current government’s many failings, it has generally been successful in protecting the environment in Uganda. This has been due to massive awareness campaigns and the efforts of many NGOs and international organisations. Unfortunately today there is a bit of a departure. Ministers in Uganda now callously make fun of dying butterflies due to the construction of a new dam.
There have so far been two attempts to sell large chunks of Mabira forest to an investor. Mabira forest is the biggest forest in Uganda. What was particularly alarming was the fact that the president of Uganda himself was backing the investor who wanted to plant sugar cane in the place of the trees.
Instances like these mark very black spots on Uganda’s environmental and resource management record. Generally Uganda has made efforts in preserving such places as Bwindi impenetrable forest and Kidepo valley national park.
I think that the commitment to preserve natural resources stems from the massive publicity that Uganda does of its comparatively little resources. It makes both local and international publicity and there have been many efforts to educate people on the importance of the natural resources.
This was evidenced when thousands of people rushed to the streets of Kampala to protest against the government’s plan to sell Mabira forest. It was this effort that was able to prevent the sale.
Tanzania on the other hand has vast natural resources. As a country it is a veritable land bank for Africa. It has numerous minerals and vast expanses of land with nothing but woodland vegetation not to mention the land which is in the hands of the peasants.
All this is a great valuable natural resource. Although Tanzania has made great strides it still has quite a way to go in managing its resources. The government needs to make greater efforts to conserve and protect the resources.
NGOs such as LEAT, Haki-Ardhi, JET and Enviro-Care are making a laudable effort but more can still be done. This can only be done by the Tanzanians themselves. I was ashamed of the fact that despite having spent years in Tanzania I had neither climbed Mt Kilimanjaro nor visited the Ngorongoro crater despite having had long holidays in which I could have done this.
However I have come across many Tanzanians who have no desire whatsoever to visit any of those places. They do not appreciate the vast amount of resources that they have.
It is small wonder that when an investor comes and threatens to construct a hotel in the middle of an internationally protected site only NGOs cry out. Resource management requires the masses themselves to be actively involved so as to obviate the recurrence of such.
Q: At the moment, many big foreign companies are competing to acquire big chunks of lands for investment purposes in East Africa. Why now?
A: Without a doubt there are numerous investors interested in Africa. The Land Grab Study written by Alison Graham and Sylvain Aubry, analysing land grabbing in Africa by European Union Countries highlights this. They site case studies such as Uganda where 401 people lost their land in Mubende and Mozambique where similar things happened in Gaza province.
There is a deep interest in African land and although the investors give reasons such as the fertility of African lands, availability of labour and the fact that large expanses are not in use these seem spurious reasons. The first is valid enough, African lands are fertile, and however, so are European lands. The second reason, the availability of labour is seemingly valid.
The problem however are the conditions under which that labour has to work. Many are forced to work for 10 hours a day under the most gruelling conditions while taking in a paltry sum- usually between Tshs 100,000/= and 130,000/=. This is barely enough for oneself let alone one with a family. On top of that the conditions of work are alarming. Little regard of human rights characterises the work conditions.
The workers deal with dangerous pesticides and herbicides without protective gear and this affects their health. They barely have time for rest and the community development programs promised by the investor never materialise.
While there are investors who do attempt to make the lives of their workers better, those that do not poison the whole lot. It is reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath-There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation, there is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolise, there is a failure here that topples all our successes. This can all be rectified by the government ensuring that the investors live up to their promises in their contracts.
The final reason, the vast expanses of land is definitely not true. Almost every investor has to get the land from a large group of people. These therefore owned the land and were using it in one way or another. In Uganda there are instances such as the British Company New Forests which evicted 20,000 people in order to make room for tree plantations. These are alarming and reminiscent of president Hun Sen of Cambodia who has literally sold half his country to investors displacing hundreds of thousands at gunpoint.
I think investment is a great idea and I believe Africa in general and East Africa in particular has great potential for investments even in land.
The problem is that some investors seem to retain the notion that we are still a powerless people incapable of fighting for our own rights or get absorbed in the old stories of silly dictators like Amin who made buffoons out of themselves and think that we are all still ready to be exploited.
We are however now capable of standing up on our own and making contracts between equals and we need to ensure that these are respected. Land can be used for investments but this should be for a limited period of time so that Mwalimu’s efforts to keep land in the hands of the people are not wasted.
Q: In some places, there have been public outcry with the way Investors acquire lands especially Land acquisition procedures and process. What is the problem?
A: I think that the land acquisition process as laid out by the law is relatively balanced and clear cut. It gives and protects the rights of both the investors and the citizens. However, there is still massive ignorance of the law.
Very few people fully understand the true nature of the land law and many irregularities go on unnoticed and this leads to many people suffering.
Knowledge of the law can be transmitted through detailed seminars and other sensitization efforts. In many of the field researches I have participated in, I have found that the wananchi suffer primarily because of lack of this. They are unaware of their rights and therefore do not fight back when oppressed.
Another problem is that some of the local leaders, who are empowered by the law to defend the land rights of the common man, feel intimidated when confronted by investors who are backed by big wigs in the central government. These local leaders cave in under the pressure from the political clout wielded by the central government.
This has been a particular problem in Uganda where sometimes the central government has openly railroaded local government leaders into acceding to the demands of investors who simply desire to acquire more and more land.
Q: Looking at the level of public awareness in both two countries, do you think villagers are capable enough to understand the value of their resources?
A: If the right type of sensitization is used it will be possible for the villagers to understand the true value of their resources. Education is the key to this. It is difficult for those with limited education to grasp many of the concepts however it is possible.
Even in our traditional African culture the value of natural resources was recognised and their protection was ensured. Therefore even in today’s rural communities we can carry out enough sensitization to ensure that the people get to understand the value of the natural resources.
Q: What is your organization doing to address the situation?
A: LEAT carries out awareness campaigns in various parts of Tanzania. It regularly uses volunteers who have intimate knowledge of the law to participate in these activities. These move around to even the remotest places in Tanzania and educate village leaders and the local people about the law relating to land and the environment. These also educate people about how to properly maintain their environment.
LEAT also uses Legal Aid Clinics to assist people who may have any disputes to do with land or the environment. Through these legal aid clinics, free legal services are able to trickle down to the common man who may not otherwise be able to easily access them. They also assist in educating people about the law.
Further, LEAT works with other NGOs such as Haki Ardhi, JET and Enviro-Care in ensuring that peoples land rights are protected. This is done through carrying out research projects in different parts of the country where different issues to do with natural resources keep arising.
Finally, LEAT publishes a plethora of books and documents that elaborate on the state of the natural resources in Tanzania. These are thoroughly researched and informative books that are useful when it comes to policy reviews and making of legislation.
Q: Sometimes lawyers have been blamed for facilitating controversial contracts between foreign companies and respective governments. Being a lawyer, what is the problem?
A: I think the legal profession is a very peculiar one. So many people respect it while at the same time detesting it. I think that is because of the unique position of the lawyer who yields immense power because of his unique knowledge of the law. It is true that there are cases where unbalanced contracts have been drafted by lawyers. Some have been so unfair that some kind of ‘envelope slipping’ has been suspected.
Certainly there do exist those lawyers who have led to the denigration of this noble profession by receiving bribes and betraying their client’s interests. This however is completely unethical. These people abuse their unique position and misuse their legal skills to work against the common man. While we are all taught Legal Ethics in school, not everyone practices it.
I believe that this can only be remedied through ensuring that more members of the public get to understand the law better. As public awareness grows they will be in a better position to defend themselves.
Most contracts are written in legal jargon or what we call legalese. This makes it difficult for ordinary people to understand them but with more education about the law, they will be in a better position to do so. The other thing is to put more strict rules about legal ethics and to ensure that those who breach them are punished.