More than 1,790 residents of Lutukira village, Mkongotema ward, in Songea rural district, Ruvuma Region have accused an investor of acquiring 50,000 hectares of fertile land in their village without following proper procedures.
They also accuse Songea district council for facilitating a controversial land deal and protecting Lutukira Mixed Farm Ltd for their own interests and want the government to intervene. The investor holds a 99-year lease on the land.
In an interview with The Guardian, the villagers and their leaders alleged that the whole process of acquiring the land was influenced by both the investor and the district authorities, adding that even the terms in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) were deliberately designed to favour the investor at the expense of the poor villagers.
One of the villagers Eligius Danda alleged that usually the MoU and the contracts are signed before the project kicks off, but surprisingly, the MoU was actually signed more than six months after the project had kicked off.
Danda who is also a senior lecturer of the Moshi University College of Co-operatives and Business Studies (MUCCoBS), further alleged that considering shortage of land and the fast growing population, the villagers had agreed to give the investor 25,000 hectares, but the investor reportedly backed by the district authorities pressed for allocation of 50,000 hectares.
“During the second meeting chaired by the divisional secretary, the villagers conducted an opinion poll with just a few backing the allocation of 50,000 hectares. Many instead proposed that the investor be allocated 25,000 hectares. But to our surprise, the district commissioner ignored our proposals, saying we must give the investor 50,000 hectares,” he said.
Isaack Geho, also a villager claimed that the investor used money to corrupt both district government officials and the villagers in order to get the land.
“He gave each participant 2,000 shillings, something which could be translated as bribery because even the elderly of up to 80 years and children who had never attended meetings for years were in attendance,” he said.
The village Executive Officer Kwinibert Muhoro claimed that the tactics used by the investor are what actually raised doubts among the villagers.
“We agreed that the investor should supply water from Lutukira River, but he instead decided to dig water well. The villagers wanted him to supply electricity, but he later on said he could not. Employment was mentioned in general terms and not specific. We wanted him to build a school and a hospital, but he opted for rehabilitation, while no specific number of jobs was mentioned in the MoU,” he said.
When contacted for comment, both the investor and the district authorities dismissed the allegations as baseless, saying the land deal followed all legal process and procedures including involvement of the villagers and the village council through meetings.
Jabiri Kilahama who is the Director of Lutukira Mixed Farm Ltd and his legal officer Dickson Ndunguru said the allegations were politically motivated. He said there were two conflicting groups, one backing the former village chairman while the second supported the current village chairman, each aspiring to win voters for the next elections season.
“Apart from following all the procedures, corporate social responsibilities were well explained to the villagers. We had meetings that involved the villagers. Environmental Impact Assessment was carried out with their participation and NEMC. We conducted land use plan for the investment area and there was nothing like dishing money to win the villagers.”
“Lutukira Mixed Farm and Montara Continental of Seychelles have formed a management company called Montara Land Company Ltd to implement the project but it is Lutukira Mixed Farm Ltd that has ownership of the land,” he said.
For his part, the District Commissioner Thomas Ole Sabaya said that the mandate to give an investor land was vested in the villagers themselves and not the district.
“I have no mandate to issue the village land. The investor acquired land in 1991; I was not in Songea by then. He stayed for many years without a title deed, when he got it and came to me, I directed him to go and agree with the villagers. So it is the villagers who gave him the land, not me,” he said.
For his part, Advocate Joseph Chiombola of Hakiardhi scoffed at the terms in the MoU saying there were many flaws. For example, the parties were not well defined, he pointed out.
He observed that the MoU seemed to have three parties, Lutukira Mixed Farm Ltd, Montara Continental of Seychelles and Montara Land Company which confused the villagers as they don’t know who actually they are dealing with.
“The promises by the investor are too general. For example, the investor says he will provide a tractor without specifying the model. It could be a power tiller or an old tractor,” he pointed out.
He also questioned the dispute mechanism clause, where the MoU says in case of any dispute the parties would not resort to a court of law, saying this left a lot to be desired, putting the villagers in a disadvantaged position.