Land reform, which started as a political pledge in the recent by-election in Arumeru East, is now clearly threatening the survival of the horticultural industry.
The ruling CCM and its rival Chadema, in their campaigns promised to seize big tracks of land owned by investors and distribute it to landless villagers, are now under pressure to fulfill those pledges.
Land hungry villagers of Mount Meru slopes took the promises seriously and decided to take the law into their own hands and are continuing to grab lands allocated to horticultural investors.
Horticulture is mainly concentrated in Arusha and Kilimanjaro regions, due to altitude, climate, soils, and ease of transport to international markets.
Of late, villagers have been invading the farms, saying their productive lands have been benefiting rich people at the expense of thousands of genuine natives who are landless.
The animosity against settlers who run large-scale farms recently escalated when villagers in Meru district invaded Mito Miwili Farm owned by Pulses and Agro Commodities Company. Armed guards fought them off leaving one person, Noel Godson (32) dead after being shot.
Outgoing Arusha Regional Police Commander (RPC) Thobias Andengenye confirmed the incident which happened on the night of April 28, noting that about 40 invaders armed with bows and arrows, bush knives, double-edged swords, spears and axes destroyed several items on the farm.
The villagers set the farmhouse ablaze, destroyed four tractors and a large barn, looting whatever they could lay their hands on, with state authorities and farm owners still calculating the value of vandalized and stolen property.
Dolly Estate in Maji ya Chai also recently saw its gate and part of electric fence ripped off by hordes of neighboring villagers claiming that the land belongs to them.
Another group of armed villagers from Nduruma, Nkoanrua and Akheri confiscated yet another farm belonging to Machumba Estate and attempted to divide it among themselves. Riot police came in to stop the invasion in time.
"Since then, there has been more disruptions on farms, with irate villagers arriving on farms and claiming immediate access to the crop lands,” said an investor who preferred anonymity. Jacqueline Mkindi, executive director of the Tanzania Horticultural Association, condemned the incursion of investors’ farms in the strongest terms possible.
“TAHA strongly condemns such kind of deeds which are contrary to the law. We are working around the clock to ensure our investors are happy and comfortable,” Ms Mkindi underlined.
The horticultural industry is one of major foreign currency earners, with records showing the industry earns the country more than $385 million annually, equivalent to 40 percent of the total export economy of the agricultural sector and about 9 percent of the country’s total export value.
The growth of the industry is recorded at about 9-10 percent per cent per year, which is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, and also employs nearly 467,000 people, apart from other potentials which have not yet been exploited.
The industry’s vision is to attain a level of income generated from horticultural businesses at a rate of $1-2billion per year in the next three to five years. This will also increase employment by 55 percent and increase other economic activities resulting from horticultural industry growth.
“These incidents come as setbacks to ongoing TAHA and its partners’ initiatives of promoting more investments in the industry with the target of improving food and nutrition security in Tanzania,” Ms Mkindi said.
She further said that the business enabling environment has been tarnished and long term efforts to promote available agribusiness opportunities and potential have been challenged.
“It is very unfortunate that even with the national green revolution strategy, Kilimo Kwanza, which comes with other big initiatives aiming at transforming agriculture in Tanzania, events like ‘land invasion in Northern Tanzania’ become a new barrier to realize the dream,” the TAHA executive lamented.
Such invasions are a big shame to the country, she emphasized, expressing the hope that the government and other relevant institutions are working hard to bring about lasting solution to such disturbances.
“This poses a lesson to be learnt by our good politicians in the designing of campaign themes and messages that would not interfere with the business community in the country,” Ms Mkindi explained.
She, however, linked the situation to a long term unsolved land grievances in many places in Tanzania, compounded by the politics of Arumeru District in the just ended by-election where land ownership was at the center of the campaigns.
Arusha Regional Commissioner Magessa Mulongo said: "Arusha is the country's diplomatic town; whatever transpires within its vicinity is taken seriously by international communities and the ongoing invasions of large scale farms in Meru may scare investors away.”
Hosting a number of international organisations, institutions and conferences, in addition to being one of Tanzania's main tourist destinations the last thing Arusha wants is to see foreigners are not protected, Mr Mulongo underlined.
Inspector General of Police Said Mwema last week commissioned a special team to pitch camp in Meru District to investigate the ongoing wave of estate invasions.
The team, led by the assistant commissioner of police Issaya Mngulu has already started work in Meru in association with the Regional Security Committee.
Assistant Commissioner of Police Engelbert Mkoko who is in the team stated that their task would be a professional undertaking which is going to leave no stone unturned.
“There is speculation that the farm invasions are being incited by politicians but our team will decide if that is the case or there are other deep rooted motives,” said the top police official.
International trade lawyer Edward Lekaita says that the government ought to form an independent body to spearhead talks between villagers and investors and not the police team.