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15 March 2023

Two development strategies for rural Africa cause land loss for rural smallholders

Investor production of rice on a flood plain. Photo by Linda Engström.

Large-scale agro-investment and land formalisation on the development agenda for rural Africa

Since the early 2000s, development agencies/banks, and European and African governments have promoted allocating large tracts of land in rural Africa to foreign and domestic investors for large-scale agricultural production. Expected developments include employment, transfer of technical skills, improved food security and poverty reduction. At the same time, insecure land access for small farmers has become one of the biggest concerns associated with this land rush. Thus, simultaneously, formalising land by identifying and mapping community borders has seen a revival on the development agenda and become a mainstream ’solution’ to protect rural communities against losing land to investors, building on the assumption that if communities’ land rights are not formalised, they risk losing land and/or do not benefit (as expected) from land deals.

Beacon marking an investment border that is contested by local smallholders. Photo by Linda Engström.

Practical effects

During 27 months of in-depth ethnographic fieldwork around 13 large-scale agricultural investments in four regions in Tanzania, we looked at how these two development agendas are implemented on the ground and their combined effects on smallholder farmers’ and herders’ access to land. We found that, although these two development agendas are implemented through partly different policies and programmes, in practice, the processes of land formalisation and acquisition for large-scale agro-investment are inseparable: in all 13 agro-investments, land formalisation processes paved the way for investors to access land. We also found a clear pattern that, during such processes when village borders and land use within villages were identified and mapped, government officials (in most cases) used loopholes in the laws and/or their political power to make decisions about land borders and land use that reduced the village land area. A very important finding was that, in all 13 cases, the decision to allocate land to investors was disputed by local communities. In all cases, these complaints were overruled. As a result, large areas of land were transferred from being under the control of the villages to being controlled by the government, and, in most cases, leased to an investor.

Barabaig pastoralists need land for grazing and watering their cattle across Tanzania. Photo by Linda Engström.

Concluding remarks

The conclusion is that rather than fulfilling development policy expectations of land security for smallholder farmers and poverty reduction, the combination of these two development agendas in Tanzania has led to increased land conflict and widespread land loss for herders, smallholder farmers and their villages. These findings are significant because they show that future development interventions need to be designed differently: They need to be based on  how land governance works in the local context, including   the complex web of politics and power associated with land.

Engström, L., Bélair, J., & Blache, A. (2022). Formalising village land dispossession? An aggregate analysis of the combined effects of the land formalisation and land acquisition agendas in Tanzania. Land Use Policy120, 106255.



Link to the lead author and publication:

Funders: The fieldwork was funded by the Swedish Research Council (229-2011-1417) and Sida U-forsk (SWE-2011-140), the University of Ottawa, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) (CRSH-BESC-767-2016-1945) and (PDF 756-2019-0140), the University of Toulouse and the Rurban Project, France.

Name of contact person at SLU: Linda Engström