What happens when the landgrabbers leave? An account from Kilwa, Tanzania

An encouraging story from Tanzania about how four communities regained control of their lands.

Masalu Luhula's pictureBrendan Schwartz's picture
Guest blog by
14 December 2020

Masalu Luhula is an attorney and land tenure specialist at Landesa; Brendan Schwartz is a senior researcher at IIED

Men and women sitting in chairs.

Members of the Mavuji Village Council convene to discuss the land dispute. The village, in Kilwa district, Tanzania, is one of four communities that have gained back control over their land (Photo: copyright Stephen Ipyana, TNRF)

In East Africa, the commercialisation of land accelerated as part of the global land rush, dating back to the 2000s.

The widespread leasing or sale of public lands to foreign companies and governments for food production, tourism, biofuels, agro-commodities, logging and mining coincided with the Africa Rising narrative of economic growth, driven – in large part – by large-scale land-based investments.

Many civil society organisations and academics questioned whether the global land rush presented a genuine development opportunity for African countries or a speculative boom driven by rising commodity prices and international investors in search of high returns.

Stories of ‘land-grabbing’ received considerable press attention, but little has been written about what happened to communities impacted by land-based investments.

In this blog we tell the story of four communities’ struggle to take back control of lands acquired by the Bioshape jatropha plantation in Tanzania’s Kilwa District.

The Bioshape investment and the local response  

From 2006-07, Dutch company Bioshape claimed to have acquired 27,325 hectares of land for a biofuel jatropha plantation in the Kilwa District, on land belonging to the Migeregere, Mavuji, Nainokwe and Liwiti villages.

The company began clearing land and installing infrastructure without a land lease, but went into liquidation just a few years later.

Bioshape’s Tanzania subsidiary was acquired by a new investor who continued to press the Tanzanian government to change the designation of the lands from 'Village Land' (land owned by the four villages) to 'General Land' so it could be leased to Bioshape’s successor.

In parallel, the four village councils demanded the government 'return' the lands to the villages. The councils – backed by findings from researchers and international civil society organisations – argued the original land acquisition process was plagued by irregularities, thus negating any investor claim to the land.

This protracted dispute between the investors, Tanzanian government and villages remained unresolved from 2012-19 despite numerous interventions by the village councils and civil society advocates.

From 2017-18, the Tanzania Natural Resource Forum (TNRF) and IIED received requests from each of the four communities to help resolve the dispute. In 2018, as part of ongoing efforts to assist communities seeking redress for harms caused by large-scale land acquisitions, TNRF and IIED visited the affected communities and the relevant authorities to gather local stakeholders’ perspectives.

Viewpoints diverged on several important matters. Since local actors could not agree on basic facts surrounding the case, there were few prospects for settling the dispute.

To facilitate local deliberation based on a shared understanding of the facts, we prepared a report about how Bioshape initially acquired the land and what had taken place since the company’s liquidation.

The facts and analysis in the report, circulated in both English and Swahili, were confirmed by the village councils and district officials. By establishing a shared factual baseline, we triggered a new round of discussions between the villages and government to address the land ownership issue.

The report also assisted the four communities in clearly defining their asks of government according to Tanzanian land tenure and investment legal frameworks.

From community-centred dialogue to government commitments

Land acquisition in Tanzania requires local consultations, land-use planning (in practice, though not mandatory), land valuation, payment of compensation, revising the statutory categorisation of land, and its subsequent leasing to a foreign investor by the Tanzania Investment Centre (TIC) in a form of derivative right.

Map showing the location of the Kilwa district in TanzaniaThe TNRF-IIED report found no evidence that Bioshape had completed the land acquisition process and thus had no legal claim to the lands. Though in practice the land was off limits to the four villages since Bioshape’s arrival, it was formally still owned/controlled by them, as the transfer to the category of land managed by the central state ('General Land') had never been completed.

However, some government officials argued the land transfer should still be completed and allocated to another investor.

Based on these findings, TNRF and IIED facilitated national and local level dialogues. The local multi-stakeholder dialogue brought together community and government representatives and led to the government committing to examine demands and needs expressed by the four communities’ leadership.

One community leader told government authorities “The population is growing. We need our land back, and will use part of it for community-based forestry and conservation” – which has generated significant income for the village and funded the construction of a primary school.

A reason to celebrate    

In late 2020, three years after TNRF and IIED began engagement on this dispute – and more than a decade after Bioshape’s original investment – the Tanzanian government took action. The Ministry of Land, through the commissioner’s office, wrote a letter echoing the village councils’ demands.

It found the transfer of lands from the four villages to Bioshape had not adhered to land transfer legal requirements and was therefore void. The letter also advised the district council to restart the consultation process if it wished to entertain land lease requests from any investor.

Migeregere, Mavuji, Nainokwe and Liwiti villages have at last regained control of their lands.

Next steps: consolidating community land tenure in Kilwa and Tanzania

The return of community-controlled lands marks a significant victory. But much more needs to be done at the local level and in the policy realm.

In the policy arena, the government has initiated an ongoing review of the National Land Policy. As part of the review, the Ministry of Lands indicated that district land and housing tribunals – the primary dispute-resolution forum for land conflicts – will be abolished and cases be entertained by normal courts.

In our view, grassroots dispute resolution mechanisms and the use of multi-stakeholder dialogue should precede litigation, which should be used as a last resort. As the Kilwa case has demonstrated, securing redress for land rights violations can indeed be accomplished through alternative means.  

The policy review is also expected to call for a major legal reform of land tenure legislation. Any revision to Tanzania’s land tenure framework should centre on strengthening local control, and on supporting and incentivising sustainable land management practices, such as the community forestry initiatives in Kilwa.

In Kilwa, further investment in community legal awareness and inclusive dialogue would support local land-use management. Additionally, the formulation of land governance bylaws would help communities implement their vision of a sustainable future. Finally, Migeregere, Mavuji, Nainokwe and Liwiti must proactively prepare for the eventuality of negotiations with a new large-scale investor.


This work was conducted with the financial support of the International Land Coalition (ILC) and through the National Engagement Strategy (NES), Tanzania’s working group on land-based investment.

About the author

Masalu Luhula (masalul@landesa.org) is an attorney and land tenure specialist at Landesa and formerly the land-based investment coordinator at Tanzania Natural Resource Forum.

Brendan Schwartz (brendan.schwartz@iied.org) is a senior researcher in the legal tools team in IIED’s Natural Resources research group.

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