By Kizito Makoye
DAR ES SALAAM - In a bid to protect Tanzania’s agricultural sector from the vagaries of extreme weather and climate change, the country’s parliament has passed a new law to help farmers make better use of irrigation, hoping it will improve food security and reduce poverty.
The National Irrigation Act 2013 was approved at the end of August amid strong criticism from a cross-section of legislators who expressed fears that the proposed law might fuel land conflicts because it would allow the state to acquire village land without due process.
The law – which must be signed by the president before it comes into force - gives power to the minister holding the agriculture portfolio to declare any specified piece of land an irrigation area.
“Where it is necessary for better achievement of objectives of this Act, the minister may, upon consultation with the minister responsible for land and local governments, advise the president to acquire, subject to the provision of Land Acquisition Act, any land or any estate for the purpose of irrigation development," the legislation states.
Agriculture is the backbone of Tanzania’s economy. It accounts for more than one quarter of gross domestic product (GDP), provides 85 percent of exports and employs about 80 percent of the workforce. The country has 29.4 million hectares of land that could be irrigated, out of which only 589,245 hectares are currently being irrigated.
Tanzania’s minister for agriculture, food security and cooperatives, Christopher Chiza, told the National Assembly the new law would pave way for the country to use available land resources for sustainable development of irrigation.
“We would like to tap every single drop of water available in our country and use it productively for irrigation purposes - by 2015 at least 25 percent of food production should come from irrigated land,” he said.
The new law, among other things , establishes the Irrigation Commission, a national body with the mandate to coordinate, promote and regulate irrigation activities across the country.
The legislation will also pave way for the formation of an Irrigation Development Fund to help irrigation schemes, many of which are currently mired in financial woes due to absence of legal frame work to guarantee availability of funds. The fund’s monies, according to the law will be used to finance irrigation activities carried out by individual farmers or investors, through loans or grants.
The minister said the government is now implementing 39 irrigation schemes on a total of 16,710 hectares, using drip irrigation technology at a cost of Tsh. 677.5 billion (around $400 million). According to the ministry of Agriculture, upon successful formation of the Irrigation Commission the government wants to establish more than 1000 new schemes depending on the availability of funds.
The law would put in place a system of ownership of government-built irrigation infrastructure for farmers groups, private individuals, associations and companies.
Before the bill became law, legislators across political affiliations urged the government to amend contentious sections which, in their opinion, would encourage land grabbing in favour of foreign investors.
Christopher Ole Sendeka, a legislator from the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, charged that sections 17 and 18 of the proposed law would create loopholes for unscrupulous investors to negotiate directly with local people in an effort to “grab” their land.
He said the people must be “key stakeholders not mere spectators”. “If the government does not amend these sections, it should consider withdrawing the entire bill from this house,” he said.
Existing land conflicts between farmers and pastoralists have been caused by shortages of land, he argued, and if the bill were to sail through unchanged, many poor people would become the victims of land-grabbing orchestrated by state institutions.
“If the government tells investors that there was enough land for irrigation, why on earth can’t it distribute some of that land to the people in areas where land conflicts between farmers and pastoralists persist?” he asked.
The lawmakers insisted the new legislation should ensure that villagers are being made shareholders in the irrigation projects if their land falls within the designated sites for irrigation.
“Don’t bring here the issue of compensations, because by doing so the land will be sold thus rendering villagers homeless turning them into slaves in their own country,” said Lugano Mpina, an MP from the ruling party.
According to the Tanzania Investment Centre, a government agency, the process of land acquisition requires that investors submit their proposals to the village council via district officials. The village assembly is called to examine the proposals, and when a piece of land is approved for investment, ownership is transferred to the government, which can then lease it out for a maximum of 99 years.
Minister Chiza attempted to allay fears of land grabbing, saying that the rights of villagers to occupy land would still be safeguarded by existing land laws and no one would be allowed to confiscate it.
“I would like to assure my fellow Tanzanians that, under no circumstances in this law, will a foreign investor be an alternative to a local farmer,” he said.
The minister added that land administration would still be governed by the country’s constitution.
Despite government efforts to bolster agriculture, Tanzania’s food and cash crop production has been undermined by poor management of irrigation schemes, and a lack of irrigation infrastructure has led to low efficiency.
Analysts say that, if implemented, the new law will likely give the country’s agriculture sector a new lease of life, in the face of changing weather patterns.
“To combat the effects of climate change we need integrated strategies, one of them is investing in sustainable irrigation that recognizes the role of farmers and the challenges they face in developing the sector,” said Damian Gabagambi, who teaches agriculture at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro, when reached for a comment by this reporter.
The law says in its introductory part that irrigation development is crucial since rain-fed agriculture is affected by drought and floods and will become exarcebated by climate changes that impact significantly on both the national economy and the vulnerability of small holder farmers to food insecurity.
The National Irrigation Act follows the National Irrigation Policy of 2010, which remained toothless due to a lack of legislative tools to implement it.
Chiza said the introduction of an irrigation fund was necessary since it will enable the smooth functioning of the National Irrigation Commission, since it will have powers to generate income from various sources.
The government is optimistic that, if signed by the President, the law will help shape the country's road map toward realization of irrigation in modern agriculture.
Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam, who focuses on climate change, governance and women’s rights issues.