Conflicts over land are on the rise in Tanzania.footnote1 Almost daily, the news headlines announce five deaths here, two more there, on account of land-use struggles. Spokespeople for the ruling ccm party explain that this is just a temporary phenomenon, as their programme of land titling unfolds; once boundaries have been demarcated and rights to occupancy formally registered, the conflicts will disappear.footnote2 William Lukuvi, the ccm Land Minister, argues that his programme to formalize title deeds across the country will not only provide security of tenure but facilitate access to credit and bring about the empowerment of women.footnote3 Though Tanzania has several big cities—in addition to Dar es Salaam, now a sprawling conurbation of almost 5 million, and Mwanza, the bustling port on Lake Victoria, the provincial hubs of Arusha, Mbeya, Morogoro and Tanga all have populations of over a quarter of a million—70 per cent of its citizens are rural, mostly poor subsistence farmers, living in some 12,000 villages across this vast country. Land issues, here as in many other parts of Africa, are a burning political-economic question.

Lying just south of the Equator, on the same latitude as Brazil and Indonesia, Tanzania is the largest country in its region. It has a population of 57 million and a territory twice that of California, although vast tracts of it have been set aside for tourists; the Serengeti National Park is half the size of Belgium. With the partial exception of its restive Indian Ocean islands—Zanzibar and, especially, Pemba, incorporated in the 1960s—Tanzania has so far largely escaped the politicized ethnic conflicts that have riven many of its neighbours. This may be partly due to the multiplicity of ethnic groupings, estimated at over 120, none of them large enough to impose their hegemony on the rest. In addition, the overwhelming preponderance of the ccm means that power struggles are usually played out inside the party, and not through rival politicians mobilizing their ethnic bases for electoral competition. Since the liberalization of the economy, investment and growth—telecoms, tourism, construction—have been concentrated in the cities, in conservation areas (national parks, game reserves, etc.), and along the coast, creating disparities of growth. Nevertheless, tensions have so far largely been managed by the ccm. The rise in land conflicts signals a worrying development, raising questions about the country’s approach to land formalization.

This article draws on field research in different parts of Tanzania—the southern highlands, the central plateau, the shores of Lake Tanganyika, to the west, and the lush valley of Babati, in the northern region of Manyara—to examine the gendered outcomes of the land-formalization process. We present a number of specific case studies, involving women in varying social positions and land parcels of different value. Over the course of eight years, our team also investigated titling in some forty villages, assessing the certification data in the land registries of different districts.footnote4 First, though, it may be helpful to set out some more general coordinates of land formalization.

Though the ccm had replaced its ‘African socialism’ model with orthodox World Bank economics in the mid-80s, Tanzania was a slow adopter of land-formalization policies. In the early 1990s Issa Shivji, the country’s leading scholar of development, was commissioned by the President to report on the issue. Shivji’s team travelled the length and breadth of mainland Tanzania to canvas and record the views of subsistence farmers on land rights, access, conflicts, concepts and management.footnote5 The Commission’s goal was not the marketization of land but security of tenure for peasant producers. Its proposals included amending the constitution to recognize and protect land rights for all citizens; abolishing the Ministry of Lands; divesting the President of radical title over all land; and simplifying the classification of land into just two categories—village land and national land. The former would be managed by Village Assemblies, comprising all adult members of a village, and the latter by a new Board of Land Commissioners.footnote6 This was not what the ccm’s international advisers wanted to hear, and few recommendations from the Commission’s 1992 report made it into Tanzania’s subsequent land policy. Instead, ten years later, they brought in Hernando de Soto.

In The Mystery of Capital (2000), the Peruvian economist famously argued that lack of legal titles to their assets, whether plots of land or shanty-town dwellings, condemned the poor to operate in the informal sector—the domain of ‘extra-legality’, as de Soto preferred to call it—cut off from the formal credit and banking system.footnote7 Without legal proof of ownership, their assets constituted ‘dead capital’ which could not be offered as collateral for loans. State-backed programmes to formalize titles—to land, to dwellings, to small businesses—were the first step in empowering the poor and enabling them to become successful entrepreneurs. With improved access to credit, enterprising farmers would be able to improve their yields through purchase of improved seeds, fertilizer, mechanization and irrigation, thus generating sufficient profit to repay the loan and more. The green revolution would finally reach Africa’s shores.footnote8 8

In addition to kick-starting agrarian capitalism, a stated objective of the land-titling programme—heavily promoted by the World Bank and by the northern donor organizations and state-aid agencies which provide nearly a third of Tanzania’s budget—was to improve women’s rights. International advisers and local activists both argued that customary norms generally disfavoured women, who had everything to gain from the formalization of land rights. Indeed land titling has supplanted microfinance as the current one-stop solution to gendered poverty, though it bears the imprint of its precursor, with its promise of loans and claims to female empowerment. Shivji’s report was now criticized for its lack of a gender dimension.footnote9 Women and the poor were posited as the primary beneficiaries of rural title deeds.

From the early 2000s, a series of land-titling programmes have been undertaken in Tanzania. One of the most lavish projects, known by its Kiswahili acronym mkurabita, was rolled out from the President’s office, with de Soto’s Institute for Liberty and Democracy the primary consultant and funding from the Norwegian government (we were told that de Soto’s fee amounted to almost half the $14 million contributed by Oslo). In 2004, an eu-funded pilot project in the village of Halungu announced, with great fanfare, the issue of the first of the new deeds to a smiling grandmother, Sala Labison Ngoya, who worked two acres in the upland coffee-growing area of Mbozi District, in the southwestern Mbeya Region. A further Ministry of Lands initiative, trailed as a ‘private-sector competitiveness project’, began in 2005 with World Bank funding. De Soto won un Development Programme backing for an entity entitled the High Level Commission for Legal Empowerment of the Poor, again with Norwegian funding, chaired by himself and Madeleine Albright, and backed by former Tanzanian President Mkapa as well as a host of international worthies (Gordon Brown, Fernando Cardoso, Mary Robinson, Lawrence Summers, Anthony Kennedy, Ernesto Zedillo). The latest land-formalization project got a $150 million loan from the World Bank.footnote10 Again, female empowerment was a key pillar.