Selling milk by the roadside in Tanzania.

Credit: ILRI / Ben Lukuyu. Selling milk by the roadside in Tanzania.

AUGUST 2010.  Most land in Tanzania is held under customary tenure.  However, until the land reforms of the 1990s, formal land policies and laws generally disregarded, contradicted, or assigned secondary status to customary land rights.  As a result, vast amounts of land were alienated from local communities and community rights over the remaining land are insecure, despite recent efforts to improve customary land tenure security. 

Land rights based on customary tenure were undermined during the colonial period, when German and English authorities imposed private ownership and centralized land administration.  Colonial powers, which governed Tanzania from the late 19th century until 1961, gave significant amounts of community land to colonial settlers and did not formally recognize customary tenure until 1928.  In the decades that followed independence, land governance continued to emulate the former colonial land policies and laws, and to marginalize communities.  

A notable example of these policies is the villagization program (Ujamaa) implemented from 1967 to 1973, under which nearly 80% of Tanzania’s rural population was relocated.  Large portions of customary land were alienated during the process, which generally ignored customary tenure systems.

Under pressure from international donors and financial institutions, as well as rural backlash against its land policies, the government prepared Tanzania’s first National Land Policy in 1995, which led to the enactment of the Village Land Act and the Land Act in 1999.  These Acts, which provide the legal framework for land rights, recognize customary tenure and empower local governments to manage Village Land.

The Acts establish three categories of land: General, Reserve, and Village Land.  The Land Act governs General Land and Reserve Land, defining Reserve Land as land set aside for special purposes, such as forest reserves, games parks, and land reserved for public utilities.  Reserve Land accounts for 28 percent of all land in the country.  Village Land, which includes registered villages as well as any land that had been used or occupied by villagers for at least 12 years prior to enactment of the Village Land Act, constitutes 70 percent of land in Tanzania.

However, each Act defines General Land differently.  While under the Village Land Act, General Land is a residual category encompassing only land that cannot be defined as Village or Reserved Land, the Land Act includes “unoccupied or unused village land” in its definition of General Land, and fails to specify what constitutes such land.  This definition makes it relatively easy for the government to appropriate Village Land.  Both Acts place all General Land under the authority of the national government.

Despite the progressive provisions of the Village Land Act, customary land rights have not been effectively integrated into the land governance framework, and village authorities often lack the requisite financial and human resources to effectively perform their duties. Furthermore, given the current global demand for land, the ease by which the executive branch can appropriate Village Land is also a concern.