MEET Ms Kisa Mwakifuna and the first thing she tells you is about conservation of the natural environment as a means of reducing poverty among poor communities. She also argues that for communities in the rural areas where farming is almost the only activity that keeps people going, the family must own land not only to guarantee its food security but also to ensure the safety and security of their lives.
A founding member of the defunct Nuru Green Leaf Association, Mwakifuma lives in Chimala town of Mbarali District in Mbeya Region and doesn’t hesitate to explain why the Association was formed.
“We used to train youths, most of who had completed primary school education, on conserving the environment and living from it. We stressed the importance of benefitting from natural resources but without degrading the environment.
For example we would teach them how to make charcoal from farm residue and other biodegradable material so as to reduce pressure on forests. We did not ban the use of charcoal,” she says.
The Association also taught the youth about land conservation through planting trees as , according to Mwakifuna, trees conserve soil fertility and help the soil retain moisture.
“And for families in the rural areas, land is their lifeline. They have to conserve it so that they may continue to use it productively in future,” she tells a team of journalists from the Journalists’ Environmental Association of Tanzania (JET) who visited Mbarali district to study land issues as part performance of the Ardhi Yetu Agenda Yetu Programme, which is funded by Care International in Tanzania. However, Nuru Green Leaf crumbled pre-maturely, after many youths decided to engage in other activities in the hope of making quick money.
“But the four women who started the Association are still soldiering on because we have our own farms which provide us with our needs.
Even when the Association was operating successfully, we still maintained our farms because we know what land means for women in the rural areas,” explains Mwakifuna. She is however disappointed with the current spate of land grabbing in the name of investments by local and foreign people because communities know very little about investment procedures.
“And it is not just about knowing the procedures but participating in the whole process of allocating land to local and foreign investors.
When communities are excluded from the process, the result is a sour relationship between investors and locals because the latter see the newcomer as stealing their land and making them poorer than before the investment was made,” she notes.
Another thing is that foreign and local investors buy large pieces of land leaving small farmers with little or no land at all. More over these investors sometimes rent out the land to small farmers at a price so high that they cannot afford.
“This makes life very difficult for villagers and it is the women who bear the brunt of the land grabbing that eventually leads to food shortage among families,” says Edward Kibegi, a resident of Chimala. He explains that it is upon government and other stakeholders to ensure that communities understand procedures governing land investments and effectively participate in the process.
“People should understand policies, laws, and regulations relating to land issues. They should understand the value of land and so stop the habit of selling it like peanuts,” adds Kibegi. Some small farmers sell land without really knowing how this would affect their lives.
At the end of the day, it is the women and children who suffer. “But if women are educated on land issues and they understand their rights, then the family will be food secure and will be safe from illegal acquisition of land by other people,” says Mwakifuna. Ali Mungaya is the general secretary of MJUMIMU, a nongovernmental organisation that deals in conservation of the environment and sustainable consumption of natural resources.
The organisation works with communities in seven villages of Rufiji District in Coast Region. Speaking about women rights and ownership of land he says that according to traditions, women’s land rights and ownership are enshrined in the family land to which she has a share. “Land belongs to the family. A woman is a member of a particular family and automatically she has a share in the family land. At the administrative level, women are members of Land tribunals and committees related to land issues which means they participate fully in the decision making process a village and ward level,” he notes.
But why should society talk about women land rights and land ownership? Isn’t it not enough if a family in its totality owns land for both women and men members of the family? A Researcher with the International Food Policy and Research Institute ( IFPRI) Agnes Ouisumbing, says that many politicians and government officials usually feel uncomfortable to discuss the issue but it is important for several reasons.
In the first place if women know their rights and own land, the danger for a family to become landless and so sink into poverty becomes minimal. When women own land, it means that the family is guaranteed of a source of food. Men can easily be tempted to sell their land and leave the family in danger of facing food shortage and abject poverty.
“Land is a safety net for women, even for those who are married, as sometimes marriages do not last forever,” says the researcher. In many African societies, a woman’s land rights are embodied in those of the husband, her farther or her male relatives.
If the husband dies or if the woman is divorced she loses her land rights and even if she goes back to her parents she will have no right on even the smallest piece of land. “For a woman in a village, losing ownership of land is like losing her life insurance and this is not good for their families.”Another important argument for women’s land rights and ownership of land is that of rising food prices. Experience has shown that a family that owns a big piece of arable land may not be affected by increase in food prices especially if women family members are empowered to stand for their rights and to conserve and maintain that particular piece of land.
“It is obvious that women who own land protect poor families from the effects of fluctuating food prices,” says the IFPRI researcher. The issue of conserving and protecting land in order to maintain its fertility also features prominently in discussing women’s land rights and ownership. One way is to encourage women to plant trees around farms as a way of maintaining soil fertility and retaining soil moisture so that land continues to be productive. Another way is to train women in the use of new agricultural technologies that respond to current irregular patterns of weather.
Yet women will be ready to implement these two measures only if they own land and recognise their land rights. Drawing experience from Ghana, the Researcher says that women who owned land grew cocoa in their farms, a cash crop which made them earn a good amount of money. “But those who did not own land did not plant any trees and instead focused on growing quick-ripening crops, mostly vegetables, a situation which made land lose its fertility quickly,” she says. There is also need to empower women economically. This is important when we consider the fact that in many societies, women spend their money for food, medical treatment and education for their children while men spend their money on other things.
In effect, women spend their money to reduce poverty in the family and by meeting the cost of education and medical treatment for their children; they make a good investment for the future generation. However, some traditions impede the realisation of women rights to own land even when such ownership would benefit families and the community in general.
“This is one of the major obstacles when we talk about women land rights and ownership: to change the mindset, the culture, traditions and norms of communities,” says Renee Giovarelli, a Lawyer from Landesa Rural Development Institute which deals with women and land issues. “Let us not forget that women comprise about half of the world’s small farmers. So if they own land, the family is assured of good food and children get education and good health,” she notes.
The movement to recognise women’s rights to own land is spreading throughout the world because it is the only resource that guarantees food security for small farmers. Several countries have taken steps to legally recognise women’s rights to own land. They include Kenya and India. The government of India has issued thousands of title deeds either for land ownership between wife and husband or single ownership in which women alone own land and in Kenya, a woman’s right to own land is stipulated in the country’s constitution.