Pastoralism and the Demise of Communal Property in Tanzania


The Usangu Plains in southwestern Tanzania are the homelands of the Sangu peoples (of Bantu origins), who maintained a thriving pastoral economy until recently. Today, very few Sangu own livestock and most have become rice cultivators. In 1990 I went to Usangu to study this transformation out of pastoralism. I was told, "we are not Sangu anymore, we are just Tanzanians now." What had caused the Sangu to lose their livestock herds, and along with them, their sense of ethnic identity? Moreover, what was responsible for the growing signs of ecological deterioration and resource scarcity on Usangu's rangelands?

The Usangu Plains are a microcosm of what is occurring in many parts of pastoral Africa, where the demise of communal property systems and the loss of pastoral land are causing rangeland degradation, pastoral impoverishment and dramatic changes in the pastoral way of life. Historically, most African pastoral societies held rangelands under systems of communal property. These systems promoted the sustainable use of rangelands by controlling resources access, regulating resource use by community members and providing secure tenure rights, thus encouraging long-term conservation practices. Communal property also facilitated pastoral mobility over large geographic areas, enabling livestock to track seasonal and annual variations in water and forage availability.

Over the last few decades, many African pastoral property systems have been transformed. In some areas, communal grazing lands have undergone privatization. Elsewhere, pastoral land has been alienated to become State property, from which pastoralists are excluded. Other communal property system have been converted to open access situations, in which resource access is uncontrolled and resource use is unregulated. These changes have had negative ecological and social consequences in many pastoral areas. The Usangu Plains provide one example of what happens when communal property systems break down. The Demise of Communal Property on the Usangu Plains

The semi-arid Usangu Plains of southwestern Tanzania cover an area of approximately 15,500 sq. km. The northern half of the Plains is largely uninhabited due to inhospitable ecological conditions. Pastoral and agricultural activities are concentrated in the southern half of the Plains. There, vast grasslands, numerous watercourses (many perennial) and dry season swamps make the Plains favorable for livestock herding. Low and erratic rainfall patterns mean that rain-fed cultivation is a risky endeavor. However, the flat Plains with their fertile soils and many rivers are well suited to irrigation.

Between the mid-1800s and the mid-1900s, the Sangu people were rich in cattle, sheep and goats. While they were primarily pastoral in their economic orientation, they also practiced some rain-fed cultivation. The Sangu held Usangu's rangelands under a system of communal property. Rights to use resources were based on residence there, which in turn depended upon ethnically identifying as Sangu. Non-Sangu Africans could be denied the right to settle on the Plains by the Sangu Chief and thereby excluded from gaining resources access. Resource use was controlled by local headmen and the Chief.

Following independence in 1961, political and economic policies implemented by the Tanzanian government undermined Sangu systems of resources control. First, the offices of chief, sub-chief and headman were abolished, and along with them, the legitimacy of Sangu authority figures. New State political institutions were created. However, their role in natural resource management was nebulous and no effective regulatory bodies replaced pre-existing ones. Second, new government policies emphasized the national identity of Tanzanian citizens, as opposed to individual ethnic identities. Ethnicity could no longer be used to prevent someone from setting in a specific geographic area and using resources there. This made it easier for people to migrate and harder to exclude outsiders. Third, State policies favored agricultural (as opposed to pastoral) development. The Usangu Plains became a target area for irrigation development, which has since taken priority there, irrespective of the needs and rights of pastoralists. Fourth, the Land Acquisition Act of 1967 made it possible for the President of Tanzania to acquire any land within the country for a "public purpose." This act facilitated State land alienation. What were the consequences of these policies on the Usangu Plains?

Over the last thirty years, some 55,000 hectares of land in Usangu have been alienated as State property, including areas that were historically important for grazing. The Tanzanian State has established three large, mechanized, irrigated rice farms on this land (one is currently inoperable), and one ranch that produces commercial beef cattle. Rice is produced as a cash crop and is marketed in Tanzania's urban areas. An additional 7,000 hectares have been earmarked by the State for future alienation to establish new irrigation schemes.

Extensive areas of additional pasture have been converted to small-scale irrigated rice production, mainly by immigrant farmers from surrounding highland regions who have settled in Usangu over the last four decades. These farmers faced land scarcity at home and moved to Usangu to take advantage of cash cropping opportunities opened up by irrigation development. Approximately 25 different ethnic groups of farmers currently reside there and maintain exclusive claims to the land they have developed for agriculture.

Usangu's remaining rangelands have become open access. Pastoralists who were socially and ecologically marginalized in other parts of Tanzania have migrated and settled in Usangu, causing the regional livestock herd to more than double in size since the 1950s. Six different ethnic groups of livestock herders currently share Usangu's rangelands. In 1990, Sangu cattle comprised only 12% of the regional cattle population. Pastoral immigration into the region continues, with no way to control it or to limit resources access there. Herders belonging to each ethnic group follow their own cultural practices of resource use and management. Unfortunately, the practices of one group often disrupt and undermine those of another group, and herders don't wish to follow the practices of other ethnic groups. There is no comprehensive, regional resource management framework.

Finally, the government is currently reviewing a proposal to establish a game reserve in the single most important dry season grazing area that remains on the Plains. The bulk of Usangu's livestock herd (which includes roughly half a million cattle and 100,000 sheep and goats) grazes in this wetland area, known as Utengule Swamp, from July to December each year. Should the game reserve be created, these animals would be excluded from the swamp, and the pastoral economy of the Plains would collapse.

Pastoralists on the Usangu Plains lack secure land rights. Pastoral land in Usangu continues to be converted to other uses, while herd numbers grow due to immigration. Intense grazing pressure on remaining grasslands is causing severe bush encroachment there, rendering them less productive for grazing. Herders currently experience resource scarcity, particularly during the dry season, and perceive Usangu's rangelands as being degraded. Livestock disease have become rampant in the region. Animals that are malnourished are particularly vulnerable to disease, and livestock mortality rates are high. Resource scarcity and resource competition are currently causing ethnic conflict in the region.

Some pastoral migrants in Usangu have attempted to move elsewhere, but have found that there is nowhere left to go. Others have begun to cultivate part-time in order to supplement their household incomes and conserve their herds. The Sangu have been virtually pushed out of pastoralism by widespread herd loss. They have been unable to adapt to the new social and ecological conditions under which herding now takes place on the Usangu Plains.

The Sangu have chosen irrigated rice cultivation as an economic alternative. However, irrigated agriculture is now highly competitive on the Usangu Plains. The supply of irrigation water is limited, the demand for it is high, and social institutions regulating its use are lacking. State-sponsored irrigation projects have priority access to river water in several locations, and elsewhere immigrant farmers have settled upstream of the Sangu. Thus, in years of low rainfall (two to three years out of five), there are downstream shortages of irrigation water, and the Sangu suffer crop failure. Rain-fed subsistence crops also fail in years of low rainfall. With no livestock on which to rely when corps fail, the Sangu frequently suffer economic hardship. Even in good years, they do not earn enough profits from rice to reinvest in livestock and rebuild herds. Yet, to the Sangu, livestock constitute wealth. Without cattle, they are poor.

The Sangu sense of ethnic identity revolved around the pastoral way of life and the ability to maintain political control over the Usangu Plains. Now, the Sangu feel powerless to control immigration, to prevent land alienation by the State, to control resource use on the Usangu Plains and to confront environmental problems there. In 1990, the Sangu comprised only 27 percent of Usangu's population. The Sangu have lost control over their homelands, lost their livestock herds, abandoned the pastoral way of life and are losing their sense of ethnic identity which was bound up in all of these things. They are becoming less Sangu and more Tanzanian. Re-establishing Communal Property on the Usangu plains

The demise of communal property and insecure pastoral land rights are the major underlying cause of rangeland degradation and pastoral resource scarcity on the Usangu Plains. The impoverishment of the Sangu people and loss of Sangu identity are both consequences of these problems. Similar processes are taking place in other parts of pastoral Africa. What can be done? Most of Usangu's pastoralists believe that if Usangu's remaining rangelands were protected from further alienation and encroachment, and a system of communal property were re-established there, rangeland degradation could be curbed, and the current livestock population could be supported.

The question of how to give Tanzanian pastoralists secure land rights and statutory control over pastoral resources in places such as the Usangu Plains is currently drawing the attention of several government Institutions, NGOs and donor organizations in Tanzania. As Daniel Ndagala, Chairman of the Pastoral Network of Tanzania observed, it will be necessary to reconcile pastoral notions of "territory" with government notions of "land." In Tanzania, pastoralists view territory as being fluid. Geographic boundaries that delineate territories shift as ecological conditions fluctuate. Rainfall, water availability, forage quantity and quality, and disease conditions change constantly, and pastoral movements through territories are a response to these changes. Thus, boundaries as well as tenure rights expand and contract, depending upon environmental and social parameters. In contrast, the Tanzanian government maintains a more rigid concept of land. According to this view, land should be parceled into well defined, fixed geographic units. Specific tenure regimes and land use activities should be assigned to these bounded units.

The Tanzanian government has proposed two solutions to the problem of land rights for pastoralists. The first, which is currently being pursued, is to encourage pastoralists to settle in villages, to identify and demarcate village boundaries and to give villages legal land titles. Once village lands are secured, land use plans are drawn up that specify where agricultural versus grazing activities should take place. Although village councils (representative bodies) currently make land and resource use decisions regarding village lands, this power could be transferred to village assemblies (all adults residing in the village). With secure title to village lands, formally designated grazing areas and a voice in local land and resource use decisions, pastoralists should be in a better position. Despite these advantages, this approach has been criticized for limiting pastoral mobility and subdividing customary grazing lands.

The second solution is proposed by Tanzania's Range Development and Management Act (still in draft). This act calls for establishing "range development areas" in Tanzania's arid and semi-arid zones. Each area would have a corresponding range development commission responsible for controlling settlement and natural resource use. Range development areas would be managed as communal property, and corporate groups of herders could form ranching organizations there. While this approach may protect pastoral land and encourage communal property, doubts remain as to how the commissions would operate, and ranching associations have a dubious history in Tanzania.

The best way forward will vary from place to place and from group to group. Nevertheless, it will be important to establish clear procedures for giving pastoral groups legal title to specified grazing areas. Of equal importance will be providing for institutional frameworks that will allow them to debate resource-related problems and devise communal property solutions to those problems from within. In the Usangu case, the situation is further complicated by the ethnic and cultural diversity of the current pastoral population, most of whom lack customary claims to resources in the region.

The best strategy for the Usangu Plains might be one that combines specific elements of the two approaches described above. An extensive geographic area in the central Plains, encompassing the wet and dry season pastures currently used by herders, could be demarcated and protected for exclusive pastoral use, analogous to a "range development area." This area would span the boundaries of several villages. Access rights could be associated with residence in one of these villages, with village assemblies regulating settlement there on the basis of natural resource availability. Village boundary demarcation and titling might help provide a legal foundation for regulating settlement and rights of resource entitlement in Usangu. Resource use and management decisions pertaining to the grazing commons could be made by an organization of pastoralists from these villages, having representatives from each ethnic group. Alternatively, these decisions could be made collectively by all pastoralists belonging to the village assemblies with appointed mediators. Conclusion

The original "tragedy of the commons" argument made by Garrett Hardin in 1968 was based on the example of a grazing commons. Subsequent studies of African pastoralism have shown that communal property systems do not cause rangeland degradation in Africa; rather, they promote rangeland conservation. Communal property systems are not inherently ecologically destructive. Nevertheless, these systems have been under attack by African States, foreign donors, African elites and agriculturists. It is not the presence, but the demise of communal property systems that is an important cause of rangeland degradation, as the Usangu case study demonstrates. A first step, then, in promoting sustainable development in pastoral regions of Africa is to address issues of property rights. Ideally, pastoral lands should be protected from further encroachment and alienation. Systems of communal property should be re-established there, allowing pastoral peoples to regain local control over resources. Otherwise, African rangelands will become more vulnerable to degradation; African pastoralists will become increasingly marginalized and impoverished; and the decline of cultural diversity will continue. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: