Monday, August 11, 2014

EVICTION: Uvinje villagers resist Saadani park expansion

Mwanahamisi Hatibu, about 104 years old (left),

Mwanahamisi Hatibu, about 104 years old (left), and Mwasiti Mwinyiamani, about 108 years old are the eldest villagers at Uvinje hamlet at Saadani Village in Bagamoyo District, Coast Region. 

By Bernard Lugongo, The Citizen Reporter

Bagamoyo. It is a little, sleepy hamlet about 15-minute drive from the main village of Saadani in Bagamoyo District, Coast Region. The place is known as Uvinje. 

According to residents, the hamlet predates colonialism. This is evidenced by graves that are over a hundred years old. Hamlet chairman Hussein Akida claims that there are 21 households making up a population of 130 people. 

However, he says, the hamlet they have known as their home for centuries is threatened to be swallowed up by the Saadani National Park under orders of the Tanzania National Parks (Tanapa). The villagers are supposed to vacate to pave way for the expansion of the national park. So, over the last 13 years, a dispute has developed with the villagers determined to keep their land alongside the graves of their ancestors and the government that wants to expand the national park.

The villagers have literally refused to accept compensation. But, speaking to The Citizen over the phone, Natural Resources and Tourism deputy minister Mahmoud Mgimwa, says initially the village had 27 families, but, 23 of them were compensated and left. Mr Mgimwa, who recently visited the village over the dispute notes that there remains only four households, thus contradicting the figures given by the hamlet chairman.

He adds: “There is a foreigner at the area who makes the villagers stubborn. After all,  they lack documentary evidence to support their claim to the area. If they have any, let them show it to us.” 

In a hut made of mud, The Citizen meets two women who by their look and testimony of a villager can be centenarians. One, Mwanahamisi Hatibu says: “I was born and lived with my elders here. We tilled this land. This is my home. I’m not ready to move elsewhere. Even my father and mother were born here.” The other woman, also a centenarian, Mwasiti Mwinyiamani, has lost the power of speech, but makes slight movements in the bed when a visitor comes in.    

For her part, Mwanahawa Sururu, 80, explains the background of the introduction of the national park boundaries.

She says before it was upgraded in 2005, Saadani was a Game Reserve from 1966. The status upgrading was done by Tanapa in order to afford it the highest level of legal protection for wild life found there. “Our parents championed for the establishment of the game reserve after they were annoyed by poaching in the nearby forest by people coming from Pangani District in Tanga Region and others from Mombasa in Kenya,” she says.  Uvinje hamlet is very close to Pangani District sharing a narrow sea creek that separates them.

Mwanahawa says after several meetings with the government, some youth from the village received some training and became game rangers in order to counter poaching. Then, the Saadani Forest became a Game Reserve, and the beacons were established beyond the road that separates the village from the reserve.    

Hamlet chairman Akida says the late Rashid Kawawa in his capacity as Prime Minister, officially launched the Game Reserve in 1970s.

In the 2000s, the conflict emerged after Tanapa came up declaring that the village land was part of the national park. “In order to destroy evidence, one night some Tanapa official came and removed the beacons, but luckily they couldn’t locate two of them that we still rely on as proof to our claim,” he says. Akida, who has been in office for three consecutive terms, says he has sent several letters to the government try and find a solution to the dispute between the villagers and Tanapa. To this day, nothing has been done.

In 2006, the then Coast Region commissioner, Dr Christine Ishengoma, and the then Bagamoyo District Commissioner, Lt Col  (rtrd) Serenge Mrengo, held a meeting with villagers over the dispute. In his, letter, of which The Citizen obtained a copy, to Tanapa, Mrengo writes that after meeting with Dr Ishengoma, it was decided that residents of Uvinje should not be evicted from the area and that the boundaries should be respected.  “But, even with this directive from Dr Ishengoma, the dispute is still boiling especially after Ahmed Kipozi became the new district commissioner,” Akida says. “On numerous occasions police officers storm our village pressurizing us to accept compensation,” he claims.

Now, he says, the villagers are appealing to Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda to visit them so he would help them in their nightmare.

“We badly need Prime Minister because our RC Mwantumu Mahiza and DC Kipozi have failed to handle the matter,” says Omari Ally, a villager.

He notes that since the dispute started, no villager has attempted to make meaningful investments for their future and those of their children as the fate remains uncertain. 

When The Citizen reached Kipozi, he remarked: “Who told you that there is a dispute.  That is just one family that refuses to vacate the area.”

Moreover, he referred this reporter to district executive director Samwel Sarianga, for more details. But, efforts by The Citizen to reach Sarianga were futile because he was not pick up his phone.