The Scattering of the Dead

A disastrous project funded by the Canadian Government is destituting an African people

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 23rd November 1994.

To the Barabaig people of Tanzania, home is where the dead lie. When a man dies, a mound is built for his spirit to inhabit. A holy tree is planted beside it, under which his descendants pray for his blessing and protection. To these nomads the mounds are the fixed points around which their migrations range, the spiritual focus of their lives. A land without spirits is a no man’s land.

Today the last of the spirit mounds of the Basotu Plains, the Barabaig’s critical wet season grazing lands, are being ploughed up by a development project whose profitability and concern for human welfare compare favourably only to Chairman Mao’s attempts at steel production. Funded by the Canadian government, it is bringing some of the most robust of the world’s remaining nomads to their knees.

In the savannahs of northern Tanzania the rains are too short and move on too quickly to make arable farming a reliable option. The Barabaig’s only means of survival is to herd livestock, driving them from one pasture to another, following the rain. They have so perfected the techniques of migratory herding that, until recently, their herds supplied much of Tanzania’s beef.

In 1970 Tanzania came as close to bankruptcy as a country could get. It had no reserves of foreign exchange and its townspeople were short of food. Unable to buy any, it turned to other countries for assistance in growing more of its own. The government of Canada responded energetically.

The simplest analysis would have shown that the solution was assistance for small farmers and better storage and transport of the crops they grew. As maize and beans are the staple foods, they might have seemed the best ones to concentrate on. Were anyone to propose so ludicrous an idea as, for example, growing wheat, they could swiftly have been informed that wheat was not only unfamiliar to Tanzanians, but also a temperate, not a tropical plant, whose long-term viability in the East Africa savannahs is unproven. Clearly, though, the Canadians knew something that everyone else had missed, for they recommended a massive scheme for growing wheat.

By good fortune, the machinery, seeds and chemicals needed for such a project were all manufactured in Canada. By funding a wheat project in Tanzania, the Canadian government could keep everyone happy, subsidizing its own industries without incurring the wrath of the taxpayer. Money designated as aid could simply be channelled back from Tanzania to manufacturers in Canada.

Having determined to mutual satisfaction that the Tanzania Canada Wheat Programme was what the hungry people of Tanzania required, all that remained for the two governments was to find a place to put it. Nowhere suited their purposes better than the Basotu Plains.

The plains happened to be the place where the 40,000 Barabaig people’s cattle fattened and gave birth after the long dry season. But fortunately such anachronisms have seldom been allowed to stand in the way of progress, especially in Tanzania, where nomads are classified as people with no productive employment. The plains were declared state property and handed over to the National Agriculture and Food Corporation.

Using Canada’s money to buy Canadian tractors, seed and pesticides, NAFCO ploughed 70,000 acres of the savannahs. As the Barabaig tried to return to their pastures, they were told they were trespassing and were forcibly evicted. When they tried again, they were beaten up, fined and imprisoned. Villages were burnt down, dams were destroyed, and the mounds of the ancestor spirits dragged under the plough.

As both Canadian and Tanzanian officials now privately admit, the project was utterly misconceived. The external costs of growing wheat on the Basotu Plains are such that it can never, despite the wrigglings of hired economists, be commercially viable. While threatening the livelihood of 40,000 people, the farms employ only 250. Yet the Tanzanian government, which regards the replacement of nomadic herding with mechanized agriculture as development, is now allowing the farms to expand, while the Canadian government continues to help with the costs. NAFCO has illegally ploughed a further 32,000 acres of the Basotu Plains.

In 1991 I was guided around the plains by a Barabaig man who had to hide beneath the dashboard whenever we passed a farm official, for fear of being dragged out and beaten. We drove first across a scrub of dark acacias and yellow grass, in which tall men and women in tasselled brown cloaks herded their cattle down to the waterholes. Then, crossing an escarpment, we passed into another continent: for as far as I could see there was nothing but hedgeless fields of wheat dotted with combine harvesters. We had left the savannahs of Tanzania for the prairies of Canada.

Snaking across the stubble fields, we followed erosion gullies twelve feet deep to Lake Basotu, a place sacred to the Barabaig. Since 1970 the lake had shrunk by half. The flamingoes, pelicans, fish eagles, hippos and crocodiles had deserted it, and the pesticides swept down with the soil had poisoned many of the fish. Yet this lake and the troughs and ponds the Barabaig had built on the plains before the project began were still critical to their survival.

At certain times of the year these were their only reliable water sources. Recognizing this, the government had declared that tracks forty metres wide should remain open, so that the Barabaig could drive their cattle to water. But NAFCO’s tractors had gradually encroached the margins of the tracks, until some were no more than two metres across. Confining cattle to a path of this size is almost impossible when they are travelling long distances, yet if the animals stepped onto the margins of a field, their herders were promptly arrested. They were taken to the district court where they were fined. Those who could not pay were imprisoned.

In the month before my visit, eleven old men had had to sell all their animals to pay their fine. A man and his wife were each imprisoned for three years for allowing their cattle to stray one metre into a stubble field. A nine-year old boy was remanded in prison: he stayed there for four months then received twelve strokes of the cane. Two women had their cattle confiscated then were raped by NAFCO employees. The Barabaig I met told me that NAFCO was trying to wipe them out.

I visited the Canadian research director, who said that the project was a complete success. What about the Barabaig? “The Barabaig,” he informed me, “are nomadic. They can go to another place.” His Tanzanian assistant, listening to our conversation through the door, stopped me in the corridor and announced, “I won’t shed a tear for anybody if it means development.”

The project director, Dr Lorne Heuckroth, was more conciliatory. He admitted that there had been “downsides to the project”, but told me the Barabaig would be compensated with new development schemes. The expansion of the farms, the beatings, rapes, fines and imprisonments would stop immediately.

Returning to the plains 17 months later, it was not hard to see that Dr Heuckroth’s promises had been broken. A pillar of yellow smoke rose from the savannah. Coming closer, I saw that trees were being bulldozed into piles and burnt. A Canadian tractor was pulling a plough up and down the cleared land. I asked the driver who he was working for. He told me that NAFCO was employing him to expand the farms.

The villages in which I had met the remaining plains dwellers had disappeared: like the trees, the grass and the spirit mounds they had gone under the plough. I met a man who had been repeatedly beaten and electrocuted by NAFCO workers: his face was covered in scars and he could not raise his arms. Nine Barabaig whose cattle had died of starvation had been caught gleaning spilt grain in one of the fields and were each sentenced to three years in prison for stealing wheat. Some of the women caught by farm workers had been raped with sticks and then beaten up; the people were more desperate than they had ever been before.

Yet Tanzanian officials continue to defend NAFCO’s interests, to the extent of drafting new laws to block the Barabaig’s legal challenges to the expansion of the farms. While the Canadian government had claimed in 1991 that it would stop funding the project, one of the farm managers told me that he would not be able to survive without special deals on Canadian machinery and chemicals. The Canadian ambassador to Tanzania is a regular visitor to NAFCO’s farms.

Several thousand of the Barabaig, destituted by the loss of their critical pastures, have now fled to the towns. As the tractors advance across their lands, the project is scattering the living as it has already scattered the dead.

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