Over 1,500 farmers gather in Njombe, Tanzania for MVIWATA annual meeting

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The movement which is also commemorating its 30th anniversary fights for the dignity and unity of the peasantry in Tanzania in the face of neoliberalism

Members of MVIWATA gathered in the organization’s AGM in Njombe, Tanzania. Photo: Fiola Seruba / Pan Africanism Today and Kingson Mazee

1,500 delegates, representing the more than 300,000 members of Mtandao wa Vikundi vya Wakulima [National Network of Farmers Groups in Tanzania], commonly known as MVIWATA, converged on Njombe, Tanzania on Tuesday December 12, for the organization’s 28th Annual General Meeting (AGM) and 30th-anniversary celebration. Delegates walked through the streets of Njombe, Tanzania towards the venue for the historic meeting.

Members of MVIWATA participating in procession towards conference in Njombe, Tanzania. Photo: Fiola Seruba / Pan Africanism Today

This farmers’ organization, formed in 1993, kicked off their program with greetings from fraternal organizations from all over the world who traveled to Njombe to participate in the meeting. The Executive Director of MVIWATA, Stephen Ruvuga, also gave opening remarks and reflections from some of the members who participated in founding the movement 30 years ago.

The first day’s session also saw participation from Dr. Tulia Ackson, Tanzania’s speaker of parliament and president of the inter-parliamentary union, who delivered the keynote address. Inspired by the tenacity with which MVIWATA has defended the peasants of Tanzania for the last 30 years, Dr. Ackson celebrated the movement in particular and the peasantry in general as core contributors to the construction of Tanzania. She reminded delegates that from the independence struggle to date, the peasants have been at the heart of any progress the country has been able to make.

She also defended agroecology as a key instrument for combating climate change and celebrated Indigenous seeds as strategic for the country. Her speech committed the Tanzanian state to proactively defending peasants from land grabs.

In his opening remarks, Stephen Ruvuga reminded delegates that MVIWATA was formed to bring dignity to farmers – something that the turn towards neoliberalism in the early 1990s seemed set against. Thirty years later, the struggle for the dignity of farmers continues.

The debates between the senior representatives of government, including the regional commissioner for Mbeya and the vocal delegates to the AGM continued to pivot around this central question of Dignity. Veronica Sopu, for example, lamented the fact that the speaker of parliament made time to attend this meeting, but the Department of Agriculture did not send anyone to come listen to the ideas, grievances and perspectives of farmers.

30 years of lessons

On the second and third days of the meeting, members participated in a workshop intended to reflect on the lessons the movement can learn from the last 30 years and the best ways to ensure that it continues its struggle for the interests of peasants into the future. The chairperson of MVIWATA, Apolo Chamwela, opened the session and insisted that the biggest potential enemy of the movement is disunity. His opening address was unequivocal that building unity among farmers in Tanzania and the world is fundamental for all members.

Photo: Pan Africanism Today

The representative of the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement of Brazil (MST), Iris, gave an important message of greeting to the meeting. She encouraged the MVIWATA to continue the struggle for advancing peasants economically, politically and socially. She also invited the movement to participate in the MST’s 40th anniversary in July 2024. Representatives from the Tanzanian Biotech Products Limited, a biotech manufacturing company that has significant partnerships with Cuba, also greeted the delegates. They reminded them that they are the product of international solidarity from the Cuban government which, during the time of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, helped the Tanzanian government establish this state asset to combat mosquitos without using agro toxins.

This was followed by a detailed reflection on the trajectory taken by MVIWATA over the last 30 years. This discussion was initiated by an overview from Stephen Ruvuga who reminded delegates that the President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, especially after the Arusha Declaration of 1976, took the side of the majority in the class struggle. The state was therefore taking responsibility for supporting peasants to improve their lives through providing access to healthcare and education to everyone whilst also providing markets and agricultural support to peasants.

Unfortunately, this people-centered project for socialism and self-reliance (aka ujamaa) was abandoned in the early 1990s in favor of a neoliberal path. The infrastructure to support the peasantry withered away under austerity measures and the state consciously withdrew from supporting farmers’ production which had earlier been seen in the way of dedicated markets, financing and loans, and other means. Instead, there was an unscientific belief in the ‘free market’ as the solution for all problems.

Photo: Pan Africanism Today

MVIWATA as a bedrock of farmer solidarity

The abandonment of the peasants under neoliberalism led to the formation of MVIWATA in 1993. The purpose of the movement was to facilitate solidarity among farmers who had no one to rely on except themselves. Through training, exchanges, and sharing of resources, infrastructure and knowledge the movement grew into a force to be reckoned with in Tanzanian society. Importantly, delegates were reminded that the constitution of MVIWATA defines peasants based on their class position in society, and not the amount of land they till. This is significant as it suggests a socio-political lens through which the plight of Tanzania’s peasants is understood.

The challenges that have been confronted along the way were also highlighted such as overcoming tendencies towards individualism and self-interest. Similarly, the unequivocal defense of peasants has led the movement to be characterized as ‘troublemakers’ by the government and capitalists. There has also been much animosity from NGOs who do not like the autonomy with which MVIWATA operates. In some cases, it would seem as though NGOs have abandoned their original mandate to focus on fighting against MVIWATA.

The problems confronting farmers in 1993 have not gone away. In many ways, the problems have gotten worse and the need for a strong, vibrant MVIWATA is more urgent than ever.

Photo: Pan Africanism Today

Continued challenges facing peasants

Delegates raised a key problem that markets set up by the peasants were being confiscated by the government. Similarly, there are increased incidents of land grabs by so-called private ‘investors’ and also by the state itself which seeks to expand nature reserves for tourism at the expense of the peasants.

These challenges, however, did not deter Brian from Dodoma region who insisted that “our ability to service for these last 30 years is thanks to our ability to confront challenges head-on”. This was reaffirmed later in the day when Faria from Kigoma insisted that “We as peasants have to unite and we should not be shaken easily”.

This call for resilience of the movement seemed to acknowledge that hard times might be ahead. Despite multiple studies which emphasize the centrality of small farmers and agroecology in the livelihoods of all Tanzanians, it would appear that the neoliberal agenda remains entrenched in the current administration.

One farmer commended the movement for the material benefit he has seen from its interventions. He boldly reported that he has been able to increase the yields of his crops significantly by applying what he had learnt from MIWATA’s training.

The movement’s Annual General meeting which began on December 12 will continue until December 15.

Jonis Ghedi Alasow is the coordinator of Pan Africanism Today.

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