Graduate School

Graduate School

Grabbing the Female Commons: Large‐Scale Land Acquisitions for forest plantations and impacts on gender relations in Kilolo district, Iringa Region, Tanzania

Project lead

lic phil. Désirée Gmür


Even though much has been written on the impacts of large-scale land acquisitions (LSLA) in Tanzania (Locher and Sulle 2013, 2014) and Africa in general (Cotula et al. 2009, Toulmin 2008), there is a notorious blindness regarding the impact on the commons and issues of resilience[1] regarding gender relations (see also Doss et al.

2014). Specifically, long-term social anthropological research on the gendered impacts of LSLAs is lacking. Scant literature deals with the broader institutional changes in gender relations due to LSLA and the strategies women adopt to cope with these changes. In this thesis, I discuss data from my research on large scale land acquisitions for forest plantations made by the British-based investor New Forests Company (NFC) in the Kilolo district of the Iringa region. The thesis focuses on the impacts of the ways in which large scale land acquisitions consolidate commonly owned land (i.e. create commons enclosures) that affects women’s resilience differently than men. In particular, women’s ability to fulfill their care work is hampered as they lose access to land and related common pool resources (e.g, fruit trees, grasses, agricultural land) for which mostly only men are compensated. I argue that the commons enclosure through LSLA mainly has negative impacts on women, involving increased workloads. It also increases wives’ dependency on their husbands because land and related resources like fruit trees, previously an important source of cash controlled by women, have decreased or are no longer available and land is mostly controlled by elderly men. I further argue that resilience –in terms of food security–[2] is therefore negatively impacted, creating an imbalance between gender and generation based on this power relation.

This thesis uses a new institutionalism (NI) perspective in social anthropology (see Ensminger 1992; Haller (ed.) 2010). This approach is actor-oriented and examines how external effects shape the internal bargaining power of actors and gender ideologies shaping the institutional choice of and distributional effects for different actors. With regard to LSLA and gender this means discussing the context of external changes (LSLA) that raise land value and consequently influence bargaining power in gender relations, the ideologies that justify these relations, and the choice of gender-specific institutions related to resource governance. The NI perspective is about institutional transformations driven by change in the relative price of land due to the LSLA (changes in the value of land, rise of the relative price of land) that leads powerful actors to select among a plurality of institutions. These instituions can include rules and laws like land acts, property rights and regulations (see Enmsinger, Haller et al 2010), as for example,  the 1999 Land Act, the 1999 Village Land Act and the 2009 Water Resources Management Act, as well as local customary land rights, among others. The institutions employ ideologies through discourses and narratives that seek to legitimize land acquisitions in specific contexts. A new institutionalism perspective also looks at the impacts that the institution shopping process (Toulmin 2009; Haller 2010, 2013) has on people with less power in negotiation, which often are women. Additionally, it shows how new norms and institutions emerge and are selected by powerful actors. This process has implications for women’s and men’s previous access to common-pool resources (CPRs). I combine this approach with theoretical insights on the governance of common-pool resources (see Ostrom 1990) that emphasize the characteristics of these resources and the way common property institutions are structured to manage land and related CPRs in a sustainable and robust way. By combining the two I not only show how institutions change but also how these CPRs were used and governed before the investment and are now being replaced by new forms of governance at the expense of women’s access to vital resources. Furthermore, neo-Marxist approaches that focus on the household mode of production, the reproduction of the workforce, and gender relations of exploitation (see Claude Meillassoux 1981) indicate that exploitation of women is increasing under conditions of commons grabbing.

The data for this thesis was collected during several months of fieldwork from March 2015 to December 2015, April 2016 to December 2016 and February 2017 to October 2017. The scientific approach taken by this project is based on inter- and transdisciplinary cooperation between Social Anthropology, Human Geography, and Gender Studies. I mainly used the following mixed research methods, and data was cross verified through data triangulation (Burke Johnson et al. 2007): empirical data collection from participant observation, followed by open and semi-structured interviews that were conducted with members of different interest groups as well as experts from the government and NGOs. Futhermore, biographies, narrative interviews and focus group discussions focusing on the life histories of local actors provided a basis for obtaining emic views on land use, the land investment process and its consequences for gender relations and institutional change (also regarding gender relations). Furthermore, value chain analysis and household questionnaires were used to obtain economic (household budgets, incomes, expenses) and demographic data.

[1] Resilience is the ability of a person and/or a household to restore basic livelihood capaciticies after a shock. Such capacities need to be available over time and remain high for the unit (household, community) to be resilient

[2] Regarding food security I adopt the definition of the FAO: „Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.“(FAO 1996). The FAO also speaks of 4 Dimensions of food security: Physical AVAILABILITY of food, Economic and physical ACCESS to food, Food UTILIZATION,  and STABILITY of the other three dimensions over time (FAO 1996). During my research I also looked at the emic perspective of food security.


Prof. Dr. Tobias Haller (Universität Bern)