By Kizito Makoye

DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ten years after losing their homes and grazing lands in a "brutal" eviction from a vast Tanzanian wetland, a group of more than 600 farmers have won their battle for compensation.

The livestock keepers and their families were forcibly removed from their villages in the Ihefu Basin, in the country's southern highlands, under a government program to protect the wetlands that act as a natural buffer for the Great Ruaha River.

The river, in the Mbeya region, is the country's major source of hydro-electricity. However seasonal drying of flows has slowed energy production and, in 2006, the government moved to expand the Ruaha National Park to protect water and local wetlands, reducing the area available for farming and grazing.

According to Hellen-Kijo Bisimba, executive director of the Dar es Salaam-based Legal and Human Rights Centre, the eviction of local residents was conducted by heavily armed police, game wardens and anti-poaching unit officers, and resulted in both the loss of farmland and the death of livestock.

Tanzanian Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa said last week that compensation payments to the farmers formed part of his government's plan to resolve long-running land and water conflicts between the state and local communities.

"I have directed respective regional authorities to conduct a thorough assessment and compensate all residents whose land had been reallocated for other purposes," he said, speaking at a meeting with the regional commissioners of Mbeya, Njombe and Iringa.

"Land is the property of the state, and when the government acquires it for other purposes, it should not be cause for any disputes," he said.

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?

Tanzania National Parks Chief Conservationist Vitalis Urulea confirmed that an initial payment of 362 million Tanzanian shillings ($181,000) had been set aside for the villagers.

Amos Makala, Mbeya regional commissioner, said all residents of Ihefu who lost land and property would be compensated fairly, with the amount paid to be based on the size of their loss.

But community rights activists said the compensation fund is unlikely to be adequate, considering the suffering experienced by the villagers and the decade-long delay in securing justice.

"I don't think this compensation means anything to these residents - most of them lost a large number of cattle, crops and even food stocks," said Andrea Ntelemo, a community leader in Mbarali District.

Farming and livestock have been a major source of livelihood for residents of the sprawling wetlands for decades.

However, drought has led to conflict between villagers who rely on local water for their animals and crops, and a government committed to guaranteeing national energy supplies.

The Ruaha river contributes to electricity generation at the nearby Mtera and Kidatu hydropower facilities.

Tanesco, the state-owned power utility, estimates that hydropower plants produce about 35 percent of the country's electricity needs, with gas and oil-fired plants making up most of the difference.

HOUSES BURNED, LIVESTOCK LOST

In 2011, a report submitted to the Tanzanian Human Rights Council on behalf of indigenous and herder communities documented the forceful eviction of "large numbers" of pastoralists and their livestock from the Usangu Plains over a number of years.

It found that eight other villages in Mbarali District were subsumed and made part of the Ruaha National Park on environmental grounds, despite a lack of scientific evidence to justify the eviction.

The local Sangu and Sukuma communities were first allowed to settle and graze animals on the Ihefu wetlands in the 1950s.

According to a 2014 study by Iringa University, herders evicted from the area when the park was expanded were forced to find new and unfamiliar ways of earning a living, including horticulture and pig farming.

The report found that the Ihefu evictions resulted in the loss of livelihoods, family breakups and food insecurity, as crops were destroyed and animals starved to death.

Godfrey Massay, a land investment expert at Arusha-based charity Tanzania Natural Resource Forum, applauded the government move to compensate Ihefu villagers but said it was too late.

The law stipulates landholders must be paid compensation within six months, he noted. "My biggest concern is that this compensation is not timely as required by the law," he said.

Villagers, Massay added, are also often poorly reimbursed because the institutions acquiring land are the same ones responsible for valuation, surveying and compensation - a major conflict of interest.

Residents who were evicted from Ihefu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they were unsure about the compensation plan.

"I think it would be wise for the government to allocate us with new land to go on with cattle-keeping instead of doing petty trade, something I am not used to," said Hamza Lutuli, a former resident of Ihefu who lost 78 cattle.

Nimrod Lemweli, who also lived in Ihefu, said that 10 years after the evictions, a fair assessment of what was lost would be difficult.

"What kind of evaluation are they going to carry out? If the houses were burned down and crops destroyed, how is it possible for them to fairly compensate us? I doubt it," he said.

Nasoro Malyatabu, who now lives in the neighboring district of Chunya, said the government should also consider the emotional distress people suffered from what he described as a "brutal" eviction.

"I want to be reunited with my own family - money will not buy me love," he said.

(Reporting by Kizito Makoye, editing by Paola Totaro and Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)