Land: A big item in African news (Open Society Foundations, Reuters, TrustLaw)

| April 9, 2012

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All over Africa, land is a big issue these days. Land rights, land tenure, land grabs, foreign investment in land – stories about land are all over the news.

In honour of the International Day of Peasant’s Struggle on April 17, land issues will be the focus of next week’s special issue of Farm Radio Weekly. As a preview, we bring you a sampling of recent news stories on land from Malawi, Mozambique and Kenya.

November 2011 was a good month for women in Malawi. Parliament finally recognized that women have the right to inherit from the marital estate. In the past, after the death of her husband, a woman and her children were often left with nothing. In addition to losing the family home, widows had to contend with the husband’s relatives descending to grab property – silverware, bedding, clothes, everything.

But Malawi’s new Deceased Estates Act now protects the spouse’s and children’s share of the estate. The Act makes property grabbing an offense, liable to a fine of one million Malawian kwacha, about $6000 U.S., or imprisonment for up to three years.

This victory didn’t come without struggle. Last year, a bill requesting an amendment of the inheritance laws reached Parliament only to be rejected. Members of the largely male Parliament expressed discomfort with the idea that wives and children should be legally entitled to a share of the estate after a husband’s death. They argued that their inheritance should be dictated solely by the husband’s will. Parliamentarians also maintained that if wives were legally entitled to inherit their husband’s property, this would be an incentive for them to kill their husbands.

Now that the new law has been enacted, the next step is education. Malawi’s women will only benefit if judges and communities are educated about the new law. An important milestone has been reached, but the struggle for justice continues.

Next, we turn to Mozambique. Between November 2009 and December 2010, the Brazilian mining company Vale resettled more than seven hundred families 60 kilometres away from its Moatize mining sites in the country’s coal-rich Tete Province. In January of this year, about 500 villagers blocked the railway line that transports coal from the mines to the coast. The villagers demanded that the company fulfil promises made to them in 2009. They demonstrated against the lack of access to water, electricity and agricultural land in their resettlement area.

Community leader Eduardo Zinocassaka said, “Last December we sent a document-complaint to the government of Moatize District requesting their official intervention to solve the problems faced by the communities, and as we saw the government’s incapacity, we decided to demonstrate.”

An independent report backed the villagers’ claims, and laid responsibility at the feet of both the company and the government. Adriano Ramos is director for sustainability at Vale-Mozambique. He admitted that the complaints are justified, and promised that everything would be set right within six months. The report also charged that Vale had not fulfilled its objective of contributing to the local economy and hiring local workers, a charge disputed by Vale.

In Kenya, a new constitution grants women the same land rights as men. But widows are still being forced off their land. Some have even been driven to squatting.

Hundreds gathered in western Kenya’s Siaya County last month to hear crying widows tell how they had been robbed of their land because culture bars them from inheritance. One elderly women said, “I thought it was a dream and tried to resist, but the man went ahead to destroy my house and property as the police watched.” The woman’s husband had died some weeks earlier. She continued, “I am now living as a squatter on someone else’s land with my six children.”

Another widow said that a senior civic leader had forcibly taken her family land soon after her husband died. She added, “Every time I try to file a case in court, he threatens me with death, and no one is willing to help me, as many people fear him because of his political connections.”

Women’s rights campaigners have called upon the government to form legal committees in villages. Such committees could help women enjoy their land rights and prevent them and their children from being evicted from their homes.

Women’s rights activist Phoebe Nyawalo said, “The culture that dictates that only men should have their names in title deeds is repugnant and should have died with the promulgation of the new constitution.”

Despite the new constitution, many widows and children still lack access to justice because of intimidation, ignorance and the high cost of filing cases.