Malawi: Small-scale farmers lose land to sugar company (IRIN)

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Dorothy Dyton used to make a living farming just over a hectare near the town of Bangula in southern Malawi’s Chikhwawa District. But in 2009 she and 2,000 other subsistence farmers were informed by their local chief that the land had been sold and they could no longer grow crops there. Like most small-scale farmers in Malawi, they did not have a title deed for the land they were born on.

Mrs. Dyton and her neighbours did not immediately accept the enormous change in their circumstances. They continued to farm the land for another season, with the blessing of the district commissioner. But in 2010, as they prepared to plant, they were met by a police van. The police chief warned them not to come back. The next day, the farmers set out for their fields, but were met by tear gas and rubber bullets. That night, six of them were arrested and charged with trespassing.

Mrs. Dyton says that, since that time, “Life has been very hard on us.” With a game reserve on one side of the community and the Shire River and Mozambique border on the other, there is no other land for them to farm. The family now ekes out a living selling firewood gathered from the nearby forest. The three oldest children have dropped out of school to help their parents.

Isaac Falakeza is another community member. He says, “People aren’t getting enough to eat. Some are doing piece work on other people’s gardens; others are harvesting water lilies. You can see how malnourished the children are.”

Mrs. Dyton’s community has been removed from this land before. During former President Hastings Banda’s time, one of the President’s friends established a cattle ranch there. In 1994, the ranch ceased to function and the community returned.

In Malawi, more than 60 per cent of land is customary, meaning that it is mostly untitled and administered by local chiefs on behalf of the government. Local communities have the right only to use these lands. The system has led to many abuses, with government officials and chiefs selling off customary lands.

Blessings Chinsinga is a lecturer at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College. He is researching land reform in the country. Talking about the villagers, he says, “There’s nothing [they] can do because they’re not protected in any way by the law.”

After Banda left office, the government developed a new land policy. The policy allows farmers to register their customary land as private property. However, the legislative changes needed to implement the policy have not passed through Parliament. So the land reform process has effectively stalled. Blessings Chinsinga comments, “Politicians own massive tracts of land; they benefited from the previous system, so they’re reluctant to adopt a new legislative framework.”

The 2,000 hectares of land once farmed by Mrs. Dyton and her neighbours is now owned by a company called Agricane, which is leasing it to the South African company Illovo Sugar. Bouke Bijl is Agricane’s country director. He explained that the company bought the land from a bank which had acquired it from former President Banda’s friend, the cattle ranch owner, after he defaulted on a loan.

Mr. Bijl describes Mrs. Dyton and other farmers as troublemakers with no ancestral claims to the land. Referring to the 2010 standoff between the farmers and police, he says, “There was a directive from the District Commissioner that they shouldn’t have been there and should make way for development, but they chose not to understand that.”

Ironically, Agricane’s core business is providing technical support to clients, many of them international donors who are implementing community development projects. Mr. Bijl noted that the company’s biggest challenge in carrying out such projects was the issue of land tenure. He says, “We’re seeing a lot of projects collapse because the communities have never been prepared sufficiently to deal with it.”

Land reform laws are only a first step in small-scale farmers’ fight for land security. Faced with huge international companies who want land for development, farmers will need resources, support, information and publicity to help them remain on their land.