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Ex-labourers fight for land ownership

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MSUKWA—They do not have papers backing their ownership of the land

People who fought hard to stay freely on a piece of land they relocated to now face another hitch: To have the status of the land changed in their favour. WEZZIE GAUSI writes:

Fifty-six-year-old Linda, who is a bonafide Malawian and possesses the National Identity card and passport, has for the past 21 years been failing to come to terms with the fact that she may have no say on the piece of land she has been occupying since 2000.

The mother of five, widowed, is also bitter that her former employer and the Malawi Government are trying to make her believe that hopelessness is the most palatable form of existence.

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“Government officials have been claiming that we all have a right to own property. However, you only need to hear my, and 2,999 other people’s, story to understand that this is hardly the case. I and other people have been fighting for our right to claim ownership over pieces of land we have been staying on, or using, for the past 21 years, to no avail. No one seems interested in our predicament,” says the Mchinji resident, tears rolling down her cheeks.

She is one of the people who used to work for Press Agriculture Limited (PAL) but later settled at Rusa Estate in the Central Region district of Mchinji.

In the year 2000, PAL closed its estates in Kasungu District, in the process leaving the people—who used to work as tobacco ‘labourers’—homeless and hopeless.

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From the 1970s, PAL employed people from Mulanje, Thyolo, Phalombe, Nsanje, Lilongwe, Dowa, Mzimba and Kasungu districts to work in its estates in Kasungu.

However, when the estates closed in the early 2000s, the tenants were dumped.

But, led by one of their own Flywell Somanje, who is also the executive director for local non-governmental organisation, Millennium Information and Resources Centre (Mirece), the abandoned workers found a new ‘home’ in Mchinji District, again in the Central Region.

Mirece and labourers like Linda fought tooth and nail to, finally, see their wish to relocate granted.

In total, 3,000 people moved to Rusa Estate, which is under Traditional Authority Kapondo, in Mchinji District.

However, the move did not please villagers from surrounding areas.

In June this year, the Office of the Ombudsman ordered the government to bail out the tobacco ex-labourers.

The then Ombudsman Martha Chizuma spurred into action, going to the extent of visiting the new location in Mchinji District, to ascertain if, indeed, what MHRC indicated in its investigative report reflected the situation on the ground.

She corroborated findings of the report, observing that the people even qualified for access to social programmes.

In its investigative report, MHRC indicated, in September 2020, that the people’s complaints were valid, and that, as such, they required the government’s intervention.

The report further recommended that the Central Government (through Mchinji District Council) regularise the Rusa Estate settlement for ex-labourers that found a new home there.

It also suggested the setting up of a system that would ease the inflow of social amenities to the area, among them water and sanitation facilities, while also ensuring that the people were enjoying access to farm subsidies beginning with the 2020-21 growing season.

“The government should relocate and resettle those ex-laborers stuck in Kasungu to any of the five estates given out by PAL. Moreover, the District Commissioners should be granted authority to resettle all the landless people in their districts to any of the five estates available, respectively,” the report reads.

Initially, the Rusa Estate land they are utilising used to belong to PAL and is part of public land in the country.

The report further asked the Ministry for Labour to prescribe minimum standards for labour policies in labour-intensive corporations to ensure that those corporations comply with international and regional human rights principles.

However, Somanje bemoans that, despite that MHRC, office of the Ombudsman and other stakeholders have weighed in on the issue, problems the ex-labourers have been facing have not been solved.

“In the first place, let me say that the 13,000 people that have been given pieces of land to resettle are just a fraction. In truth, we have around 23,000 people that are still homeless in various districts of the Central Region. These people require help immediately because, like the rest of us, they deserve better,” Somanje said.

He said it would be a welcome development if pieces of land were identified for the other homeless people scattered in the Central Region.

“They can be relocated to, for example, Mzimba District, Lilongwe District or Salima District,” he said.

Meanwhile, the ex-labourers that settled in Mchinji District have lamented the government’s failure to give them ownership status over the land, which is still public land.

In September this year, they penned MHRC, asking it to facilitate change of ownership of the land.

They want the land to change to customary status so that they are not chased from the estate one day.

The Rusa Estate land was allocated to the ex-labourers after they presented their case to the Central Government and MHRC.

Now, the people have asked MHRC to help them push the Ministry of Lands to change ownership of the land from private to customary status.

“We thank the government and all other stakeholders who helped us to have the land but we are worried that the land is still privately owned, which poses a threat to us because this means we may be forced out of it anytime. So we want MHRC to help us push for a change of land status from public to customary,” Somanje said.

However, MHRC spokesperson Kate Kujaliwa said the commission was yet to receive the communication.

“Our mandate is to help people like them. As you are aware, it is the commission that recommended that the labourers be given the land. So, we will make proper follow-ups once the letter reaches us,” Kujaliwa said.

Meanwhile, the government has said there is nothing it can do to help the people change land ownership status.

Lands, Housing and Urban Development Minister Kezzie Msukwa said current land laws do not have a provision giving the ministry the leeway to turn public or private land into customary land.

“We understand what these people are going through but there is nothing we, as a ministry, can do to help them. Let other stakeholders come in and find a way to bail these people out.

“As things stand, the land on which these people settled is not theirs legally. Come what may, they will be chased out of the land because they do not have papers backing their ownership of the land,” Msukwa said.

The development comes at a time the Ministry of Lands, in May this year, finalised reviewing all land-related laws and submitted them to the Ministry of Justice for further scrutiny.

Review of the land-related laws, which were enacted in 2017, came about after, in October 2020, President Lazarus Chakwera attributed rising cases of scramble for land to archaic land laws.

Some of the sticky issues in the land laws include the sale of land to foreigners, existence of freehold land. There is also a piece of legislation on customary land.

This means, for Linda and countless others, the battle has just started, leaving them in a state of ‘eternal’ flux.

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