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Irrigation displaces 14,000 Malawians

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Malawi government’s push to fight poverty through mega-agricultural deals is promoting grabs of land owned by ordinary smallholder farmers, a development which effectively tightens their chains of poverty and food insecurity, Malawi News has established.

Already, under the Green Belt Initiative (GBI), which government champions as a flagship project that should engineer Malawi’s green revolution, up to 14,000 people have had their land dispossessed in just three projects, a 2015 report by LandNet shows.

The three projects have taken up land amounting to over 13,000 hectares.

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As it is, by the time the initiative is implemented in full, it will have left millions of landless poor in its wake as the GBI is targeting between 200,000 and one million hectares of irrigable land to be put under the project, according to its concept.

In some cases, the affected have attempted to fight to keep possession of their land. But without money to hire lawyers for the court cases and facing rich, powerful and connected investors, they have lost the battles.

LandNet, a network of CSOs on land issues in Malawi, has since warned the government that it is treading a fine line if it continues trampling upon the land rights of ordinary farmers in its pursuit of these large-scale deals.

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“We are in support of the investments but we are not in support of the methodology which is not inclusive and not consultative,” said LandNet National Coordinator, Emmanuel Mlaka.

Government insists, however, that GBI will serve the interests of smallholder farmers.

Documents in our possession, which include letters of complaints from victim communities, court papers, reports and CSOs memos show how the mega investments are infested with dishonest dealings that disadvantage ordinary land holders.

In the deals, smallholder farmers are left in the dark on the implications of the investments on their landholding rights.

In some cases, traditional leaders have struck deals with investors on land owned by their people without the subjects knowing it.

The investments that have raised the initial storm include the much-touted Malawi Mangoes in Salima, a sugarcane plantation deal in Traditional Authority Ngowe in Chikwawa and two commercial sugarcane farms in Nkhotakota.

The four projects have grabbed a total of over 13,000 hectares among them, going by the details in the letters of complaints from the affected farmers and CSOs reports.

On January 12, 2016, smallholder farmers from Traditional Authority Kuulunda in Salima lodged a complaint with Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) regarding the sale of their land, estimated at 3,000 hectares, to Malawi Mangoes.

An inquiry by CHRR found that government, through Salima District Council, did not conduct any “meaningful consultations” with the affected communities about the project.

It also established that the council handled the compensation issue in “an unfair, dubious and suspicious manner”.

“…Some chiefs were coerced to append their signatures against K150,000 as a compensation for land sale while others did not even get anything,” reads the letter dated January 21, 2016, which CHRR wrote to Salima District Council seeking explanation on the people’s complaints.

A list of beneficiaries of compensation shows K450,000 as the highest payout and K150,000 as the lowest. Many more did not get anything.

In Nkhotakota, a sugarcane plantation project in Group Village Headman Kanyamuwondo has seen smallholder farmers fighting against their chief, Traditional Authority Kafuzira, and the government for sanctioning a grab of their land without their consent.

“We do not want to abandon food crops cultivation for sugarcane growing because it poses a threat to food insecurity in the area,” say the farmers in a letter addressed to International Land Coalition. The letter is dated February 19, 2014.

The farmers say some of those that opted for sugarcane production have gotten poorer than they were “because the process of getting their money is controlled by sugarcane growers’ association”.

The land in contention has been supporting up to 5,000 households, according to the farmers. This is roughly 25,000 people going by what experts consider as average family size in Malawi.

Where the affected communities have braved the odds to seek court help, the system has beaten them to justice even if dubiously.

In 2012, communities in Traditional Authority Ngowe in Chikwawa, contributed money among themselves and launched a court battle against dispossession of their land by Clement Khembo, a businessman and ex-politician.

The court papers on the matter show that the communities were successful both in the High Court and later in the Supreme Court.

Khembo’s attempt to seek a judicial review in 2013 was also dismissed by Justice Kenyatta Nyirenda in February 2015.

However, the Department of Lands and Valuation still proceeded to offer Khembo a 21-year lease of 1,584 hectares of land in Ngowe’s area last year.

“I am pleased to inform you that your application for a lease of the above property has been approved by the Minister of the Malawi Government responsible for land matters,” says the offer letter of July 31, 2015.

But the decision by the lands department has left LandNet outraged.

“How does the ministry issue an offer for lease to a person whose land rights have been dismissed by courts?” Wondered Mlaka in his response to our questionnaire.

Mlaka dismisses proclamations by GBI, its financiers and its allies such as the G8 New Alliance that the project is designed to increase productivity and competitiveness of smallholder farmers.

“What we see is displacement and land alienation of smallholder farmers,” said Mlaka.

GBI National Coordinator, Henri Njoloma, did not respond to our questions, despite promising to get back to us.

But in an earlier interview with The Daily Times, Njoloma said empowering smallholder farmers was at the core of the project. However, he evaded the landholding question.

“Those who can grow something viable on the market will do that while those who cannot may offer labour in the farms.

“Small holders, instead of relying on themselves to cultivate maize so that they can be food secure, what we want to do is to let them make money and this can be achieved if one thinks like a business person. We would want them to think profit wise as they grow crops,” he said.

He said GBI offers small scale farmers an opportunity to farm in what he called “a resourced environment”.

“If an investor has 1000 hectares of land and there are also 1000 farmers what it means is that you can give half a hectare to each farmer as long as they are producing uniformly,” said Njoloma.

Government is currently sitting on several land bills which once passed would ensure that no customary land changes hands or use without a locally-elected land committee examining and approving the circumstances.

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