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‘Land grab’ foils sugarcane deal

Five years after a proposed sugarcane irrigation scheme was supposed to have taken off in the area of Traditional Authority Mbenje in Nsanje, communities affected by a ‘land grab’ by the project have turned around and rejected the deal altogether.

The Nyamitalala Integrated Irrigation Scheme was supposed to be implemented by Agricane, a Zimbabwean multinational with presence in South Africa, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Mozambigue.

Led by Traditional Authority Mbenje, who was installed in the position in August last year, the affected communities from six villages have put their foot down, saying they no longer want the project as it failed to respect their free, prior and informed consent.

They also argue that the project is not demand-led and lacked meaningful engagement with the people who were supposed to be out-growers in the scheme.

“There is an implicit assumption that the small farmers will automatically benefit from participation in out-grower schemes. Yet…there is sufficient cause to question this assumption and to interrogate how the benefits and risks of these programmes are likely to be shared,” reads the letter signed by Traditional Authority Mbenje and addressed to the Managing Director for Agricane Malawi Limited.

The communities also argue in the letter, dated October 12, 2015, that while the deal would necessitate the conversion of land held under customary tenure to leasehold tenure, which means the people would lose it permanently, some farmers were initially in support of the project out of the impression that they would still retain ownership of their land.

“This is clear indication that there is a suppression of material facts by the project in the process of engaging farmers,” says the letter.

They further fear that the project would reduce them to being just a charity case instead of being equal partners which would entitle them to proper benefits.

The letter also reveals that some village heads in the area, ignorant of the implications of their actions and greedy for money, facilitated dispossession of land from the people by selling it to outsiders who hurried to capitalise on the project.

“Many of these new farmers had no right to land in the area but as a result of the project, there has been a scramble for land in the area. … One would wonder why the village headmen facilitated such deals of land transfer from indigenous local farmers to people from outside the area if indeed this project was aimed at uplifting the well-being and plight of local farmers,” says the letter.

Speaking on telephone from Lilongwe, Mbenje corroborated the contents of the letter as the consensus of the people from his area.

“When I took over the chieftaincy last year, there was already discontent about the deal. I investigated the matter and found that a large chunk of the people did not want the project.

“The due process of engagement was not followed and people were left in the dark. There was no transparency in the transaction. We even organised a study tour to a similar project in Chikwawa and we found a lot of displeasure with the project there,” he said.

The project they visited is Phata Sugarcane Outgrowers Cooperative located in Traditional Authority Masea which started in 2012.

Coincidentally, it was also Agricane that undertook a survey and designing and supervised construction of this 300-hectare scheme. It was funded by the European Union.

Mbenje said: “It is our belief that any investment should be people-oriented and should not be top-down. People should be left to decide what they want to do and what they want to grow. Any investment without us is not for us.”

In the letter, Mbenje told Agricane his position in defence of his subjects.

“I will be failing in my duty as a traditional leader if I am to support such kind of a project to take off. Any attempt to ensure that the proposed project is implemented will constitute a land grab,” he said.

In our contacts for Agricane’s response, we were referred to a Mr Bouke Bijl who had not yet responded to our questions as we went to print.

Information on the company’s website shows that Agricane has been involved in such projects in Malawi since 1997.

In the past 19 years, apart from the Nyamitalala and Phata schemes, Agricane has been involved in 21 other similar projects contracted by clients such as the Malawi government and Illovo Sugar, according to information on its website.

Public discontent has also characterised three other mega-agricultural projects in Nkhotakota, Chikwawa and Salima which have ‘grabbed’ an estimated 13,000 hectares of land and displaced over 14,000 people.

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