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Land management: Key for Malawi’s rural transformation

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By Wisdom Mfune:

PROPOSED MEGA FARMS—Chilima

Continued from last week…

Vice President, Saulos Klaus Chilima, has championed the idea of establishing at least a mega farm in every district. This is plausible, given the nature of land inequality in Malawi. But what exactly does the Vice President mean by a mega farm? What would it constitute? How would it look like and function? What difference does the VP envisage between a mega farm and a large-capital intensive commercial farm? Whichever of the two is envisaged, I hope the mega farms he has in mind are ones that will be able to either absorb or solicit the participation of the majority of the rural people in that enterprise, development of jobs and small industries.

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Malawi has since the 1990s relied on the neo-liberal ideology as a development policy. This ideology has spilled- over into the land reform programme and the country has used the free-market- led agrarian reform principle of ‘willing buyer, willing seller’. In all honesty, neo-liberal policies in Malawi have been ‘copy and paste’ and as a result, the approach has failed to meet official government land redistribution targets and public expectations. Neo-liberal policies give powers to market forces but an appreciation of the country’s economy points to the need for government intervention in land redistribution affairs. Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (Admarc) has been the driver of agricultural trade liberalisation on this front but the institution is highly politically compromised or conflicted. In the recent electoral debates, Admarc was brought to the centre stage with the debate being focused on Admarc’s inability to discharge its core function of being a ready market for farm produce from the rural poor farmers. The country therefore needs to seriously consider other ideological considerations that are peculiar to the country’s areas of social importance.

The current ideology is a falsehood and therefore does not respond to the social ills of different groups. The importance of ideology is that it provides guidance and direction to political processes and areas of national development goals as enshrined in the social contract (the constitution- principles of national policy). The newly-elected President has been at the fore front in campaigning for a reforms agenda. Many would concur that the political landscape in Malawi calls for a reforms agenda. Potentially, the President can focus the reforms agenda on clear ideological considerations that build thought leadership, outcome-based performance and management and long term gains.

The second area for consideration and potentially critical is the politics of land. The politics of land in Malawi has ended in power dynamics based on dysfunctional tenure security that marginalises vulnerable groups such as the poor, women and young people. This brings the issue of land rights in communal areas to the fore where people’s experience points to a system of land rights which is in disarray. As a result of this, the process has produced different winners and losers, the process placed and dis-placed people differently with differing outcomes. An intelligent although provocative question arises: what role has or can the private sector play in land redistribution? This question becomes the more pressing given that the country’s power structure is dominated by an almost undisputed political elite. Many governments in the past have promised land redistribution to the land hungry so that they can use it for settlement or productive uses such as agricultural activities but the promise still remains empty. The private sector could perhaps do more. If the Land Act is to materialise, unequal power dynamics based on class, gender or tribe will only make the Total Management Land Area (TLMA) an ineffective instrument for a quick, efficient and successful land reform programme.

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The last area that the land reform programme needs to consider is developmental provisions that focus on post-settlement support services and coordination. Here the local government is potentially best suited for this role. Land reform should not just be seen as an end in itself but as a means to an end. Therefore, the purpose of land reform should be improved (economic) livelihoods that are sustainable. This would help with the transformation of the rural economy which would in turn contribute to the wider economy.

In essence, what these three pillars (ideology, politics and developmental provisions) can help with is to put Malawi on a developmental growth path which is neither just rhetoric or by default but deliberate and conscious. In this way, the TLMA needs to be tight in its methodology as a vehicle for rural development in Malawi. So far, politicians have dwelt too much on how rural dwellers should focus on agriculture whereas a matter of fact rights to the land on which to work remain insecure. All this has implications for food production and food security. Unless or until land reform in Malawi does take into account ideology, the politics of land and developmental provisions that focus on post-land acquisition support services and coordination, joblessness, poverty and inequality are likely to persist given that the majority of people in our country rely on land- based activities. The impact of the Land Act 2016 and the TLMA remains to be seen given that at present there has been no comprehensive assessment of the performance so far of the 2016 Land Act.

Wisdom Mfune is a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph. D) student in Development Studies- University of Pretoria, South Africa.

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