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Land under threat due to population boom

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Seated under a mango tree at her Mbenderana Village in Traditional Authority Kasisi in Chikhwawa, Maria Banda’s face reflects the traumatic experiences she has endured since she started losing land in 1999.

She looks lost and confused and as she narrates her story; there is fear and resignation in her voice.

Her story is almost familiar, and familiar not to those who lived in the early days of life but familiar to the recent generation that has seen a tragic population boom.

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“I used to farm on a piece of land measuring over 6,000 square metres from which I was able to produce over 60 bags of maize. With this, I could comfortably feed my family, and still have enough surplus food to sell,” she recalls with a sigh.

In a country where 65 percent of the population live below the poverty line, with 80 percent of the population living in rural areas where they are smallholder farmers, Banda’s family was counted among the wealthy. Her children were considered well-off.

Like most smallholder farmers in Malawi, the family did not have a title deed for the land it was born on. However, for Banda, it was from the land she got the basic necessities for her family. School fees, clothes and other things came from the products of that land.

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Banda’s home was always a land of plenty; laden with fruits and green vegetables.

“But look at me and my children now, all that is a long gone and forgotten history. Our lives have been understandably a very distressing scene, indeed we aren’t getting enough to eat. Sometime we are doing piecework on other people’s gardens, you can see how malnourished the children are,” Banda asserts with a big lump which she vainly tries to clear from her throat.

Banda, a single mother who lost her husband five years ago, attributes the turn of events to the alarming growing population rate in 1999. Worse still, things changed when her husband died. Almost everything was taken away from her and her children.

“Just one day after my husband was buried, my in-laws confiscated the large hectares of land my husband and I had farmed for years,” she says.

Traditional practices in the area give the right to inherit land exclusively to men.

M o r e o v e r, the agro-based nature of the M a l a w i ’ s economy gives great economic importance to land tenure. H o w e v e r , security of tenure is not guaranteed for a majority of Malawians, especially the women who make up 52 percent of the Malawi’s population and provide over 70 percent of farm labour. In the country, only four percent of the total women own land.

In Malawi, like most of other countries in the region, more than 60 percent of land is customary, meaning that it is mostly untitled and administered by local chiefs on behalf of the government, with local communities merely enjoying user rights. The system has led to many abuses, with some government officials and chiefs selling off customary lands and dispossessing smallholder farmers who are already c o m p e t i n g for dwindling arable land as Malawi’s p o p u l a t i o n increases.

C r i t i c a l food shortage, poverty and d i s e a s e s s t a r t e d looming year in, year out in the Banda’s family due to insuff i c ient land to c u l t i v a t e for food production.

“ T h i n g s have become so difficult that I have had to take some of my children out of school. Two of my children are no longer attending secondary school, and other two are struggling through primary school,” says the mother of six.

Banda’s problem is not an isolated one, but one of the countless problems smallholder farmers in Malawi face.

While the media and government projection reports indicate that up to 6.5 million Malawians would face food shortage by this learn period due to occurrences of the El Nino and dry spell, landlessness, on the other hand, has also been established in various literatures as the other major cause of tremendous implications on livelihoods, abject poverty, social injustice and conflict among others.

Across the country, population rates are comparatively higher in districts with expansive tea, tobacco, coffee and sugar estates. Indeed, the labour migration factor can be one of the explanations but not to rule out the unplanned organic growth within those districts. Religious and other social-cultural beliefs also fuel the population growth in some districts of the country.

The 1986 Integrated Household Survey by the National Statistical Office (NSO) indicates that Malawi has a total land area of 9.4 million hectares with an estimated agricultural land of 7.7 million hectares. The records furthermore indicate that customary land alone constitutes 84 percent of the agricultural land while 16 percent was in private hands.

However, it has been reported that in the past 40 years, the size of average plot by farmers have been halved.

In its 2004 report on land and agrarian reforms in Malawi , centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy says land holding sizes in Malawi have shrunk from 1.53 hectares in 1968 to 0.8 hectares in 2000. Other studies say land holding capacity has diminished further to an average 0.2 hectares in 2008.

Surveys indicate that despite the national population policy being adopted in 1994 which aims at reducing population growth to a level compatible with Malawi social and economic goals, the population of the country continues to grow significantly.

Records at the NSO show that Malawi’s population has risen from four million in 1968 to 10 million in 2000 and 13.1 million in 2008 , with an intercensal growth rate of over four percent per annum. The demographic indicators reveal that the population density of Malawi changed from 105 percent square kilometres in 1998 to the current 139 persons per square kilometres.

The indicators also reveal that presently the density per square kilometre is at 390.20 persons. This clearly makes Malawi one of the most densely populated countries on African continent, alongside Rwanda and Burundi.

Challenges such as the unmet need in family planning are increasing the number of children born, hence the rising population, according to experts.

“Smallholder farmers are the people responsible for food security in Malawi. So, population status could have a long-term effect of the country’s food security situation, if prolonged and extended,” the professor of economics, Ephraim Chirwa says.

According to the National Director For Civil Society Agricultural Network Tamani Nkhono-Mvula, the scarcity of land due to overpopulation is an issue of concern “it has been going on for some time now and many of our farmers, especially in the rural areas, are affected. Our food security situation could be affected because we are talking of probably thousands of farmers not producing harvests.”

On the other hand, the United Nations Population Fund observes that as the population grows, more pressure will still be exerted on the country’s subsistence agricultural system as the family farmland is fragmented into smaller uneconomic units.

Population Action International (Pai) points out that increased investment in family planning would reduce high fertility rates coming due to the unmet family need and slow population growth.

“It is important that fragile countries such as Malawi start to seriously invest in family planning, so that a woman is empowered to be in a position to decide the number of children to have,” notes Roger Mark De Souza, Vice-president of Pai.

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