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Situating land rights within food security

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is promoting use of Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT). In Malawi, FAO is partnering with LandNet on the subject. On the sidelines of a training workshop on the programme, Miriam Chiwaula, a smallholder rice farmer in Salima, told her story to MIKE CHIPALASA

My name is Mariam Chiwaula, 40 years old. I’m from Chigumukire Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Maganga in Salima.

I’m married and we have five children – 2 girls and 3 boys.

I’m a rice farmer and I also run various small-scale businesses.

I grow rice because my garden is water-logged which is suitable for rice production.

I also own fishing gears which help me earn a steady income to support my family.

If you want to know why I chose to become a farmer, here is why: In Malawi, the majority of us rely on farming for our livelihood.

I find farming very useful because as a family we don’t sleep on empty stomach. We are independent in as far as food availability is concerned.

Look, last cropping season I was able to harvest 30 bags of rice weighing 50kg each. I sold part of the rice and used the money to construct an iron-roofed house and buying maize for food.

But problems are common currency in farming. For example, this area being surrounded by a forest is notoriously infested with wild animals like monkeys which devour our green crops, including rice.

Even when we try to fence the rice fields, the problem never abates. This is a perennial problem here.

Other than that, on a larger scale, the major problems affecting farming these days are erratic rainfalls. The only advantage I have is that where I stay, it’s all dambo land and water doesn’t dry out completely.

The advantage with rice as a crop is that you don’t apply fertiliser to it; once you plant, you are home and dry. Of course you need to do some weeding and follow good crop husbandry practices to maximise yields.

Inadequate land holding capacity is another area of concern that affects optimal production of rice. For me and others in this village, this means that the available land for cultivation continues to dwindle against our growing families.

In my case, five children is a burden especially when you look at the size of land I have. The issue is: all my children look up to me to provide them with land – and we are talking of a one-and-half acreage that I have. How do I share that among my five children equally?

Although my two daughters are married within the village, they also rely on the same land. As a solution, what I do is that I simply share with them the rice harvest from this land and not give them a portion to cultivate on.

So you may ask: how did I get this land? This land was bequeathed to me by my parents, especially my mother who was farming on this very land.

This part of Malawi, our family set-up is matrilineal and I was born on this very land, in a family of 10 children.

When it comes to land distribution, however, it is only the chief who has the final authority. To get this land, one goes to the chief to ask for land; it could be for settling or farming and the chief is always on hand for assistance.

However, now we have a huge problem of land here because the government is chasing us from here because they say this place was declared a public land long time ago and we should move out to ensure that we don’t destroy the nearby forest.

But the government is not giving us alternative land to settle.

The other issue is, even if they resettle us elsewhere, we don’t think we may find peace because we will be living on borrowed land.

This whole land dispute is traced to 2011 when a ‘strange’ investor came with his fierce dog – shooing us away from here. We don’t know where he got the courage from but we can only speculate the reasons behind this.

He came accompanied by government forestry officials and security people. We put our foot down never to leave the place because we said this is land from our ancestors.

This incident deepened our insecurity though. The uncertainty of what would befall us next prompted us, together with our chief, to match to our District Commissioner’s (DC) office to air out our land ownership grievances.

The DC was a kind man. He made a follow-up on the issue that same year of 2011.

Upon seeing our grass-made houses, he expressed his displeasure at the sight of the village which looked like we were living here temporarily contrary to our claim that we had lived in this area for decades.

So he instructed us to build good permanent houses to strengthen our claim and remove any suspicion of land ownership.

That’s when we mobilised ourselves to mould bricks and build good houses with burnt bricks that you see in this village, now comprising about 40 households with about 500 inhabitants.

This we did to ensure that we also secure the future of our children so that in the event of our death, these land squabbles should not recur as there would be permanent structures dotted all over.

That aside, these days, I see that land disputes are common because some chiefs tend to sell land to other people without consultation with the people who are living on that same land. But this is not the case with our chief.

I am mentioning all these land issues because they have an impact on farming. For example, the government agents who are chasing us from this land often come to threaten us with eviction when it’s close to the start of the cropping season and this, obviously, disturbs our farming cycle.

That there are some tools for managing land issues [the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security] is news to me.

But I don’t blame you; the reason, partly, could be because I don’t have reliable access to radio for information on some of these issues.

Also newspapers are hard to get here, so often we just hear some people talking about such issues of land when there is a land dispute somewhere.

Having said that, I think there are endless land squabbles within communities because most people are not aware of their land rights. People are afraid to speak out or report such issues to relevant authorities.

But all is not lost; there is a glimmer of hope to end land disputes only if people are united to confront the common enemy together through non-violent means such as dialogue.

If things come to the worst, it’s better to take the mediation route by bringing in a third party to the problem, just as we are doing here at Chigumukire village.

I am saying all this with food security in mind, especially for my children and generations to come. We need to make our households food secure and have enough to eat throughout the year.

I cannot claim to be any wiser but I think a word of advice is in order: let’s be united as Malawians, this is our country. We should not use violent means when handling land disputes.

All of us need to follow rules in land governance with the support of our chiefs.

The onus, however, is on government’s shoulders: Without land where can people go to live in peace? Where can they grow food to support their families? How do they fight poverty if there is disorder in the management of land?

That’s why we don’t want to move out of here.

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