Traditional Land Management Area— Key for Malawi’s rural transformation


By Wisdom Mfune:

ESSENTIAL—Land can be cultivated upon for farm produce

Land is a valuable resource for Malawi’s rural life. It is a productive asset as well as a form of identity. Since the advent of multiparty democracy in 1994, different governments have promised to redistribute land to poor beneficiaries so that they can use it for settlement and productive uses such as agriculture. However, the approach to land redistribution has done little to transfer land assets to the poor. The principle of national policy holds that the state should actively promote the welfare and development of the people of Malawi by progressively adopting and implementing policies and legislation aimed at achieving the goals of gender equality, nutrition, health, the environment, rural life, education, the disabled, children, the family, the elderly, international relations, peaceful settlements of disputes, administration of justice, economic management, public trust and good governance. This principle has sadly not been implemented by the democratic movement, as enshrined in the Malawi Constitution, Section 13. About 80% of people in Malawi rely on land-based livelihoods. However, the rights to land on which the poor are supposed to farm on are insecure and the system of land tenure is in disarray. I must say it here that because the majority of people in the country rely on agricultural activities, land reform remains the most important area for assessment in order to fulfil people’s aspirations enshrined in our principles of national policy.

The land question which is the fulcrum for achievement of the above-stated goals continues to be sidelined in Malawi. A new opportunity availed itself in 2016, when the government introduced the Land Act of 2016. Land reformation was to be redistributive and tenure secured in nature by targeting poor households and vulnerable groups. The Traditional Land Management Area (TLMA) was designed as an implementation mechanism to the newly promulgated Land Act. The TLMA is therefore key for Malawi’s development because for the first time, the country has devolved powers to local areas in land redistribution matters. The TLMA has the potential to transform the rural economy. The land question however, continues to receive lukewarm attention from government today. The problem is that the aim of land reform in Malawi as expressly stated in the land Act of 2016 is to give small-holder farmers/rural dwellers access and security of tenure to customary estates but theoretically in the context of the ‘farm-size’ debate, studies arguably show that small-scale farming is more productive than large- scale estates. Moreover, experience from neighbouring Zimbabwe shows that emerging farmers are usually unskilled enough to be productive in providing food staples for sale in large supermarkets.


The issue is that land reform continues to be a political kick-bucket. Pilot studies on the Community-Based Rural Land Development Programme (CBRLDP), for example, only point to various shades of elite capture of the process. Many have argued that this shows continuities with the old pre-colonial and post-colonial regimes such as the tea estates, tobacco estates and large unused or abandoned farms where powerful elites used their power to dominate the sector for profit. Interestingly, the politics of land has revolved around power dynamics playing out in and through tribal, traditional chiefs and political processes that have different outcomes for different people.

The Land Act of 2016 implements land redistribution and security of tenure in land management areas that consist of committees. However, the bureaucratic nature of committee run TLMAs brings on board power dynamics which are unequal, and the land reform programme is often destined to fail. To date in South Africa, for example, even where land has been redistributed, studies have shown that the poor have gained little or no economic emancipation. This shows that land redistribution should not just be seen as an end in itself but as means to an end. The end result of land reformation should therefore be improved (economic livelihoods) for rural communities. Currently in Malawi, there are no sufficient post- settlement support services and coordination that would ensure a successful land reform programme. Would it therefore be surprising that land redistribution has largely failed? The TLMA however, presents Malawi with a new opportunity to implement land reform by making beneficiaries (the rural population) the drivers of change. The purpose of land reform should be the attainment of improved and sustainable rural livelihoods. Many people have engaged in farming activities before but the problem seems to have been that people have insecure land rights to the very same land on which they were supposed to do farming. The TLMA concept and the Land Act of 2016 have partially resolved this problem. In order to fully solve this hotly debated topic, Malawi can learn from the already widely known East Asian tigers (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan) success stories where land reform was quick and efficient.

In the 1960s, all these countries adopted developmental state-type apparatus that were used as spark to industrial growth and development. By implementing economic development policies that were deliberate and targeted, the East Asian developmental states reduced inequality of income and land resources for the majority of their rural populations. By focusing on land reform, agriculture and an outward- oriented export growth path, these countries developed factories (small industries) in rural areas which in turn reduced inequality and poverty by providing jobs or entrepreneurship for the rural dwellers. However, it is widely acknowledged that developmental states’ development policies cannot and should not be superimposed mainly because nation-states have different historical and contextual trajectories and pressing social problems that are peculiar to individual states. But should fear of criticism of superimposition fail Malawi to test the waters that have proved successful elsewhere? President Lazarus Chakwera called for a culpable and responsive developmental state when he spoke with his colleague president Paul Kagame of Rwanda recently. This ideology is precisely the best arrangement for Malawi’s growth trajectory. Of course some argue that Malawi is already on a developmental growth path as government provides services such as health and education. However, my contention is that this is done more by default following political point scoring than by government conscious planning. Therefore, the culpable developmental state need not focus on reconstruction alone as is usually the case but could be more inclined towards outright interventionist development that is deliberate and targeted. Here, the National Planning Commission’s long term development programme becomes the compass of all development in the country. If customary estates are the target for the 2016 land Act and be the panacea for rural transformation and development, management of the TLMA must ensure there are policy frameworks in three areas, namely: the country’s ideology that will guide the process of transferring estates to small-scale farmers (so called customary states); the politics of land; and the developmental provisions that focus on post-acquisition support services are also simultaneously in place.


To be continued next week

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

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