By Collins Mtika
Malawi’s President Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika claimed in a BBC’s Hard Talk programme hosted by Zeinab Badawi in December 2015 that multilateral organizations were not grabbing land from villagers in the country.
Basically, Mutharika told world that there is no land grabbing in Malawi. But this is contrary to both anecdotal and archival evidence publicly available in the country.
“Grabbed by multinationals? Who is grabbing? Well, I just don’t think that’s true … No foreigner can acquire land except in cases where they are going to industrialize for a certain amount of time,” he is quoted as saying.
In general, African governments have been highly solicitous of multinational agribusinesses.
While the land deals in Africa are being fast-tracked, there are few or no legal mechanisms in place to protect marginalized rural farmers from exploitation by powerful commercial entities and national governments.
Many countries including Malawi have simplified procedures for investors to acquire lands and even established a “one-window service” for investors to cut through the red tape involved in acquiring land.
Malawi is yet to compute the overall land hectarage dished to foreign investors, but one thing that stands out is the loss of access to the means on which poor people depend for their livelihoods as they may be directly dispossessed of the land they have kept for generations with little or no compensation.
“Land grabbing is a big issue in Malawi. In the past years, thousands of farmers have lost land which has often benefited multinational companies,” according to LandNet, a non-governmental organization defending the landless in Malawi.
Land grabs not probed
Paradoxically, a few days later on December 15th 2015, changed tuned and said his government will investigate claims that multilateral organizations were grabbing land from villagers in the country.
Almost two years down the line the government is yet to institute the investigation. However, what is known is that his government agreed to ‘release’ 200,000 hectares of land for large-scale commercial agriculture under the New Alliance.
The goal of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (NAFSN) — initiated in 2012 by the G8, the club of the world’s wealthiest industrial nations — is to lift 50-million people out of poverty in 11 African countries within ten years through public private partnerships, or PPPs.
It brings together the G8 member states with a who’s who of multinational business: Nestlé, Heineken, Coca-Cola, Bayer, Syngenta, Monsanto, Standard Bank.
But among the companies party to the initiative in Malawi are Alliance One and Limbe Leaf, a subsidiary of Universal Corporation, another global tobacco giant. Together these companies buy and process up to 90% of Malawi’s annual tobacco harvest.
In co-operation with the NAFSN, they want to expand their business. Alliance One wants to fund private tobacco research and to acquire more land, doubling its estates from 61 000 hectares to 121 000 hectares.
Ironically, Malawi’s National Export Strategy, whose recommendations are incorporated into the New Alliance Cooperation Framework, allocates one million hectares to commercial farming, representing more than 26% of the country’s arable land.
To date more than 400 subsistence farmers at Chisita in Malawi’s central region and the villagers have been in different courts, nongovernmental organisations and the offices of the Ombudsman in a bid to reclaim 600 hectares of land.
The farmers claim Illovo Sugar company, in collusion with a senior chief, pushed them off their land and illegally converted it into part of its behemoth sugar cane plantation.
Illovo also expropriated another 107 hectares of farming land at Dwangwa, Nkhotakota district belonging to 80 Malawian subsistence farming families. The Malawi High Court restored the villagers’ right to the land but the company ignored it. The villagers say they were rarely consulted.
Illovo insists that its corporate predecessor, Lonrho Sugar, legally leased the land in in 1974 for 99 years. It claims the farmers were paid compensation by the Malawi government and denies there is any dispute in relation to land Illovo is farming now.
The Malawi Stock Exchange listed company, which is 76% owned by Illovo South Africa, has 6159 hectares of sugar plantation with an annual production of more 2.8 million metric tonnes of sugar.
One of the farmer identified as Peter Kaunda explained the challenges he is facing after losing his small piece land.
“I lost three hectares which were my livelihood. They pushed us to the hills where the land is infertile. Now I am suffering,” said Kaunda.
Instead of reacting to the claim, Mutharika questioned the existence of Kaunda.
“If he does exist this so-called Peter Kaunda, maybe he does, if he does we will investigate. Its first time I am hearing this,” Mutharika said.
In February 2017, the High Court of Malawi, sitting in Mzuzu, dismissed an action brought by the Businessman, Lois Madikhula against Mary Goba and her 57-year-old daughter arguing there is no evidence that Madikhula acquired the land legitimately.
The Businessman had spent the last six years hiring Lawyers and launching a scathing court battle trying to prevent an 89-year-old woman from getting back the three hectares of land which he grabbed from her in 2011.
Mudikhula first brought the case at the Nkhunga Magistrate Court in Dwangwa and lost the case. Instead of appealing, he applied for an injunction at the High Court.
Now the frail Granny, who is traumatized by both the 250km journeys to the Court in Mzuzu and the prospect that if she dies then her survivors will also endure the destitution and the poverty she endured, said she is heartbroken.
“I don’t know if this Madikhula has a human heart. How can he do this to us after all we did to him when he came to our area,” she told Nyasa Times.
However, Madikhula has kept the litigation process running by applying for another injunction to push away Mary Goba.
The Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and Youth Watch Society (YOWSO) who have been supporting Mary Goba’s case said they are challenging the latest injunction saying Madikhula is taking advantage of Mary Goba’s vulnerability.
In her earlier submissions to the Court, the Octogenarian testified that Madikhula did not treat her family with respect or worth of human beings saying he arbitrarily and illegally took over the only property which was their source of income and livelihood.
Goba also said Madikhula, who had been her neighbour for about 20 years knew very well that she relied on that piece of land to grow and sell sugarcane to earn a living.
Judge Dingiswayo Madise quashed Madikhula’s claim that Dwangwa Cane Growers Trust allocated him the land under a defunct programme that was run by the European Union to empower small scale sugarcane out growers in 2010.
“This case perfectly illustrates the plight of women in Malawi who are often arbitrarily deprived of property and related economic activities and financial independence”, YOWSO Executive Director, Muteyu Banda said.
Madise’s ruling effectively quashed President Peter Mutharika’s assertions that there was no land grabbing in Malawi.
SALC Lawyer Brigadier Siachitema said the High Court ruling sends a clear message to national elites that property grabbing will not be tolerated.
“This increasing phenomenon of land seizure by national elites has devastating consequences on vulnerable groups, especially women and children, including the loss of livelihood and chronic food insecurity,” Siachitema said.