Malawi ranks among African countries with rising cases of ‘land grabbing’. How does it happen and what is its scale in the country? Our news analyst EPHRAIM NYONDO begins to tell the story.
It began as rumours. And Wilfred Guta heard these rumours—that the 15-acres of land he had owned and used since 1967 had been leased off. That was in October 2011.
And it was not just Guta in Jombo Village, Traditional Authority Ngabu, who was affected by the loss of land. Seventy-four other farmers, too, were affected by it.
But because the news came as rumours, Guta did not take it seriously.
“My immediate reaction was to laugh. How could that be? I am 78, have six children whom I have raised and sent to school from proceeds of this land that I own. How could I just lose it just like that?” he asks.
It was business as usual for Guta when the first rains last year struck the ground.
“I am a maize and cotton farmer. I mostly grow maize for subsistence and cotton for commercial purposes. My life, I should be honest, is well met. So, as I have always done it in all these years, I took off to my field to begin clearing the land,” he says.
But a day later proved that what began as a rumour had turned into reality.
“I was at home. Then two police officers from Nchalo came to my house with a letter. The letter said I should stop farming on my land because it had been sold to a certain company (name withheld). It even warned that further activities on the land would warrant an arrest,” he says.
What happened to Guta also happened to the other 74 farmers.
Says Geoffrey Khweya, who lost two acres, and was summoned by Nchalo Police: “With my four kinsmen, we were told that we were encroaching the company’s land. They said our local chief had already signed for the lease of the land.”
Surprised, Khweya and his fellow kinsmen made their way to Nchalo Police to question the credibility of the one who signed the letter of the lease. On four occasions they have been there, they have yielded nothing.
“One of the police officers gave us his mobile numbers and said we should be calling him to find out the progress,” says Khweya.
Today, they are landless—just watching the rain season passing. No maize in the field. No cotton field.
But how did it begin?
The company has been leased land covering almost 1 300 hectares in Chikhwawa, according to the district commissioner Felix Mkandawire.
“It is government, through the Ministry of Land which leases land. As DCs, we only recommend. As such, we recommended three sites for the company. One where they grow their nursery, the other where they grow their fruits and other they have their own plans,” he says.
Mkandawire adds that the company followed the necessary legal procedures in acquiring the land.
However, according to Guta, the company which bought the land had contacted people from two group village heads namely Nkhwazi and Namithambo to acquire land for their cultivation.
“They did not come to negotiate land in our area—the area under group village Jombo. But we just heard that without consulting us and also our GVH Jombo, our village heads also leased our land to the company,” he said.
Khweya chips in: “Some of us only heard that we were being called by the DC and Crown Plantation Company to receive compensations. People like Guta, though their land was taken, were not even on the list. I am told it was the two village heads who wrote our names.
“We went to get the compensation—I received K4 000, others received K5 000. It was baffling to note that even people who didn’t have land were on the list of those compensated,” he says.
GVH Jombo confirmed receiving complaints from Guta and 74 other people in his area.
“I literally knew nothing about it when these people came. As a result, I went to my fellow senior, GVH Nkhwazi who told me that he has only leased land belonging to his people, not mine,” he says.
Together with Guta, Jombo, in January last year went to T/A Ngabu for redress.
According to Jombo, Ngabu assured them that: “It is illegal for me and any chief to lease people’s land without their consent”. Beyond that, adds Jombo, he did not do anything.
In an interview, T/A Ngabu said he knows that Guta and the company that bought land have issues and they have taken each other to court.
“I would not comment further because the matters are in court,” he said before cutting the line.
Mkandawire, however, said the law that guides leasing of customary land in Malawi involves a developer agreeing with the T/As and village heads, not GVHs.
“There is no GVH in the country laws. The company which bought land followed the procedure in acquiring the land. And I have almost 600 signatories of people who agreed to lease the land to the company. You know, you cannot have all the people agreeing. But do you think we can stop every process because two or three people do not agree with it?” he wonders.
Mkandawire even challenged that he is ready to appear anywhere to defend the integrity of the process through which the company acquired the land.