Life for subsistence farmers of Kasitu in the area of Traditional Authority (T/A) Kafuzira, Nkhotakota changed for the worse since March 2011.
“Many people, led by our T/A and the police came and started dividing up our land which we had inherited from our parents. They forced us to stop our faming activities as they demanded to use it for the sugarcane cultivation programme,” says Folojala Kaunda, chairperson of Mkhuto farming group in Kasitu.
In October 2013, the locals wrote the Office of President and Cabinet (OPC), including the then member of Parliament (MP) Henry Chimunthu-Banda, expressing their concern but to no avail.
“What we are against is the fact that we are being forced to take up a trade that we clearly know that won’t profit us at all. Sugar cane cultivation consumes more land as compared to other farming practices.
However, Nkhotakota police spokesperson Austin Kaunda says the situation was just blown out of proportion.
He adds that farmers are now free to cultivate their land.
“In fact, the operation was not meant to force people to take up extensive sugar cane production in wholesale. It was a matter of choice; whoever refused were not forced and it’s absolutely untrue that some two farmers died in police cells. As police, we understand that local leaders were consulted on this issue and there was no evil intention,” he explains.
Illovo public relations officer Ireen Phalula says Illovo does not engage in land grabbing and that Kasitu area is not and has never been part of Illovo Dwangwa Sugar Estate.
“Kasitu is under outgrowers through Dwangwa Cane Growers Trust (DCGT), therefore, Illovo is not the right party to confirm or explain what happened in the area in the time frame mentioned.
“Illovo recognises that land is an extremely contentious issue in Malawi, particularly in the Dwangwa area, and we have certainly not been involved in depriving any farmers of their land.
She explains that as a group operating in six African countries, Illovo takes any allegation of land grabbing or invasion seriously.
“Illovo has not directly developed any sugar cane scheme. All development and management of smallholder sugar cane is undertaken by either out grower management companies, cooperatives or associations,” she says.
Landnet, an organisation that is seeking ways of helping these farmers find justice on the matter, says the Kasitu case illustrates the vulnerability of people living on communal land in Malawi.
Landnet official Symon Katundu says about 80 per cent of the population in the country are subsistence farmers and are without title deeds to the land they cultivate on.
“This explains why our organisation supports the new 2013 Land Bill which advocates the establishment of customary land committee to administer customary land replacing chiefs due to their corrupt and dubious transactions.
“Our major concern is a spate of land grabs by foreign interests mediated by the state machinery, but in the absence of a definitive legal framework. The land grabs are taking place against the backdrop of virtual impasse in the land reforms meant to correct chronic imbalances in land tenure and ownership patterns that left a vast majority of smallholder farmers almost landless,” says Katundu.
Rudo Chakwera project officer at Farmers Union of Malawi (FUM) states that even when investors come with the best intention often local groups are exposed to the risk of dispossession.
He notes that the view that large plantations are needed to modernise agriculture in poorer countries is central in many government circles, but facts show that this perception is misplaced.