Mota Engil and Crown Plantations Limited are locked in a bitter land wrangle in which chiefs’ double dealings in facilitating land sales appear to be at fault, Nation on Sunday has learnt.
At issue are 9 000 hectares in Ntcheu’s Bwanje Valley that Crown Plantations says it was the first to buy and followed all procedures.
But Mota Engil—the Portuguese engineering giant dominating road, rail and water transport construction deals in Malawi—says it owns the same land.
Our investigations reveal that most of the chiefs who initially signed documents authorising Crown Plantations’s land ownership have now turned against the company, preferring to allocate the same land and additional hectares to Mota Engil.
A letter from the area’s chiefs handing over the land to Crown Plantations shows that group village heads (GVHs) Mtandika, Esaya, Chauluka, Manyela, Magoya, Mchocho, Mbululu, Masese, Khwiya and Phanga ratified the deal on September 2 2011.
But last week, all—except GVHs Mtandika, Magoya and Khwiya—attended a meeting during which they recognised Mota Engil as the legitimate owner of the land and demanded that Crown Plantations leave. They argued that the document they signed was about a road project not about the controversial land.
GVH Mtandika and village head Dzungu are the only ones still backing Crown Plantations as having a legitimate claim to the land.
Crown—which runs poultry outfits at Chitale near Senzani in the same district—has since obtained an injunction from the High Court in Blantyre, stopping Mota Engil from operating on the land.
Both companies want the property for commercial farming, but if the Ministry of Lands and Housing’s response to our questionnaire is anything to go by, Crown Plantations appears to have a stronger case.
In an e-mail response on Friday, Ministry of Lands and Housing public relations officer Mike Chigowo indicated that the ministry processed a Crown Plantations lease for land in Bwanje, but said it has not received any lease application from Mota Engil. Chigowo also explained how customary land is acquired.
“Allocation of customary land is done by chiefs in consultation with [their] subjects. To signify consent by chiefs, consultation with chiefs forms are signed by the village headman, chief and district commissioner.
“Before the forms are signed and submitted to this ministry for lease processing, the district commissioner ensures that issues of compensation are conclusively dealt with.
Thereafter, duly signed lease forms are submitted to the regional commissioner for lands who consults the regional commissioner for physical planning if the proposed development is in compliance with the zoning of the area,” explained Chigowo.
He said the application is then referred to the minister for his consideration and approval. The offer of lease is issued once Ministerial approval is granted, he added.
“In the instant case, the district commissioner for Ntcheu would be better placed to explain whether the land being applied for by Mota Engil is the same piece of land which Crown Plantations Limited has leased. The ministry has not yet received lease application from Mota Engil,” Chigowo said.
He also said the Ntcheu DC can explain if the villagers were appropriately compensated by Crown Plantations Limited. The DC promised to revert but did not by press time.
The Mota-Crown wrangle may be a microcosm of a deeper problem of how chiefs are exploiting their powers over customary land.
Government sees chief’s cannibalisation of customary land as a growing challenge it hoped to nip using the Customary Land Bill (2012) that seeks to repeal the Customary Land (Development Act) chapter 59:01 and replace it with new legislation on management and regulation of customary land in line with the National Land Policy.
The law—which Parliament passed last year but President Joyce Banda has yet to assent to—also aims to help curb land-related corruption that government says is rampant among chiefs due to their nearly unlimited power over customary land allocation, adjudication and management as well as disputes settlements.
But the law angered traditional authorities (T/As) last year who described the Bill as “absurd” and an attempt to rid the chiefs of the most important symbol of their power without consulting them.
Nation on Sunday investigations shows that chiefs’ tendency to sell land to multiple buyers is behind the Bwanje Valley controversy.
While the areas’ chiefs are now backing Mota—which wants a total of 20 000 hectares, including the 9 000 hectares under contention—Crown accuses them of entertaining new interests as a tactic to “milk” newcomers in form of monetary incentives they get in the process of land selling.
Mota, on the other hand, insisting it followed procedures, has gone full swing to mobilise the required support for its planned farming venture by laying its ground work.
Its promise of potable water, shared farming of the land, upgrading of Kasiya Health Centre to a rural hospital has also helped to win the chiefs’ support.
Hence, last Saturday’s meeting of 22 Group and Village Heads in Bwanje, which Nation on Sunday witnessed, agreed to force Crown out.
“We want Crown to pack up and leave. If they want, they should go back to the drawing board and deal with people that matter, not just one chief,” said GVH Yesaya at the meeting.
She alleged that Crown arrived unannounced and that all chiefs, except GVH Mtandika, were never told about the company’s objective.
Another village head, Samuel 2, said when Mota approached him about land prospects, he contacted villagers to ask their views, to which they agreed; hence, their permission to survey the land.
“Mota wants the area in swamps and not within people’s habitation or cultivation unlike Crown. That is why many people did not object [to Mota’s land acquisition] because they feel it does not require their re-location. Even when Crown came, it registered names of people on the pretext that [it would provide] subsidy fertiliser and relief food. People accepted on those grounds, but not as candidates for compensation,” he said.
GVH Manyela admitted to have received money from Crown as compensation together with some of his subjects.
He, however, claimed to have gotten the money out of ignorance of what the transaction entailed due to misinformation.
“I was almost killed by my subjects two weeks ago as they were accusing me of selling them out. It took the police to rescue the situation, but people are refusing to move from the designated places. They say if the money they got was meant for compensation then it was too little to warrant their moving out,” said Manyela.
He said he got K119 000 (US$285) from Crown but could not give the total amount that over 112 families from his area received.
But Manyela’s revelations did not alter the other chiefs’ stance who further accused Crown of corruption in the acquisition of the land.
They, however, could not explain how the company has operated for two years, up to erecting pillars and laying foundation work in the area, without them raising the alarm.
GVH Masese 1 said village heads are the custodians of land and no one goes through any other authority. He said Traditional Authorities (T/As) simply rubber stamp VH’s recommendations.
“We are aware that Crown met GVH Mtandika and Inkosi Masasa. However, the company needed to approach village heads for land and its boundaries because they are different people in charge of different areas. One cannot just encroach haphazardly,” he said.
A letter dated December 16 2013 to Crown from GVH Masese and Phanga as well as other Village Heads disagrees with the company’s ownership of the land.
“We, as group village heads, do not have land, but the village heads are the land owners. We remember to have signed a paper brought by Mr. Amos just because we were told that they wanted to make a road. The responsible person who told us to sign was Amos Mtandika not Crown Plantations Limited.
“For information, ask Amos Mtandika not group Masese and Phanga. He has more information on the fraudulent land agreement he made with Crown Plantations Limited. If you heard that we have given land to Mota Engil, it is true. We have given them our own land not land which is claimed by Crown Plantations Limited. Mota have followed all the procedures for securing land,” reads the letter, signed by GVH Phanga, Masese, VHs Masese 1, Kanthumkako, Masese II
Crown says it has already invested over K70 million (US$167 464) in digging a two and a-half kilometre irrigation canal from Lake Malawi to the mainland. The canal is 11 metres wide and two metres deep.
Crown spokesperson Dave Malamia said the firm has already planted 27 000 palm oil trees and plans to plant 50 000 trees by the end of the year ahead of its full swing to sugar cane growing.
Chief executive officer for Crown Group of Companies Vijay Kumar showed Nation on Sunday documentation from the time they begun the process of acquiring land up to a lease agreement given by the Ministry of Lands and Housing, with a receipt showing its first payment of K9 million (US$21 531) for 2012/13 period.
He also showed us an environmental assessment certificate issued to the company by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change for the palm oil plantation.
“As you can see, procedures were followed with full documentation to prove it. I am not worried with Mota Engil’s interest in the land because I know I have back-up. That is why I did not hesitate to get a court order on them.
“This environmental certificate is the first requirement before any work can commence. I was offered the lease on October 22 2012 at a total of K9 million. I am ready to challenge this in court,” he said.
Technical consultant for Mota Engil Austin Msowoya confirmed his company wants the land for cotton and sugar cane farming.
“We are trying to diversify by going into agri-business. Government approached us for assistance in boosting agriculture and our focus is ethanol production to reduce the cost of petrol and cotton to export to Portugal where there is a high demand for local cotton.
“We have identified a market for 100 000 metric tonnes of cotton and the country produces less than that. We are planning to grow the cotton through irrigation and the Ministry of Agriculture has already welcomed the idea; hence, our interest in the land,” said Msowoya.
He said Mota has been following procedures with traditional leaders as required, adding that for the project to be viable, they need 20 000 hectares. He said his company will provide employment, honour chiefs, build clinics and provide piped water.