Investment firms describe it as the next golden opportunity. They say they’re taking and using underutilised and uncultivated land. But as MaraPost’s Charles Mkula reports, simply put, it’s land-grabbing and somethings has to be done about itD
otted along the periphery of Malawi’s major cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre and other urban areas, men and women are seen laying the foundations for their new homes. In most cases, these people were displaced from their ancestral land which was sold to developers, both local and international.
Unfortunately, even in their new location, they aren't sure they will stay. Eventually, they will lose the land after being sold to the highest bidder while they get nothing.
With the growing world food crisis, population growth, and the massive world campaign to promote bio-fuels, there’s a new scramble for Africa, this time around they want land. Individuals and big firms for from Asia, Europe, and the Gulf are involved. They want to produce food supplies for their own populations at the expense of poor Africans.
Other developing countries with large populations, like China and India, have jumped the bandwagon and are buying large swathes of land to grow bio-fuel crops. Given the projections of diminishing supplies of non-renewables, it makes it more likely that bio-fuels will remain an option in the longer-term, unless policies shift in response to concerns about the impacts of bio-fuel expansion on food security.
Africa happens to provide plenty of unspoilt land and fresh water at a cost of almost nothing.
Proponents of foreign land investments argue that such ventures are in the long run beneficial for host nations as they fetch with them macro-level gains such as GDP growth and improved government revenues, and may create opportunities for economic development and livelihood improvement in rural areas.
Malawi hasn’t as yet computed the overall gains and losses made from giving out land to prospecting investors, but one thing that stands out is the loss of access to the resources on which the poor people depend for their food security and livelihoods as they may be directly dispossessed of the long-standing land heritage.
In Malawi’s southern region district of Balaka, Chinese investors were allocated land, used by locals for agriculture to construct a cotton processing plant. After some protests, they relented saying “after all the Chinese would create jobs for the local population."
According to experts, some of the issues that have fuelled poverty in Malawi include failure by the state to supply affordable land and housing to meet demand in most urban spaces which has led to massive land encroachment where as prohibitive city council ground rents have resulted in low income people selling their land to speculative rich people.
Mtafu Zeleza Manda, a physical development planner, observes that as a result of such scenarios local land users have been pushed from higher-value lands to encroach upon more marginal lands with the poor being priced out of the land market
Manda, a chief executive of Alma Consult, notes that the existence of many institutions in land administration has created loop holes leading to conflicts between them as to who is the rightful in-charge and in control over management of urban land.
“Land tenure insecurity created by institutional factors, deficiency of the formal land delivery systems, cumbersome legal and registration system force urban poor to adopt survival strategies such as auctioning off their land or houses at throw away prices,” he says.
In his study titled, ‘Situational analyses of informal settlements’ Manda also notes that that the existence of villages within city boundaries has encouraged traditional leaders to be engaged in allocation of land to both local natives and ‘strangers’ leading to speculative purchases.
A social commentator, Mike Chisasula, of Society for Social Advancement and Literacy, observes that Malawi doesn’t have a proper land market structure making it difficult to police land deals.
“As such you find that anybody is able to sale land despite the country having various legislations and obligations to oversee land management.”
Chisasula observes that in most cases land fees and other monetary transfers aren’t the governments’ main concern rather than the investor’s commitment on investment levels, employment creation and infrastructure development.
He says while Malawi has some laws on land rights, it lacks adequate legal or procedural mechanisms to protect local rights and take account of local interests, livelihoods and welfare.
Victor Mhone of the Civil Society Agriculture Network (CISANET), a grouping of individuals and NGOS in Malawi, says "what we should know is that foreign companies are here to make profits and there is little that we can benefit from."
In a country where in 1990, 49 per cent of the land resources were under cultivation when only 31 per cent was arable and suitable for cultivation, it’s evident that Malawi is under intense land pressure despite that the fact that some of the arable land is in reserve areas such as forests, national parks and wildlife reserves.
With deals taking place under the table, it’s difficult to know just how much land is now in the hand of foreigners and multi nationals. A lack of effective governance and transparency in land administration has resulted in locals losing their source of livelihood with little or no compensation.
For the record, Malawians are not only losing land to multinationals. In the southern region district of Mulanje, a local conglomerate, Mulli Brothers, has been fighting to acquire land belonging to an orphanage to produce food for export.
Other land conflicts are between local residents and large tea, tobacco and sugar estate owners.
For many years, institutions like the World Bank have urged African countries to allocate land to private individuals and companies within the infamous structural adjustment plans. However such endeavours have only succeeded in taking land away from the poor and giving it to the rich.
Seeking to address such issues, FAO’s Committee on World Food Security has set up guidelines for land acquisition, a benchmark designed to involve and protect local people but also reassure investors.
Is Malawi ready?
The country has a long way to go as it needs all the necessary resources to put together proper land administration procedures, moving away from rights that often are informal to formalised rights that can be enforced in a fair judicial system.
While societies must not stand in the way of development, it’s important to ensure that the rights of land owners are protected. Local land owners should be well compensated for their property if the development being sought should have any meaning at all.
---©2012 The Maravi Post. Reproduction without acknowledgment prohibited.