Shaba Shirwa, a scruffy, diminutive 26-year-old, steps up from the crowd. “This was our customary land,” he says.
By Ed Butler
Our parents had worked it, their parents before them. Then the police came with sticks and guns. They left us with nothing”.
Shaba was just one of hundreds of smallholder farmers we met in Dwangwa, telling stories of forced evictions allegedly at the hands of local police and the Cane Growers Trust, a group set up to promote sugar production in this part of central Malawi.
Crowds of locals had gathered to meet us when we arrived. “We now have to survive on casual jobs, farm labour,” says another woman, Eunice. We met dozens of families with land circling this town in central Malawi, who said they had been driven out to make way for larger, industrial farm-projects.
The locals say it is part of the so-called Smallholder Outgrower Scheme launched in the area in 2006.
Malawi, with the help of international development aid, has been encouraged to diversify its crop yield away from tobacco, which makes up some 70% of the country’s foreign earnings.
The idea has been to encourage local farmers to grow cane and sell it to big sugar-refining factories, like the one in Dwangwa, run by the South African firm Illovo.
Shaba Shirwa Shaba Shirwa says he was pushed off his land by the police
The problem is that the economics of sugar production with its demand for irrigation and other inputs, only lends itself to larger plots.
Most Malawian farmers manage plots of less than a hectare, growing subsistence crops like rice and cassava.
But the injection of outside money has been an incentive for wealthy locals to buy the support of police and village chiefs to legitimise wide-scale evictions, say critics.
“These intermediaries have been captured by the sugar industry” says Dr Blessings Chinsinga, a Malawian political scientist who has studied the land seizures.
Our attempts to get a comment from the local police or the main village chief accused of facilitating the land-seizures came to nothing.
The local Cane Growers Trust denied any wrongdoing, saying simply that its “noble objective and duty is to develop sugarcane farms for use by the community”.
For its part, Illovo told us that it “does not engage in ‘land grabs’ and never has”.
In a statement the company said: “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.
“Since Illovo acquired a majority shareholding in the Malawi operation from Lonrho in 1996, it has not expanded its land holdings beyond the areas that were leased to Lonrho back in the 1970s.”
Death threats. However, the Reverend Augustine Kalirani, an Anglican priest, who represents some of the dispossessed farmers, says that court documents dating back to 2008 demanding that the land be restored to its original owners have been ignored.
Augustine Kalirani The Rev Augustine Kalirani says he has received death threat. He also says he has received death-threats for attempting to get the land back. Two local farmers have died resisting recent land seizures in the town.
Malawi’s Agriculture Minister, Dr Alan Chiyembikeza, told us he had not received a specific complaint about the land seizures in Dwangwa, but insisted the government’s Outgrower Project was not hurting poor subsistence farmers
“The new programme diversifying into sugar production is not aimed at Dwangwa but at other areas.
“We are currently reviewing our land laws so that land rights are honoured – we are in the process of reviewing the law to finalise the whole process.”
Reforms are meant to guarantee the tenure of poor farmers, but campaigners say the passage of Malawi’s new land law has been held up because many of the country’s political elite are themselves profiting from land-seizures.
“The elites who are supposed to be driving these reforms have a huge stake in the status quo. They have acquired huge tracts of land,” says Blessings Chinsinga.
Since a global spike in the cost of food in 2008, international companies have bought hundreds of thousands of hectares of land across a number of African countries. Africa is believed to contain the best commercial opportunity for developing new industrial yields.
However, there has been widespread concern about the impact of such acquisitions on poor African farmers, many of whom depend on the same land for their survival.
The EU has been one of the main sponsors of sugarcane cultivation in Malawi EU subsidies.
Some campaigners have been especially critical of the role of aid donors in Malawi’s Outgrower Scheme.
The European Union and African Development Bank have been among the scheme’s sponsors over the last nine years, although AfDB has since pulled out following criticism of the way the policy is applied.
The EU continues to subsidise infrastructure projects, like new roads, and irrigation schemes around the development of the sugar scheme. It is planning to offer a further 10m euros (£7.9m; $12.5m) in grants in 2015, though not, it says, in the Dwangwa area.
“The over-all objective is to reduce poverty in Malawi”, says the EU’s Jenny Brown in the capital Lilongwe.
“We believe we have improved the lives of smallholder farmers who we have helped but we are awaiting an end-of-term review from our schemes in the south of Malawi to see the impact they have had.” I asked her whether the EU should have a clearer sense of the impact of such projects, before initiating them.
“The feedback we are getting is that they want to join these sugar schemes”, she tells me.
“It is incumbent on the Malawian government to introduce the new land bill which is where the problems come through.”
Recent revelations of corruption and mismanagement have already caused western donors to suspend direct budget support to the Malawian government in 2012.
Mathilda Niankoma Mathilda Niankoma says she will fight to defend her land
Campaigners are now saying that donors should pay closer attention to the effect their direct aid is having on some of the world’s poorest farmers.
Meanwhile, local subsistence farmers in Dwangwa say they fear further land seizures in the future.
Mathilda Niankoma is one the smallholder farmers. She is struggling to support seven children on a plot of just a single hectare. She says she plans to fight to the death rather than give up her land.
“I cannot lose this battle, I will stand my ground whatever comes – death or life – I will fight to defend my land.”