Situating land rights in the context of food security

Mariam Chiwaula showing the size of her rice garden.© Mike Chipalasa/ FAO/ 2015

Mariam Chiwaula showing the size of her rice garden.© Mike Chipalasa/ FAO/ 2015

Malawi, 23 July 2015 – The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is promoting use of Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGT). The VGGT overarching goals are to achieve food security for all and support the progressive realisation of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security. In Malawi, FAO is partnering with LandNet – a network of civil society organisations – to raise awareness on the VGGT after noting that most people in rural areas are not aware of their land rights. Recently, LandNet organized a training of trainers workshop with local civil society organizations based in Salima district where a female smallholder rice farmer, Mariam Chiwaula, shared her experience of why land is an issue and how this is affecting her household food security. Mike Chipalasa of FAO Malawi now presents Mariam’s story as told by her:

Situating land rights in the context of food security

My name is Mariam Chiwaula, 40 years old, and I’m from forest-surrounded Chigumukire Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Maganga in Salima. I’m married and, together with my husband, have five elderly children – 2 girls and 3 boys.

As for occupation, I’m both a rice farmer and fisher but I also run various small-scale businesses.

Regarding farming, I grow rice because my garden is water-logged suitable for rice production and not much for any other crop let alone maize – our staple food.

As a long-time fisher, I own fishing gears which help me earn a steady income to support my family. Let me stress that when I say I am a fisher, it’s not that I physically go into the lake myself but I send my workers to do the job.

If you want to know why, in the first place, I chose to become a farmer here is why: In Malawi, the majority of us rely on farming because that’s where our livelihood largely depends on.

Add to the fact that I never went to school. So, uneducated as I am, farming provides a lifeline to me and the family.These days, talk of hunger at my household is unheard of, thanks to farming.

I find farming very useful because as a family we don’t sleep on empty stomach. Our sweet is from our sweat; we don’t go anywhere to beg food. We are independent in as far as food availability is concerned.

This is the most interesting aspect of farming, at least to me.

Look, last cropping season I was able to harvest 30 bags of rice weighing 50kg each. Because of this, I sold part of the rice and the money was used to construct an iron-roofed house, apart from buying maize for food.

But problems are common currency in farming; no doubt about that. For example, this area being a forest is notoriously infested with wild animals like monkeys which devour our green crops, including rice.

Even when we try to fence the rice fields, the problem never abates. So we are perpetually engaged in running battles with monkeys chasing them out, especially at night time. This is a perennial problem here.

Other than that, on a larger scale, the major problems affecting farming these days are erratic rainfalls. The only advantage I have is that where I stay it’s all dambo land and water doesn’t dry out completely.

This gives me an advantage to grow the rice all year round. Unfortunately, this is not the case with other farmers within the locality because some people grow their crops like maize in the uplands – where poor rainfall pattern blamed on changing climate poses an enormous challenge to a good harvest.

The advantage with rice as a crop is that you don’t apply fertilizer to it; once you plant, you are home and dry – not bothered until harvest time, of course you need to do some weeding and follow good crop husbandry practices to maximize yields.

Inadequate land holding capacity is another area of concern that affects optimal production ofrice. For me and others in this village, this means that the available land for cultivation continues to dwindle against our growing families which leads us to divide the land into smaller pieces.

In my case, five children is a burden especially when you look at the size of land I have. The issue is: all my children look up to me to provide them with land – and we are talking of a one-and-half acreage that I have. How do I share that among my five children equally?

Although my two daughters are married within the village, but they also rely on the same land. As a solution, what I do is that I simply share with them the rice harvest from this land and not give them a portion to cultivate on.

But, of course, much of the rice – about three-quarter of the produce goes for sale; the surplus being for subsistence.

So you may ask: how did I get this land? This land was bequeathed to me by my fore-parents, especially my mother who was farming on this very land.

This part of Malawi, our family set-up is matrilineal and I was born on this very land, in a family of 10 children.

When it comes to land distribution, however, it is only the chief who has the final authority. To get this land, one goes to the chief to ask for land; it could be for settling or farming and the chief is always on hand for assistance.

However, now we have a huge problem of land here because the government is chasing us from here because they say this place was declared a public land long time ago and we should move out to ensure that we don’t destroy the nearby forest. But the government is not giving us alternative land to settle.

But the other issue is, even if they resettle us elsewhere, we don’t think we may find peace because we will be living on borrowed land.

This whole land dispute is traced from 2011 when a ‘strange’ investor came with his fierce dog – shooing us away from here. We don’t know where he got the courage but we can only speculate the reasons behind this.

He came accompanied by government forestry officials and security people. We put our foot down never to leave the place because we said this is land from our ancestors.

This incident deepened our insecurity though. The uncertainty of what would befall us next prompted us, together with our chief, to match to our District Commissioner’s (DC) office to air out our land ownership grievances.

The DC was a kind man. He made a follow-up on the issue that same year of 2011.

Upon seeing our grass-made houses, he expressed his displeasure at the sight of the village which looked like we were living here temporarily contrary to our claim that we had lived in this area for decades.

So he instructed us to build good permanent houses to strengthen our claim and remove any suspicion of land ownership.

That’s when we mobilized ourselves to mould bricks and build good houses with burnt bricks that you see in this village, now comprising about 40 households with about 500 inhabitants.

This we did to ensure that we also secure the future of our children so that in the event of death of usparents, these land squabbles should not recur as there would be permanent structures dotted all over.

That aside, these days, I see that land disputes are common because some chiefs tend to sell land to other people without consultation with the people who are living on that same land. But this is not the case with our chief.

I am mentioning all these land issues because they have an impact on farming. For example, the government agents who are chasing us from this land often come to threaten us with eviction when it’s close to the start of the cropping season and this, obviously, disturbs our farming cycle.

For example, in 2011 when this issue of land started, the government agents came to chase us in November – the start of farming season here. As a result, we were unable to cultivate on our land because we were unsure as to whether we will continue living here.

This affected our farming and the net result was that we harvested little. And we suffered the consequences of hungerin 2012. But now things are a little better, although we still feel insecure living here.

That there are some tools for managing land issues which you are calling Voluntary

Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security is news to me.

But I don’t blame you; the reason, partly, could be because I don’t have reliable access to radio for information on some of these issues. Also newspapers are hard to get here, so often we just hear some people talking about such issues of land when there is a land dispute somewhere.

Having said that, I think there are endless land squabbles within communities because most people are not aware of their land rights. People are afraid to speak out or report such issues to relevant authorities.

But all is not lost; there is a glimmer of hope to end land disputes only if people are united to confront the common enemy together through non-violent means such as dialogue.

If things come to the worst, it’s better to take the mediation route by bringing in a third party to the problem, just as we are doing here at Chigumukire village.

I am saying all this with food security in mind, especially for my children and generations to come. We need to make our households food secure and have enough to eat throughout the year.

I cannot claim to be any wiser but I think a word of advice is in order: let’s be united as Malawians, this is our country. We should not use violent means when handling land disputes.

All of us need to follow rules in land governance with the support of our chiefs.

The onus, however, is on government’s shoulders: Without land where can people go to live in peace? Where can they grow food to support their families? How do they fight poverty if there is disorder in the management of land?

That’s why we don’t want to move out of here.