The homes in Thom Chipakuza village stand like islands in the middle of vast sugarcane fields. Last year, the land where villagers used to grow food was taken over by a sugar company. Now they live in fear of their homes being bought out against their wishes and destroyed. But they refuse to move away from the land of their ancestors.
In Malawi, villages are located on customary land. According to national land policy, such land is owned by government. Chiefs and village headmen hold the power to administer it.
There have been land disputes between the people of Thom Chipakuza and the sugar company for more than a decade. The company claims it purchased the land long ago from the government of Malawi. A deed to the land gives a company the right to use it for 99 years. The company negotiated with the chiefs in the area to use the land.
Nickson Stasha is a village headman of Thom Chipakuza . He explains how the sugar company came to have rights to the land. In 1974, a foreign company called LONRHO paid villagers for half of the land. Some of those who sold their land left and settled on lands provided by the government within the district.
Those who were promised payment stayed on the land to wait for it. Now they are surprised to hear claims that the company owns all of the land.
In the years that followed the deal between the government and the company, some villagers continued to live on the land. Without their knowledge, the land was re-sold to a Malawian sugar company called Illovo Sugar.
Villagers were shocked when Illovo Sugar seized their farmland last year. The company compensated villagers, but only for their homes and the crops on the ground.
Emmanuel Blight is a villager who grew maize and leafy vegetables on a small plot of land. His maize was maturing when the company demolished his garden and planted sugarcane. He was given 583 American dollars (about 420 Euros) as compensation for the loss of his crops. But now he has no land to grow food for his family.
Without any land to call their own, some villagers now rent land in a neighbouring village. Others cannot afford the rental fee.
The Chikwawa district land office supports the company’s land claim. Mr. Gerald Maveka works at the office of the district commissioner. He says the land belongs to Illovo Sugar and not to the people. Asked why people are claiming that the land was not paid for, he replies that it could be because ownership changed hands, from LONRHO to Illovo Sugar.
Illovo Sugar enjoys government support because it is a big foreign exchange earner. Sugarcane products are Malawi’s second largest export. Now that sugarcane is also used to create the biofuel ethanol, the crop has even greater value. Sugarcane grown on land seized from Thom Chipakuza is processed into both sugar and ethanol at local factories.The remaining villagers have some comfort. Some of their children earn money working on the sugar estate. In fact, thousands of people work for the company. Most employees are casual labourers from the surrounding areas. The villagers do not expect to regain the rights to their farmland. But they want compensation for their loss.