April 13, 2005

Big land redistribution project launched

The country’s government has begun buying up property in areas dominated by tea and tobacco estates to give to 20.000 landless families, officials have announced. "Government is buying land from estates and other land owners, especially those who have excess land, on a willing buyer, willing seller basis to distribute to the needy families," Commissioner of Lands Francis Majankono told. The huge land redistribution project, funded by the World Bank at an estimated cost of $28 million, has started in four districts in the southern region, which has huge tea and coffee estates run by British and Italian nationals.

According to government officials, the programme would expand to other parts of the country later, but they have not said how much land they aim to redistribute in total. Some rights groups have applauded the new policy, saying it would resolve the problems of encroachment and avoid conflicts between estate owners and villagers. Others, such as Collins Magalasi, national co-ordinator of the Malawi Economic Justice Network, have criticised the redistribution project as being "largely cosmetic, especially if you consider that there are hundreds of thousands of Malawians who are in desperate need of land for their daily sustenance. Yes, we must applaud the government for this exercise, but it is necessary to urge the authorities to make more land available to more people in the near future", Magalasi noted.

The new land policy which was approved by cabinet almost a year ago stops non-Malawians and foreign companies from owning land, allowing them only to lease land from the government or from private land-owners. Malawi's policy gives foreign landowners a seven-year window in which they should decide whether to take Malawi nationality or keep the land under a leasehold arrangement with the government. Malawi's 11.5 million people are largely dependent on agriculture. Although an estimated two million small-scale farming families hold between 1.8 and 2 million hectares of land, 72 percent of them actually cultivate less than one hectare per family. On average, individual households have less than 0.5 hectares of land - not enough to feed a family. (Rts)

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