Whose land is it anyway?

In Zambia rural people are being displaced from customary land where some have lived for generations—Zambian law entitles those who live on land managed by traditional rulers to do so without formally registering it. However, displacement occurs when the land is formally registered by the traditional authorities, converted from customary to statutory land and allocated to new owners. The displacement issue came to the fore after the government designated certain regions in the country for commercial farming in a bid to turn the economy around. However, problems have arisen due to the way the policy is implemented locally.

According to a 2017 report by Human Rights Watch, there is little consultation with villagers before they’re forcibly displaced or evicted and those who are compensated are often paid very little to make for their losses. A 2015 report by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies found that ‘consent is only required from the chief and the local authority. Under such circumstances, entire communities can be moved off their land against their will and in the best-case scenarios are subsequently resettled.’

As the majority of rural villagers often use the land for small scale farming as well as housing, being displaced often results in drastic changes to their lives with no equivalent source of food or income and disruptions to the make-up of their communities. On top of this, those who resist forced displacement are treated as squatters and prosecuted for trespass. The government has acknowledged the impact of the policy on the villagers putting the issue down to ‘administrative setbacks’ and taken some measures to remedy the situation.

The ‘administrative setbacks’ are exacerbated by in some cases, aggressive commercial farmers and unclear rules around how designated land should be transferred from local villagers to commercial farmers. Human Rights Watch reports that some commercial farmers have ignored the duty to consult with villagers or carried out meaningless consultations before proceeding to bulldoze communities. The commercial farmers claim they have been legitimately given ownership of the land with no clear rules as to how they should treat those already on it. Local villagers in turn claim to not have been told about changes in ownership or compensation and resettlement.

Whose land is it anyway? The Economist estimates that ‘a tenth of Africa’s cultivated land is now in the hands of big business’ with an appetite to purchase more farming land to feed an increasing African population and western demand.

Sadly, the displacements will continue until a new land policy is implemented that protects the rights of indigenous locals while thoroughly enforcing existing laws around land ownership. More importantly, there is also an absence of access to legal advice and equality of bargaining power for locals. This places them at a disadvantage during negotiations and forces them to take steps which leave them exposed to prosecution while savvy commercial farmers who don’t adhere to the legal requirements are not accountable.

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