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By Phillan Zamchiya

From 2016 to 2019, the Institute for Poverty Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) embarked on a project aimed at securing land and water rights for vulnerable men and women in line with global and regional policy frameworks.

The project titled ‘Land and Water Rights in Southern Africa: Entrenching Global and Regional Policy’ was funded by the Austrian Development Agency (ADA).

Globally, Africa remains the largest continent attracting land-based investments from the world. Data from the Land Matrix indicates that there were 422 transnational land deals concluded in the agricultural sector (42% of all global deals) on 10 million hectares of land in Africa. Investors also acquired water, as their projects were concentrated along rivers. The investments were mostly for food and agro-fuels. Before these investments, smallholder farmers owned and used the acquired land and water to sustain their livelihoods.

We studied different investments and their diverse impacts on communities. The study was in nine districts across seven provinces in Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia. A clear regional picture emerged: local farmers largely experienced non-voluntary dispossession. In about 90% of the cases, there was insufficient or no compensation. We observed that land deals are often justified by powerful global and national policy makers as a vehicle to utilise ‘vacant’ land in Africa, improve land productivity and modernise the countryside, commercialise the agrarian sector, create jobs and ensure macro-economic returns. However, we found that land deals often led to loss of farmland, water sources and grazing fields. This led to food insecurity, loss of financial income, good health and peace of mind for the local population. Across the nine districts, communities lost about 160 000 hectares of productive land. Nevertheless, investors still targeted 50 000 more hectares. Losses were not only economic: many lost cultural, spiritual and heritage rights and a sense of national belonging. Overall, the investments exacerbated the crises of livelihoods for many, especially women. The new labour markets failed to provide the promised jobs.

There is a need to at least regulate such investments to protect the affected rural poor, especially women. We therefore trained communities on the ‘Food and Agricultural Organization’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security of the Committee on World Food Security’ (VGGT) and the ‘African Union’s Guiding Principles on Large-Scale Land-Based Investments in Africa’ (LSLBI). We increased awareness about the existence and content of guidelines to those directly affected by the land deals. However, we found that these guidelines are difficult to implement in Southern Africa. This is because they are voluntary and non-binding, and most countries have weak governance systems, especially Mozambique.

We mobilised and strengthened 42 civil society organisations and close to 2 500 land rights users in Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia in the past four years. As a result, they have been able to continuously articulate demands for policy responses that defend their rights in the context of the global rush for land. For example, in Mozambique, we regularly engaged with the Commission of Agriculture Economy and Environment of the National Parliament House (Assembleia da República). Our emphasis was on the negative impacts of land grabbing on smallholder agriculture. We also reached out to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security to highlight how some investments threatened food security for many, especially the vulnerable. In Zambia, we engaged the Ministry of Land, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection. We voiced our concerns directly to the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture, Lands and Natural Resources regarding the inadequacy of the legal framework governing land administration in Zambia.  In South Africa, communities engaged with and made submissions to the South Africa Human Rights Commission and the Public Protector on corrupt activities by some investors. We also made various oral submissions to the National Assembly on Land Bills. We became part of the advisory body to the Land Policy Initiative at the African Union.

This led to some changes. Substantively, we have entrenched the principle of Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC). FPIC is an international principle that gives people the right to say yes or no to developmental projects, therefore upholding the universal right to self-determination. FPIC is now enshrined in Zambia’s 2019 Draft Land Policy. In 2018, the North Gauteng High Court in South Africa ruled that the Xolobeni community had a right to say no to a proposed mining investment. This was in line with the principle of FPIC. The precedence will go a long way in helping other affected communities.

Research outputs contributed to material for training on ‘The Political Economy of Land Governance in Africa’. A short course designed for land professionals working in civil society, industry, academia, and government. This is through collaboration with the Network of Excellence on Land Governance in Africa (NELGA).

As a response to land deals and new land pressures, civil society organisations, and policy makers have advocated for the formalisation of customary land rights. This is an attempt to secure land rights for poor communities—especially women—to prevent them from losing their land. These attempts raise important new questions: How is this protecting land rights for rural women of different ages, socio-economic position and marital status? And, what are the implications for policy? This is what we intend to investigate in the next three years in partnership with ADA.


This project is funded by the Austrian Development Cooperation

Read more about this research and its findings by clicking through the following links:

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