Themicroloanfoundation's Blog


Land grabs and power relations in Malawi
April 30, 2010, 1:05 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Smallholder farmers are once again threatened in Malawi. 54 smallholder tea growers were met with dispossession and arrest when they refused to sell their land to Leston Mulli, one of the largest tea plantation conglomerates in the country.

According to the Nyasa Times, private security guards on Mulli’s payroll destroyed the crops of the smallholders before illegally obtaining titles to the land and transferring ownership. However, dispossession wasn’t enough as Mulli then bribed local police to have the smallholders arrested on a laundry list of trumped-up charges.

Unfortunately, this story highlights the tragic imbalance of power relations within Malawi. Small holder tea farmers regularly face pressure from large plantations to either sharecrop or become wage labourers. The lack of formal titling in many rural areas makes it considerably easier for large farms to grab land through bribes, adding another factor of pressure to small holders.

The fact of the matter is that small holder farmers in Malawi need to be protected from this sort of abuse and encroachment. While human rights enthusiasts might misty eyed over the social justice reasoning behind this, the underlying economic justifications are just as, if not perhaps even more powerful.

1) Small holder farmers are the backbone of the rural non-farm labour market, or as it’s commonly called, the rural informal sector. What quite a few observers might not recognize is that small holders are rarely full-time farmers. One rural household will often have several sources of income outside of farming. Most of MicroLoan’s clients come from small-holder households and the loans we provide are rarely used for agricultural purposes. Farming households often have small businesses unrelated to their crops or engage in contract labour. This diversity of income is the basic safety net for these people since single sources of income in these areas are often too volatile for survival. As a result, they contribute to a vast non-farm economy that has become the lifeblood of these communities. By dispossessing small holders, one essentially cripples this economy by removing some of its crucial suppliers and consumers.

An alternate income source for a smallholding family

2) Bringing small holders into wage labour would be fine and well if they could be guaranteed some sort of living wage. But the fact of the matter is that the majority of tea pickers in Mulanje earn only 90MWK (0.40p/0.30c) per 10 hour work day, leaving no time for income diversification. Forcing small holders onto wage labour condemns them to a single (and clearly insufficient) income source. While small holders have meager incomes, often below the subsistence level, at the very least they have some (if limited) options for income diversification. MicroLoan seeks to give our clients more of these options and provide income security. However, if small holders are regularly marginalised, it makes the chance of real poverty reduction more difficult.

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