JOHANNESBURG— In the last decade, international companies have acquired 11 million hectares of land in developing nations - an area larger than the nation of Ireland.
The aid agency Oxfam, which released the figure, says many such acquisitions are done secretly and that residents only find out when they get their eviction notices. The group is pressing G8 leaders - who are meeting this week in Northern Ireland - to do something to halt such land grabs. One community in rural Swaziland is facing such a land grab, and its situation is representative of what is happening globally.
Malkerns is an idyllic farming area that overlooks a lush and picturesque valley in the southern African nation of Swaziland. In this area lies a small village of some 150 inhabitants who live in simple mud huts. They keep cows and goats, and they grow subsistence crops like maize.
It is a pretty picture, and a life that many say they have grown to love since their families were moved to this area in the 1950s at the request of Swaziland’s king.
After farming this land for nearly six decades, though, this community’s future is now uncertain.
Eviction notice served
Because of a series of land deals their lawyer describes as “mysterious,” the company that now owns the land has served the community with an eviction notice that may give them just a few more days in the place they know as home.
The company has not provided the community with anywhere to go.
The community’s lawyer, Sipho Gumedze, said it has been a trying case.
“It’s very sad, it’s very sad. Because think of a community that has been on this land for the past 58 years, and then you advise that you have to leave, and you are not given any alternative as to where you are going. Where you are supposed to go to?” asked Gumedze.
Gumedze said the Malkerns community always thought it was safe because the residents were occupying royal land in what is Africa’s last absolute monarchy.
Africa's customary law
Hannah Stoddart, the head of economic justice at Oxfam’s British branch, said this is not an uncommon situation on this continent. Much of Africa’s rural land is occupied by communities under customary law.
That legal distinction, Stoddart said, often gives governments and businesses a loophole that allows them to bring the land under official ownership.
“Many of these large-scale land acquisitions are in fact land grabs, where communities who have been living on the land… are forced from the land, and therefore lose the resources they rely on both to grow food to eat and to also make a livelihood. And Oxfam thinks that’s a major problem in tackling hunger if the poorest communities don’t have access to the land they need to grow food to eat and make a living,” said Stoddart.
The Oxfam campaigners are pushing for G8 nations to establish a global system that encourages transparency and improves land rights in poor nations. So far, however, leaders of the world’s richest nations have focused on other pressing issues, such as the war in Syria.
Gumedze agrees with Stoddart’s proposed solution.
“It is transparency that we need in Swaziland as a nation. Because our land tenure system, it is so complex, it is so confused. Because for people that live in the rural area, they have the notion that they actually do not own the where they have constructed their homestead. The land is owned by his majesty in their trust. So if we were to have a transparent arrangement, it is going to assist everybody. At least it will give some assurance that if you decide to erect a permanent home, at least we know that nobody will come later and take ownership of that land,” said Gumedze.
The community will go to court again this week. Until then, they wait.