The success of land reform in Malawi will depend on the cooperation of traditional leaders, who remain sceptical of the process because they believe the new legislation will erode their authority, civil society leader William Chadza told IRIN.
Chiefs in Malawi have traditionally had the authority to allocate land to their subjects but, following recommendations by a commission of inquiry, the government plans to introduce new legislation to improve equity in land distribution.
In 1996 former president Bakili Muluzi established a commission of inquiry with the aim of identifying problems regarding land distribution and management. The commission found the process was tainted by inequality, and that the poor were particularly marginalised. Cabinet later approved a new land policy document.
After consultations with stakeholders, the commission recommended that the land laws be amended.
Broader consultations were then undertaken by civil society organisations, which formed a task force on land reform to work independently of government and engage stakeholders such as traditional leaders.
Their findings will be presented to government for consideration when formulating the new Land Act.
Regarding the concerns of traditional leaders, Chadza said the new legislation would reduce their powers.
"Certainly it will, but what seems to be emerging is that those preparing legislation would like to formalise the roles of chiefs and other local leaders in land administration. One obvious thing is that the future land administration institutions will need to be elected bodies, which, according to experience, the chiefs are not comfortable with. This set-up will have the benefit of encouraging transparency in land administration; unfortunately, it interferes with the role of chiefs," Chadza pointed out.
Although the concerns of traditional leaders were valid, Chadza said, "We need to understand what is being proposed. One issue is that the chiefs will remain the main stakeholders as far as land administration is concerned, however, there shall be other institutions to support them in land administration ... basically, the elected bodies."
Further consultations were necessary, he added.
"We could perhaps deal with this problem by discussing with the chiefs the current system and see if there are any constraints, and how best to address them. My view is that if the traditional leaders are engaged all the way in the proposed land administration regime, we should be able to deal with these fears once and for all," Chadza commented.
He told IRIN it was difficult to estimate the number of landless people in Malawi, "but we are aware that there are a number of districts in Southern Malawi, namely Thyolo, Mulanje and Chiradzulu that have acute land problems. There are also urban land problems ... in the cities of Lilongwe and Blantyre."
This was because "these districts have big [commercial] tea estates and cover quite a huge area, leaving people with very little land on which to settle".
The government has started a land resettlement project in four districts of Southern province, but Chadza said there was a need to do more to ensure equity in land distribution.
"The law needs to provide for safeguards in terms of land ownership for Malawians: allocation of land needs to be done in a transparent manner," he said. "Land inheritance also needs to be provided for in the new legislation to ensure that orphans do not lose land easily."