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A Displaced Community’s Perspective on Land-Grabbing in Africa: The Case of the Kalimkhola Community in Dwangwa, Malawi

Institute of African Studies, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Yongin-Si 17035, Korea
Land 2019, 8(12), 187;
Submission received: 2 November 2019 / Revised: 21 November 2019 / Accepted: 6 December 2019 / Published: 8 December 2019


In recent years, the sugar industry in Malawi has been criticized for its connections to land-grabbing. The general trend in the current literature has been the attempt to identify the main actors and factors that were instrumental in the displacement of local communities. These studies often neglect the importance of each community’s in-depth perspectives on land-grabbing, which is essential in obtaining a comprehensive understanding of land-grabbing. By conducting field research based on in-depth interviews with the Kalimkhola community, this study had two main objectives: (1) to analyze the wider implications and effects of land-grabbing and displacement, other than its often-cited economic aspects; and (2) to analyze more specific reasons behind the community’s complaints and strong resistance to land-grabbing. The main findings of this research are that (1) land-grabbing leads to a loss of traditional cultural practices, and (2) the main reason for discontentment amongst community members is not the process of displacement, per se, but the worsening of their living and working environments. For those who were forcibly moved twice, their environmental change for the worse contributed to community resistance. These findings, along with the others in this paper, show that land-grabbing studies have the potential to broaden the research area. This can only be achieved by engaging in close interactions and in-depth interviews with specific local communities, which will lead to a more comprehensive understanding of land-grabbing in Dwangwa.

1. Introduction

Although the cultivation of sugar beet and cane are essential parts of Malawi’s economy, this industry has recently been heavily criticized for its connections to land-grabbing. The most frequently cited case has been that of the Kazilira dambo farmers in Dwangwa. Although the general trend has been the attempt to identify the main actor(s) and factor(s) responsible for the loss of land and displacement, several important aspects have been left unaddressed or generalized. Firstly, although interviews show displaced communities’ complaints regarding land-grabbing [1,2,3], it appears that community members were asked the same specific questions regarding unfair land deals and legal issues. This is due to the fact that their responses are mostly connected to corruption, transparency, and the community’s economic loss connected to displacement and compensation. Secondly, there have not been any studies focused on one particular community. Researchers often conduct interviews with different community members who experienced different displacement processes but generalize them as only the victims of land-grabbing. Third, related to the first and the second points, most existing studies take a heavy political science approach. They tend to gather and illustrate communities’ complaints only to identify land-grabbers in Dwangwa. This portrays economic loss as the only result of the displacement of the local communities. This approach neglects the importance of each community’s in-depth perspectives on land-grabbing. By using the most cited case study (Kazilira dambo farmers case), this research will address the three key problems of the land-grabbing studies in Dwangwa mentioned above.
This research has two main aims: (1) To analyze whether the result of land-grabbing is solely about economic loss. More specifically, as displacement involves changes in a community’s living surroundings or environment, it was hypothesized that displacement would have impacts on a community’s everyday life. Accordingly, this research aims to determine whether land-grabbing is also connected to other important factors, such as changes in, and a loss of, a community’s traditions and culture. (2) To analyze the more specific reasons behind a community’s complaints about land-grabbing and strong resistance toward it. As most studies using displacement cases only cover the selected period of time when the displacement took place, they are likely to miss other, possibly more important, reasons behind a community’s resistance and complaints. Finding such reasons can only happen by analyzing the complete story and history of the displacement process. Thus, there is a need for a direct interaction with the community.
This paper consists of two main bodies. First, it specifically analyzes the case of Kazilira dambo farmers’ displacement in the existing literature. As there is no research that only concentrates on this case, the information will have to be gathered via an intensive literature review. Second, in order to achieve the two main goals, this study presents the results of fieldwork based on in-depth interviews with a specific community named Kalimkhola. Specifically, the main aims of conducting field work were to expand on existing studies and fill in the gaps to show the complexities of the issues from the affected communities’ perspectives.
The overall objective of this paper is to show that as displaced communities are the ones who are most affected by land-grabbing, an analysis of the long-term effects of displacement and changes that have taken place at the local level of each community are crucial in gaining a comprehensive understanding of land-grabbing in Dwangwa and other African countries.

2. The Sugar Industry in Malawi

The two main areas for sugarcane cultivation in Malawi are the Shire Valley in the Nchalo area and Dwangwa. Cultivation in the Nchalo region began earlier in 1963, when Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the first president of Malawi, invited Lonrho (a conglomerate based in London, working in multiple sectors, such as agribusiness, transport, and infrastructure in 16 Sub-Saharan African countries [4]) to investigate areas that might be suitable for cane cultivation and to establish their sugar industry. Lonrho, working with the government and Commonwealth Development Corporation, established the Sugar Corporation of Malawi (SUCOMA) as its subsidiary, which led to the establishment of the first sugar estate in Nachalo in 1968. A decade later, Lonrho investigated the Dwangwa delta for a sugar production site and established the Dwangwa Sugar Corporation (DWASCO). The government of Malawi and Smallholder Sugar Authority (SSA), a governmental parastatal organization, were the majority shareholders of the DWASCO. The SSA invited 200 farmers from different parts of the country into Dwangwa to work on, develop, and promote smallholder cultivation in a 500 hectare (ha) settlement scheme leased from Lonrho [1]. The farmers received loans for seed cane, fertilizer, haulage, and specific training, which assisted them in cultivating their plots. The cultivated sugarcane was marketed through SSA, and their debt was deducted from their profit [5]. The area under cultivation by DWASCO expanded under the presidential orders of 1969 and 1975. These orders played an immense role in shaping land ownership in Malawi, as they amended the 1965 Land Act. The result was the conversion of customary land to sugarcane cultivation, including 48,750 ha along the Malawi lakeshore in Dwangwa [1].
In 1997, a South African sugar producing company, Illovo Sugar Group (Illovo), acquired Lonrho along with its assets in Malawi [6]. In the following year, Lonrho’s subsidiaries were also taken over, including most of Malawi’s milling and refining capacity. As such, the sale of Lonrho marked the beginning of the privatization of Malawi’s sugar industry and the SSA, as they became privatized using the management and farmer buy-out option. In Dwangwa, this resulted in the creation of the Dwangwa Cane Growers Trust (DCGT) and Dwangwa Cane Grower Limited (DCGL) in 1999. DCGT is a government Trust entity for smallholders growing sugarcane in Dwangwa that took all assets of the privatized SSA and sub-leased part of the 500 ha, which used to be owned by Lonrho, from Illovo. DCGL provides consultancy services to farmers and the DCGT. More specifically, DCGL, as a management company, plays a major role in negotiating the business terms between smallholder farmers and millers, as well as providing services (e.g., fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, quality control, loan brokerage, and extension support [1]).
Figure 1 presents the land use change in the Nkhotakota District, which includes Dwangwa, between 1975 (left side) and 2015 (right side). In 1975, Dwangwa was mostly covered by forest. However, in 2015, a large portion of land (forest) became a sugarcane cultivation area. The Dwangwa Illovo Sugar Plantation, where Illovo is cultivating sugarcane under irrigation, is located next to Lake Malawi. Outside of the Illovo Planation area, it is also visible that a large quantity of land, including Kazilira dambo, is being used to cultivate sugarcane. Illovo’s sugar estates (core plantation area) in Dwangwa cover an area of 13,300 ha [7], of which 1026 ha is under irrigation and used by out-growers supported by DCGT/DCGL [8]. According to Zamchiya et al. [3], sugarcane was mainly cultivated in the Illovo plantation area but started to spread widely in Dwangwa, including Kazilira dambo, from 2006, as more smallholder farmers started to cultivate sugarcane. Together with smallholder farmers, Illovo has the capacity to produce 2.4 million tons of sugarcane and about 290,000 tons of sugar annually [9]. It must be noted that Illovo was a subsidiary of Associated British Foods PLC (ABF), which originally had a 51.35% stake in Illovo until acquiring the remaining shares of Illovo in 2016 [10]. However, all sugar products in Malawi are still sold under the name of Illovo and most locals in Dwangwa have no knowledge of the existence of ABF.

3. Analysis of the Land-Grabbing Case in Dwangwa Based on Existing Studies

Most traditional land in Malawi and other African countries was preserved by the communities’ ancestors and passed on to their living representatives, current occupants, and the future generation. Land belonged to the local community, village, and the family, and the concept of purchasing or selling land for private gain did not really exist [12]. Competition for land previously existed, but this competition was related to issues of land fertility and access to water for agriculture and subsistence. The idea of land as a commodity came with the arrival of the Europeans [13]. For instance, in Malawi, European traders and missionaries used gifts such as cloth to bribe or appease local chiefs in exchange for land. This turned into the sales of small plots of land for the Europeans to build their houses and stores. However, the Europeans later exploited such deals and laid claims to larger areas than initially demarcated [12]. Along with the example of Malawi, it can be argued that the arrival of the Europeans meant adding an “exchange value” to African land. Europeans (e.g., traders, missionaries, and colonial rulers) changed the traditional meaning or concept of land ownership according to what they recognized to be useful during occupation; however, by presenting an “exchange value”, the concept of property merged [13]. Further, during the colonial period in Malawi, British colonizers tried to appropriate all Malawian land to the British sovereign and also attempted to facilitate easier access by the settler community via private titles [14].
Therefore, it can be argued that the arrival of Europeans, along with the concept of exchange value, property, and colonial policies on land, opened up the possibility for land-grabbing, which used to be mostly about land competition for survival among Malawians and other Africans.
In more recent years, however, the concept of land-grabbing and land-grabbers has become more diversified. For instance, according to Borras et al. [15]1, land-grabbing is referred to as the “explosion of (trans)national commercial land transactions and land speculation… around the large-scale production and export of food and biofuels”. More broadly, land-grabbing can be considered the power to control a large quantity of land and resources [16]. This description is connected to the global financial crisis that occurred in 2008, which raised global food and energy prices and led the global north to look for land in the global south—especially in African countries—for food and energy production [17]. Also, more countries than Europe and multinational companies entered the continent to use their land for food and energy production.
The land-grabbing process can be understood as a form of accumulation by dispossession. The phrase “accumulation by dispossession” was first coined by Harvey [18]. According to Harvey, the process of accumulation by dispossession includes the “commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations; the conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights; the suppression of rights to the commons; the commodification of labor power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neo-colonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); the monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; …and ultimately the credit system as radical means of primitive accumulation” [18]2. Capital accumulation is considered to be the heart of accumulation by dispossession. Here, besides other actors, such as foreign countries and multinational companies, the state is considered to be an important actor playing a role in capital accumulation and dispossession [19]. Overall, the perpetrators of land-grabbing in Africa, including Malawi, diversified from the European colonial powers to the state, other foreign countries, and private companies. Further, the competition for land change ranges from competition among Africans or Malawians for survival to land-grabbing among the actors mentioned above. Despite different definitions of land-grabbing and the actors involved, land-grabbing, in general, results in the displacement of local communities. Accordingly, land-grabbing can be understood as a form of privatization or accumulation by the dispossession or displacement of local communities [16].
The land in Dwangwa is used to produce sugar, which generates much needed export earnings and meets domestic demands. However, the sugar industry is directly connected to land-grabbing, which has resulted in the displacement of local communities. Although it is not possible to identify the exact number of the communities and individuals affected, there have been a number of studies done on several communities. The example most frequently used as a case study is that of the Kazilira dambo farmers [1,2,3,20]. It is estimated that 537 farmers in the Kazilira dambo and Nkhunga area lost their land between 2006 and 2008, and 137 families lost their crops or shelters [9,21]. The reason why Kazilira dambo farmers have become the focus in Dwangwa land-grabbing studies may be due to the fact that they have vocally resisted and are actively fighting for their land and compensation.3 In order to understand the land-grabbing in Dwangwa, and related studies’ focuses (such as in the studies by Chinsinga [1], Gausi et al. [2], Zamchiya et al. [3], and Adams et al. [20]), this section attempts to identify the main actor(s) and factor(s) that led to the displacement of local communities based on previous studies.

3.1. Dwangwa Outgrower Scheme (DOS)

According to the existing studies [1,2,3,20], the Dwangwa Outgrower Scheme (DOS) was one of the main factors that contributed to the displacement of local communities and Kazilira dambo farmers in the Dwangwa region. In order to gain a comprehensive understanding of land-grabbing in this region, it is essential that the motivations and actions of the main stakeholders and the DOS be analyzed.
In southern Africa, most large sugar processing plants have a core sugarcane estate, which is often run by the mill. These large sugar mills often receive additional sugarcane from small sugarcane producers, which are referred to as “outgrowers” or “contract farmers”. More specifically, there is a core estate in the sugar industry that often runs a large-scale sugarcane plantation. These outgrowers, consisting of both individuals and groups of farmers in a collective structure (e.g., Trusts), supplement the production from the core estate. The outgrowers make contracts to grow sugarcane (especially for the processing plant) for the core estate [8]. This type of contract farming has the potential to connect smallholders (low-income farmers) and large agro-industrial firms that can provide the credit, inputs, information, and services that are necessary for smallholders to cultivate and market crops. Incorporating smallholders into the modern sector can provide them with income, new infrastructure, and market development in the local economy [22], which can contribute to growth of the overall agricultural sector.
The fact that the SSA invited 200 farmers to work on a 500 ha settlement scheme to develop and promote sugarcane cultivation by smallholder farmers shows that the concept of contract farming already existed in Dwangwa in the late 1970s. The DOS became more consolidated since the privatization of the SSA and the establishment of DCGT and DCGL. Since DCGL, as a state apparatus, was charged with providing policies for sugarcane production and implementing a smallholder sugarcane project (promoting the expansion of smallholder sugarcane cultivation) at the local level [1,20], the number of locals participating in the scheme increased.
The introduction of the Green Belt Initiative (GBI) in 2009 contributed to the increasing number of farmers participating in the DOS. The introduction of the GBI is linked to the country’s Farm Input Subsidy Program (FSIP) during the period of 2005–2006. The FISP was introduced because of prolonged food shortages. The FISP provided necessary input, such as chemical fertilizers, to smallholder farmers to increase their production—mostly of maize, which is a staple food crop in Malawi [23]. The FISP was considered successful as it led to increased maize production and also made surpluses. Further, as a food aid and commercial food-import-dependent country, Malawi became a donor to food-deficient countries, such as Lesotho and Eswatini (known as Swaziland in the past). However, there has been continued debates about the success of the FISP. Groups of donors were skeptical about the efficiency of the FISP in the long term. These donors were uncertain whether the government of Malawi had the capacity to properly target beneficiaries to limit the distortionary effects of subsidies. Another concern was that the success of the FISP was too strongly supported by consecutive years of favorable climatic patterns. The introduction of GBI was a response to these concerns about the FISP [24].
The aim of the GBI was to use water resources to increase agricultural production, productivity, and income, which could contribute to improving the food security at the individual and national level. This aim was to be achieved by developing small and large-scale irrigation and rain-fed agriculture practices [24]. More specifically, GBI aimed to improve food production and diversify crop production by irrigating 1 million ha of land located within 20–30 km of Malawi’s three lakes and 13 perennial rivers by 2020 [2,25]. Here, GBI emphasizes the promotion and enhancement of agricultural commercialization through outgrower schemes and contract farming and improved the cooperation between value chain stakeholders [26]. As Dwangwa is located in the Nkhotakota district by Lake Malawi, it is considered one of the most important areas for the success of GBI. In fact, Nkhotakota district is one of the districts that the government of Malawi has prioritized for agricultural investment [27]. Although the main target of the GBI was to improve food security and the diversification of crop production, its focus has been heavily directed toward sugarcane production, which has become an alternative foreign exchange earner to tobacco [1]. Accordingly, the GBI clearly contributed to the expansion of sugarcane cultivation, as well as the growth of DOS in Dwangwa.
The launch of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa (NAFSN) in 2012 under the auspices of the G8, in partnership with the EU as the main donor, also contributed to the expansion of Malawi’s sugar industry. Malawi subscribed to the NAFSN program, and the initiative was launched in 2013. Since joining the NAFSN, Malawi’s cooperation framework now includes investment plans from 23 domestic and multinational agri-businesses (e.g., Illovo), which have made 33 policy reform commitments to promote agri-business [1]. Further, in line with their commitment to the NAFSN, the government pledged to improve large-scale investor access to land and water by releasing 200,000 ha of land for large-scale commercial agriculture. The government announced that the allocation of land will be made after “idle land”, including private and customary land, has been properly identified [2]. The NAFSN views contract farming (an outgrower scheme) as essential to the development of the localized foods chain; this can be accomplished by connecting farmers’ cooperatives to the local food-processing industry. Accordingly, the DOS is also supported by the NAFSN [28].
There are also a number of actors that support the DOS. The African Development Bank (AfDB) has been a supporter for implementing and expanding the DOS. Through the Smallholder Outgrower Sugarcane Production Project (SOSPP), the AfDB aims to help alleviate the poverty of smallholder sugarcane outgrower farmers around Dwangwa by increasing their income and improving their food security. This is to be achieved by providing inputs and irrigation infrastructure for sugarcane production, purchasing vehicles and farm machinery, providing internal and external training for farmers, providing field supervisors and managers, constructing health-enhancing facilities and administrative office blocks, and providing seeds and fertilizers to help these farmers cultivate the fringes of their irrigated project sites with other crops, such as rice, maize, soybean, and cassava [5]. Further, since 2009, the AfDB has been supporting the DOS via the Agriculture Infrastructure Support Project (ASIP). The aim of the AISP is to enhance water use efficiency and productivity in Malawi’s Green Belt Zone in order to facilitate improved productivity in the agricultural sector. This project supports infrastructure to expand outgrower sugarcane production in Dwangwa. There are three reasons for the selection of Dwangwa: (1) the availability of land suitable for sugarcane production; (2) the higher sucrose extraction rates for sugarcane; and (3) the sufficient level of cooperation between DCGT and smallholder outgrower farmers [27].
The European Union (EU) has also been a supporter of the sugar industry expansion in Malawi. For example, following the reform of the EU’s sugar regime in 2006, the Accompanying Measures for Sugar Protocol Countries (AMSP) program (2007–2013) was established to support the adaptation process of 18 Sugar Protocol countries that have traditionally exported sugar to the European Union. A number of African countries, including Malawi, were the beneficiaries. The budget was distributed among these countries according to their specific needs and depending on the importance of the sugar sector in their economies, thereby offering institutional and governance support to smallholder outgrower schemes [1,29]. Further, under the AMSP, Malawi received €667,000 and €5,000,000 in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Here, €350,000 was used to improve the feeder road of the DOS [30].

3.2. “Land-Grabbers” within the Framework of the Dwangwa Outgrower Scheme (DOS) and Kazilira Dambo Farmers

As can be seen from Section 3.1, the DOS changed the traditional nature of farmers into market driven outgrowers; this can be considered the turning point that led to the displacement of local farmers in the Dwangwa region. All actors implicated in land acquisitions in Dwangwa are further connected to each other via the DOS. Special attention is placed here on the community of Kazilira dambo farmers, which provides the most cited study of land-grabbing in this region. In addition, this section discusses the role of the most cited and influential bodies involved in the dispute: the DCGT/DCGL and the traditional authorities (TA)4.
Land-grabbing connected to Kazilira dambo farmers began in 2007, when DCGL entered Kazilira dambo to excavate canals on customary land for the DOS and later began laying irrigation pipes for the expansion of sugarcane production. While these canals were being excavated, the famers’ crops and houses were destroyed in the process [3]. The farmers reacted to the DCGL’s action by taking the DCGL and the state (as the DCGL is considered a state apparatus) to the High Court in Blantyre in 2007. The court ruled in favor of the DCGL and the state because the Kazilira dambo farmers who lived on the customary land only had the right to use the surface of the land but not what lied under the sub-soil. As a result, the DCGL continued to lay irrigation pipes but was directed to provide compensation to the affected farmers. However, there was no clear description of the compensation assessment [3]. As the Kazilira dambo farmers were unsatisfied with the judge’s decision, they transferred their case to the Mzuzu High Court. The court upheld the ruling made in Blantyre and ordered the DCGL to provide compensation to the farmers in 2014. However, the court did not make any ruling regarding restoring land rights to those affected. Consequently, many affected farmers have not received proper compensation and moved out of Kazilira dambo [3]. As the DCGT/DCGL’s actions resulted in the displacement of the farmers, the DCGT/DCGL is considered one of the most obvious culprits under the umbrella of the DOS. The role of the DCGL/DCGT in this scheme should be specifically analyzed, as it is directly connected to, or has cooperated with, other parties.
The initial role of the DCGT in this scheme was to identify suitable land for sugarcane cultivation, most of which belonged to smallholders. Once they had identified suitable land, they did not contact landowners directly but instead through their TA, which later attempted to convince the farmers to willingly give up their land for their scheme [20]. When a plot of land is voluntarily handed over to the scheme, it is marked with an identification tags so that each outgrower can identify the boundaries of their plot. Then, the DCGL retains the operational costs and provides extension services to each plot on a regular basis. Such costs are not changed directly to outgrowers but financed through a management fee that the DCGL retains against sugarcane proceeds [1]. A problem arises when the landowner is unwilling to give up his or her land to join the scheme. In this case, the DCGT again contacts the TA to convince the landowners to give up their land. The TA then decrees that the land should be used to cultivate sugarcane for the benefit of the entire community. This places a large amount of pressure on landowners, thereby forcing them to give up their land at the behest of their TA [20]. Here, the TA’s power over land should be more closely analyzed.
In Malawi, there are mainly three types of land: private land, public land, and customary land.5 Here, the TA has significant power over customary land6 as it falls under the TA jurisdiction. The TA and other traditional leaders (chiefs) who are in the lower hierarchy7 have the ability to control and distribute customary land [31,34]. In the case of Kazilira dambo, or Dwangwa as a whole, the customary land is under TA Kanyenda jurisdiction. Indeed, existing studies often point to TA Kanyenda as one of the contributors to land-grabbing in Dwangwa. For instance, it is found that TA Kanyenda cooperated with the DCGL to make smallholder farmers in Dwangwa grow sugarcane as outgrowers. TA Kanyenda has been frequently reported to be hired by the DCGT so that they can acquire desired lands on which to grow sugarcane. DCGT/DCGL funded TA Kanyenda to set up the Kazilira Development Committee (KDC), which was charged with overseeing the development of land designated for sugarcane cultivation. Further, the DCGT appointed TA Kanyenda to the board of directors of the DCGT. Under his lead, or guidance, the KDC exerted pressure on the communities and convinced smallholders in Kazilira dambo to offer their land for “development” by explaining that the plots of land would be given or reverted back to the owners after being developed [1,3].
Based on the 1967 Land Act, the TAs and other traditional leaders were appointed as custodians of customary land [1] who act as the chairpersons of area development committees and have power over customary land [31]. Naturally, the DCGL/DCGT turned their attention to the TAs, who have significant power over customary land. Instead of mediating conflict between the DCGT/DCGL and the Kazilira dambo farmers, or protecting his own people, TA Kanyenda cooperated with the DCGT/DCGL, making him one of the main accomplices in land-grabbing in Dwangwa.
As can be seen from the above, existing studies have previously focused on identifying the land-grabber responsible for the displacement of local communities, such as the Kazilira dambo farmers. The literature that emphasizes or uses the Kazilira dambo case covers the period of 2007–2014, which is the time when the Kazilira dambo farmers’ court case was still ongoing (Blantyre) and after they had received their decisions from the Mzuzu court in 2014, all of which were related to the DOS [1,2,3]. As these studies omitted the entire process of displacement and changes in the community’s life, it is assumed here that several salient points have been overlooked. Accordingly, based on field research, the next section aims to cover missing points that will help paint a more complete picture of land-grabbing in Dwangwa.

4. Methodology and Field Work

Field work was conducted during the period of 1–26 January 2019, in Dwangwa. As a part of the field work, in-depth interviews were carried out with members of the Kalimkhola community, which are a faction of resettled Kazilira dambo farmers. On 10 January 2019, the author met the group village head (GVH)8, Kalimkhola, to arrange interviews with the community members, and permission was granted. On 12 January 2019, the interviews were conducted with three different groups: GVH Kalimkhola, the male group (21 men), and the female group (23 women).9 The reason for separating the study into three groups was to create an environment where the interviewees could speak at ease and openly. GVH Kalimkhola strongly suggested that separating men from women was necessary as women could potentially feel reluctant to speak freely with men around. The interviews had to be carried out in one day (12 January 2019), as the Kalimkhola community was scattered (except those who live in the Kalimkhola village) and lived far away from the center of the village; thus, it was not possible to gather them in one place for a few days consecutively.
It must be noted that during the meeting with the GVH Kalimkhola, he was initially reluctant and somewhat hesitant to arrange group interviews, as land-grabbing is a highly sensitive topic for the community, and the participants are still scared of what had happened to them. As the aim of this research was to gain insight into how the community was affected after they had relocated, it was essential that the process of displacement was documented for analysis with cooperation from the community. Accordingly, the in-depth interviews took the form of semi-structured interviews.
Table 1 presents the main questions (with their purposes) that the author asked during the interviews. The use of terms such as land-grabbing and displacement and legal issues were avoided as much as possible as to prevent any potential situation where the interviewee felt uncomfortable. Further, in regard to privacy issues, it was promised that any personal information (e.g., names or ages) would not be presented in any of the research. Using this method made the interviewees feel relaxed, allowing them to share valuable insights, leading to a wider understanding of the process of land-grabbing in the region.

4.1. The “Journey” from Matiki to Kalimkhola Village

The six elders were originally from the Matiki area where the Dwangwa Illovo Sugar Plantation is located and were members of the Chipembere community. In 1976, most community members who lived in Matiki were forced to move out as their land was going to be converted to a large-scale sugarcane cultivation run by Lonrho. The people who lived in Matiki, mainly the Mafupa, Chipembere, Mphamba, and Chazuka communities, were designated to move to the Kaongozi area. However, some of the Chipembere community members chose to move to Kazilira dambo. One of the six elders stated that “It was not like everyone had to go to Kaongozi, but everyone had to look for somewhere to move apart from Matiki. We came here, and the others chose to go to Kaongozi and elsewhere” [36].10 Accordingly, a faction of Chipembere community members searched for any relatives or friends who lived in an ideal location for them to settle and contacted the GVH Kalimkhola. GVH Kalimkhola gave a small piece of land in Kalimkhola near Kazilira dambo for them to settle; this area had fertile soil where they could easily cultivate crops. The six elders said that the moving process was peaceful, as they had a choice of where to move and a new location to settle in.11
The eviction from Kazilira dambo began with a rumor that the community would be moved from the area in 2006. Accordingly, the Kalimkhola community went to TA Kanyenda to enquire about the rumor and were informed that they will have to move out of the area due to the expansion of the sugar industry (outgrower scheme), without providing a new location for them to settle in. Soon after, the Nkhotakota district council, through TA Kanyenda, informed them that Kazilira dambo will be developed for an outgrower scheme and offered the residents compensation without any details of this compensation (e.g., houses, land, or crops). The community members were skeptical, as the displacement process was not clear and proper. They voiced uncertainties, such as, “Our elders moved from Matiki. Now, we are being moved again. Where are we going to be resettled?” [38]. The answer from TA Kanyenda was to “go anywhere else. It is up to you to decide where to go” [38]. Also, GVH Kalimkhola tried to tell the council that the compensation (money) was not enough for them to move out of Kazilira dambo. Accordingly, GVH Kalimkhola and the community members resisted, and the land-grabbing process, or displacement, began.
According to the interviews, the DCGL came to Kazilira dambo in 2006 and started to “develop” the land, thereby forcing the community to move out with the backing of the local police: “The displacement process was a long process and took place during the period of 2006–2011” [39]. Initially, when DCGL came with machines to develop the area, Kalimkhola community members fought them, and the DCGL retreated. However, when the DCGL came with the local police with coercive power, Kalimkhola members had to hide and temporarily move elsewhere. For instance, an interviewee stated that “We would hide somewhere during the day and came to our shelter in the evening, and whenever we came back to our land, more of our plots had been converted to sugarcane fields and our shelters were demolished” [38]. As the process became increasingly violent, Kalimkhola members temporarily moved to the Kabuwa area to hide. However, they could not stay in the Kabuwa area for too long. For instance, it was stated that the “Kabuwa community did not accept us to stay long with them because they were scared that having us among them would bring the police forces and negatively affect their lives. The Kabuwa people said ‘we do not want you to cause any problems for us’” [39].
While the Kalimkhola community members were hiding, they approached the Church and Society Program of Livingstonia Synod in order to obtain assistance. The church (Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, CCAP) sent a letter to the Dwangwa Police Unit asking them to stop using violence to displace “Kazilira dambo farmers” for the DOS. The CCAP informed the Kalimkhola community that they can safely move back to Kazilira dambo and stay. When they returned, however, the police again chased them off the land. As resistance continued, “the office of the president and cabinet decided to provide the community with 50,000 Malawi Kwacha (MK) to each family as compensation in 2015” [40]. Though this compensation was insufficient to compensate for the destruction of their houses, the community members eventually started to accept the compensation as more members found it impossible to continue this way of life. As the compensation was given to individuals who decided to accept it rather than the entire community at once, the displacement process became long and drawn out, and members were scattered and moved to different places.

4.2. Environment and Identity Change

As can be seen from Section 4.1, the Kalimkhola community consists of some people who experienced displacement twice. It appears that the nature of the two processes was different.
The six elders pointed out that the “government”’ and TA Kanyenda were the ones who contributed to their displacement from Matiki to Kazilira dambo, without mentioning Lonhro or Illovo, which physically took their land in Matiki. On the other hand, all Kalimkhola community members said that during the displacement process from Kazilira dambo to the Kalimkhola village, it was the TA, Nkhotakota district council, and police who displaced them, and it was the DCGL who took away their land. It must be noted that the Kalimkhola community placed much greater emphasis on the second displacement, which may be because it happened more recently and also because the former displacement was “peaceful”. However, all members clearly highlighted TA Kanyenda as the main cause of their displacement (or the main land-grabber), as they perceived Kanyenda to be the TA who sold their land, Matiki and Kazilira dambo, to Lonhro and DCGL, respectively, instead of protecting them. Further, for the Kalimkhola community, Lonhro and Illovo are not necessarily considered land-grabbers, as “Lonhro and Illovo are the companies that bought our land from TA Kanyenda” [40]. Despite the importance of identifying the land-grabber from the community’s perspective, community members said that such identification has been repeated many times, as they have been approached by a number of researchers who asked almost the same questions regarding the legal issues mentioned in Section 3.2 and in other existing literature. In other words, since the community moved to the current location, and until recently, researchers have focused mostly on the legal issues during the displacement process between Kazilira dambo and Kalimkhola. This means that only the same partial understanding of land-grabbing has been studied until present.
One of the new discoveries made during the interviews was that environmental change is at the heart of the participants’ complaints and changes to their lifestyle. For instance, according to the six elders, the environmental difference between Matiki and Kazilira dambo was minimal, as both locations had fertile soil and flat land. The only difference was direct access to Lake Malawi in Matiki, which made it possible for them fish as well as farm, whereas Kazilira dambo was further away from the lake. However, as Kazilira dambo is located in a swampy area, “it was possible for the people to catch fish during September–October” [41]. Further, the fertile soil “compensated” for the loss of access to the lake. In other words, they were satisfied with their new environment, and “preferred Kazilira dambo over Matiki” [42]. In fact, between Matiki and Kazilira dambo, the community members’ occupation did not change. In both regions, they considered themselves to be “commercial farmers” who cultivated sufficient amounts of crops (also enough fish to catch) to provide basic food for themselves and sell crops to make financial surpluses. However, after being displaced from Kazilira dambo, they became “subsistence farmers” who can barely provide enough food for their families because they are living in an environment with poor soil and poor access to the lake. According to the community members, it was this dramatic environmental change that led them to consider themselves as “poor people”.
What is also interesting is that instead of keeping their original identity as Chipembere, the six elders now identify themselves as Kalimkhola. One of the interviewees stated that “I do miss Matiki, but I consider myself Kalimkhola” [43]. This is different from the communities who live in the Kaongozi area who kept their original identity. For instance, Chipembere community members who currently live in the Kaongozi area still consider themselves Chipembere [37]. The reason for this change of identity can be explained by the fact that the six elders did not move with GVH Chipembere. However, one should question whether moving with or without the leader is the only factor that contributed to changes in their identity. For instance, after they (Kalimkhola community) were displaced from Kazilira dambo, their community members were scattered (living far away from each other) and lived on other communities’ lands without GVH Kalimkhola. However, they still consider themselves to be a Kalimkhola community.12 It is observed that community members changed their identities in cases where their new environment was an improvement on their previous environment. In cases where the new settlement was not an improvement, they maintained their previous identities. This is also evident for other community members. For instance, as the Mafupa, Chipembere, and Chazuka communities have been living in the Kaongozi area for more than 40 years, one may suspect that they identify themselves as “Kaongozi people”. However, they still retained their original identities and considered themselves to be “Matiki people”, emphasizing Matiki’s environment, which has flat land, access to water, and fertile soil, as opposed to Kaongozi’s environment, which has poor soil, a rocky landscape, and poor access to water [37]. Accordingly, it can be argued that this “satisfaction with the basic environment” is the decisive factor that consolidates or changes the affected communities’ identities, rather than the location or displacement, per se. Further, the fact that the six elders chose a “rich environment” (Kazilira dambo) over GVH Chipembere and its community members illustrates the importance of environmental satisfaction.

4.3. Loss of Traditional Culture: Chinamwali

As can be seen from Section 4.2, displacement resulting from land-grabbing has not only resulted in a physical change in the community’s environment but also changes in occupation and identity. The most striking example of cultural loss has been the fact that the community no longer practices the traditional Malawian female initiation ceremony of chinamwali. Previously, girls were obliged to attend the ceremony, usually after having their first menstrual cycle, in order to transform into full-grown women. The ceremony would take place during the dry season in secluded spaces for them to learn how to behave according to their new status as fully-grown women [44,45].
The ceremony usually takes seven days in total, and the community to which the anamwali (female participant) belonged to would often help to organize and prepare the ceremony, as it is considered a joyous event for the community, and also help the initiates’ family financially due to the large number of guests. The anamwali is isolated from the rest of the community and receives instructions from a namkungwi, who is recognized as the main teacher (usually an elder women). Each anamwali also has a phungu (tutor) who ensures that the anamwali properly learns and understands the instructions given by the namkungwi during the ceremony [44]. A number of women’s health issues and other issues believed necessary to prepare a woman for adulthood are taught or discussed during the ceremony. These issues include menstrual hygiene, good manners and respect for the elderly, sexual abstinence, no longer eating eggs for fear of becoming barren, no longer entering the parents’ bedroom, how to carry out household chores, good behavior towards their husband, and dressing respectfully [46]. The chinamwali is an important ceremony not only for the anamwali and their families but also for the entire community. If the anamwali fail to understand and practice certain rules of behavior, it is believed that a mdulo (sickness) will affect the health of the entire community [45].
Chinamwali is also considered to be an important tradition for the Kalimkhola community. According to the female group, there was also a tradition called Chisamba. As stated by a female member, “Chisaba is like chinamwali. In the past, elders used to give advice to the women when we got pregnant for the first time. They would tell us how to take care of ourselves before and even after we gave birth” [47]. Unfortunately, these female oriented traditional practices are no longer performed. According to the four female elders, they were able to perform chinamwali in Matiki and Kazilira dambo. However, all female interviewees noted that since they moved to Kalimkhola village, the performance, or tradition, faded. They stated that “it was possible to perform chinamwali in Matiki and Kazilira dambo because land was flat there and we lived closed to each other. It was easy to visit each other” [48]. However, when they were displaced from Kazilira dambo, the community members were scattered and lived in different places, making it difficult for community members to gather and perform chinamwali. Also, as many Kalimkhola community members are scattered to places where other communities are dominant, they felt uncomfortable to perform such ceremonies themselves. Even among the community members who live in the Kalimkhola village, although they live close to each other, they could not continue such performances. Due to the poor soil and limited area to farm in the village, they were unable to produce enough of a food surplus. This reality forced them to find additional work, which made them unable to preserve their traditional culture. Therefore, it is evident that land-grabbing, and more specifically a new environment, led to the loss of traditions among the participants.

5. Discussion

Most studies related to land-grabbing in the Malawian sugar industry have focused on the identification of those involved in the forced relocation of local communities. In the case of Dwangwa, the grievances of these displaced community members, especially the current (poor) living conditions and the experiences of Kazilira dambo farmers, are often used as a case study.
This study conducted field research based on in-depth interviews with the Kalimkhola community, and the main findings are as follows.
First, by asking Question 1, “Could you tell me the history of your move?” (see Figure 1), it is found that the Kalimkhola community, or a faction of the Kazilira dambo farmers, consists of people who experienced displacement more than once. Though the six elders were satisfied with the move from Matiki to Kazilira dambo, experiencing displacement for a second time may have been a contributing factor that made them fight for their land rights and compensation more strongly compared to other communities, such as the ones that live in Kaongozi areas. This, in turn, may be the reason why many researchers have focused more on the case of Kazilira dambo farmers. This is a crucial factor that most existing studies have missed in their research.
Second, by asking Question 2, “What would you consider to be the main factor(s) that contributed most to your move?”, and Question 3, “What is the main change you experienced during the move?” (see Figure 1), it was discovered that for the Kalimkhola community, the terms “land-grabbing” or “land-grabber” (e.g., DCGL/DCGT, TA Kanyenda, or Illovo) are not as important as existing studies often aim to identify. Although the Kalimkhola community members are still bitter towards the “land-grabbers”, especially towards TA Kanyenda, their current hardships, and the main reasons for their complaints, are changes in their “environment”, such as poor soil conditions and insufficient access to water. More importantly, environmental change contributed to changes of their identity. In fact, “environmental satisfaction” was more important than their original community or identity. In other words, it can be argued that land-grabbing is not solely about land rights but is also connected to changes of identity.
Third, by asking Question 4, “Has there been any cultural change or loss during your move?” (see Figure 1), it is found that environmental change, or displacement, led to a loss of important traditional female culture, such as the chinamwali ceremony. Since Kalimkhola community members have been scattered, they live far away from each other, which makes it harder for them to continue such a tradition. However, even the community members who live close to each other in the Kalimkhola village had not been able to perform chinamwali. This is, again, due to environmental change, which has limited their energy and time available to continue and perform such a traditional event. A similar situation also occurred for the community members who live in Kaongozi, who no longer perform traditional dances, such as chioda and malipenga, due to environmental change [38].
By conducting in-depth interviews, this research successfully achieved its main goals: (1) land-grabbing leads not only to economic loss but also to a loss of the traditional culture of its local community; (2) although the initial reasons for the community’s complaints may have been land-grabbing or displacement, environmental change is at the heart of their complaints. Also, having experienced displacement twice contributed to the strong resistance of the community against land-grabbing. Additionally, throughout the research, it was discovered that a faction of the Chipembere community merged with the Kalimkhola community.
The findings and the accomplishments of this research show the importance of in-depth interviews, or close interactions, with a specific community. Also, it can be argued that existing land-grabbing studies regarding the sugarcane industry in Dwangwa have been limited in the sense that they heavily focus on the identification of land-grabbers. This is not to argue that defining or identifying “land-grabbers” is not important, because identification remains a crucial task to determine the relevant source(s), and thereby begin to eradicate land-grabbing in Dwangwa. Also, it is understandable that most studies concentrate on identifying the source(s) of land-grabbing in Dwangwa, as this issue has received attention in recent years. However, these studies have only used the community’s perspectives and voices (mostly their complaints) in identifying the land-grabbers for a selected period during a specific event. Consequently, only a partial understanding of the land-grabbing process has been studied, and more importantly, the actual factor (environmental change) that has contributed to the changes of lifestyle and reality affecting the community’s “current” experience have been ignored. Further, using such a method “generalized” the affected communities into Kazilira dambo farmers, when different communities are evident within this group. What should also be emphasized is that by looking at the findings of this research, one can argue that land-grabbing studies have the potential to broaden the research area, as land-grabbing is clearly connected to changes of culture and traditions.
However, there is a lack of follow-up studies. Researchers should deeply analyze land-grabbing in Dwangwa from the more “current” perspectives of these concerned communities. This process will lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the issues. Such accomplishments can only be achieved by conducting close interactions and in-depth interviews with specific local communities.


This work was supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea Grant funded by the Korean Government (NRF-362-2010-1-B00003).


I would like to thank the Kalimkhola community members who shared insights of their experiences. Without their openness and warm hearts, this research would not have been possible.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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This case will be more specifically dealt with in Section 3.2.
TAs are considered custodians of the cultural and traditional values of the community. They control customary land and perform a (semi)judicial function by dealing with customary disputes over land. Further, as they act as chairpersons for Area Development Committees, the TAs play a large role in mobilizing their people to participate in any developmental activities [31].
It must be noted that, based on the Land Act 2016, land is categorized as either public land (government land and unallocated customary land) or private land (customary estate, leasehold, or freehold) [32]. However, as the Kazilira dambo case happened prior to the commencement of the Land Act 2016, the land categorization here is based on Land Act 1965 cap 57:01 [33].
All the land-grabbing incidences in Dwangwa took place on customary land. Although customary land is considered the property of the people of Malawi, it is vested in perpetuity to the president according to the Land Act 1965 cap 57:01 [33]. This means the Malawi citizens’ tenants own their land. The structure and position of customary land is a part of the British colonial legacy, making it a part of public land or crown land, which was to provide easier access for the settler community via private titles [14].
This hierarchy is known to start from the TA at the top and sub-TA, group village head (GVH), and village head (VH), accordingly [35].
GVH is a leader or chief of a number of villages that are guided by village heads (VH).
During the interview, it was discovered that the Kalimkhola community consisted of people who moved from Matiki, where the Dwangwa Illovo Sugar Plantation is located (see <Map 1>), to Kazilira dambo in the 1970s. This means that the community has members who have experienced displacement twice. The male and female groups included two men and four women who experienced displacement twice. In this paper, these six people will be referred to as the “six elders”.
This is contrary to the experience of the Mafupa, Chipembere, and Chazuka communities who settled in Kaongozi, as they argued that they were forced to move to Kaongozi [37].
Here, a clarification is made. Most existing studies focused on the Kazilira dambo case portray the displaced community as Kazilira dambo farmers. This is a misunderstanding, as it appears that the displaced communities are one large community. However, different communities (such as the Kalimkhola community) lived “near” Kazilira dambo and “worked in” Kazilira dambo to cultivate crops. In other words, people who work in Kazilira dambo are from different communities and remain in custody of their own piece of land within Kazilira dambo, which is within their community. Accordingly, their second displacement was within Kalimkhola, from the place near Kazilira dambo to the current location, which is further away from Kazilira dambo. However, in order to prevent any confusion, the second displacement will be referred to as Kazilira dambo to Kalimkhola village in this paper.
In fact, 45 interviewees (including the GVH) in this research consisted of the members who live very far away from the village. However, when the GVH contacted them for the interview, they all came to participate as part of the Kalimkhola community.
Figure 1. Dwangwa, Nkhotakota district, land use change between 1975 and 2015. Source: [11].
Figure 1. Dwangwa, Nkhotakota district, land use change between 1975 and 2015. Source: [11].
Land 08 00187 g001
Table 1. Main Questions.
Table 1. Main Questions.
1Question: Could you tell me the history of your move?
Purpose: To understand and see the full displacement process from community’s point of view.
To check what types of crucial information are missing in existing studies connected to land-grabbing in Dwangwa.
2What would you consider to be the main factor(s) that contributed most to your move?
Purpose: To analyze land-grabbers from the community’s point of view.
3What is the main change you experienced during the move?
Purpose: To analyze the consequence of displacement other than economic loss.
4Has there been any cultural change or loss during your move?
Purpose: To specify question 3 and analyze whether land-grabbing can be connected to areas of study other than political science.

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Bae, Y.J. A Displaced Community’s Perspective on Land-Grabbing in Africa: The Case of the Kalimkhola Community in Dwangwa, Malawi. Land 2019, 8, 187.

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Bae YJ. A Displaced Community’s Perspective on Land-Grabbing in Africa: The Case of the Kalimkhola Community in Dwangwa, Malawi. Land. 2019; 8(12):187.

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Bae, Yuh Jin. 2019. "A Displaced Community’s Perspective on Land-Grabbing in Africa: The Case of the Kalimkhola Community in Dwangwa, Malawi" Land 8, no. 12: 187.

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