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Seeds of Resistance, Harvests of Hope: Farmers halt a land grab in Mozambique

Founding members of the new Tsakane Farmers Association in Xai-Xai, Mozambique, where they have applied for their own land after resisting a large-scale rice plantation. (Credit: Justiça Ambiental)

Founding members of the new Tsakane Farmers Association in Xai-Xai, Mozambique, where they have applied for their own land after resisting a large-scale rice plantation. (Credit: Justiça Ambiental)

Originally Published on Food Tank, Friday, October 26, 2018

(also available in Portuguese)

On July 26, 2018, farmers in Xai-Xai, Mozambique, achieved a milestone. They met to formalize their new farmers’ association, elect leaders, and prepare a petition to the local government for land. The association, christened Tsakane, which means “happy” in the local Changana language, was the culmination of six years of resistance to a Chinese land grab that had sparked protest and outrage. The association now has a request pending for its own land.

With the Chinese rice plantation floundering, the Tsakane farmers offer a vivid demonstration that perhaps the best way to grow more food is to give poor food producers more land.

The rise and fall of a land grab

I first visited the vast rice fields of Xai-Xai, three hours up the coast from the capital city of Maputo, in 2017. Since 2008, Mozambique had been one of the leading targets of large-scale agricultural investment projects, widely denounced as land grabs by critics. Community resistance had halted most such projects in Mozambique, including ProSAVANA, the controversial Brazil-Japan initiative, which was intended to be the largest land grab in Africa.

This one had taken hold. The Wanbao Grain and Oil company had taken over a Chinese “friendship farm” in 2011 with a 50-year lease on a 50,000-acre concession from the Mozambique government as part of the Lower Limpopo Irrigation District (RBL for its Portuguese name). With Chinese state financing, the company contracted the farming to four Chinese agriculture groups, developing 17,000 acres into rice fields fed by rehabilitated colonial-era irrigation canals.

On paper, the Wanbao Africa Agriculture Development Limited (WAADL) promised what large-scale foreign investment in agriculture might offer to a poor, hungry, underdeveloped country like Mozambique. Here was desperately needed capital invested in underutilized fertile land, rebuilding productive infrastructure and bringing in modern agricultural practices. Wanbao was training local farmers in its modern farming methods and setting them up as contract farmers with a stake in the project. What’s more, the project wasn’t growing cash crops, it was growing food. And not for people back in China, as the land grab stereotype suggested; it was growing rice for the Mozambican market.

Heavily promoted by Mozambique’s president at the time, Armando Guebuza, the rice was marketed under his recommended brand name, “Bom Gusto,” meaning Good Taste.

That wasn’t the taste left in the mouths of women who had lost their land, then fought to get it back.

No consultation or consent

The difference between a large-scale agricultural development project and a land grab is consultation and consent, and this one had neither. Some 7,000 farmers had moved onto the irrigated lands along the Lower Limpopo River in the 1980s after a state farm ceased operations. Farmers there told us they were encouraged to do so by the local government. Many crossed a small bridge built for them by the government to farm rice, maize, and vegetables or to graze their cattle.

Mozambique’s Land Law is one of the most progressive in Africa, recognizing the land rights of peasant farmers whether or not they can show formal title, as long as they have been farming the land for 10 years or more. That applies not only to community or village land, it applies to estate land for which the government holds the formal land title.

Once Wanbao got its land concession, it wasted no time ignoring the Land Law. The bulldozers were there by early 2012. Gizela Zunguze, Gender Coordinator from Justica Ambiental (JA), the Friends of the Earth affiliate in Mozambique, took us to meet some of the farmers affected by the project.

In the dusty courtyard under the shade of a mango tree in the neighborhood of Brutela, Meldina Matsimbe told us she and other farmers had gone down to their lowland fields in January 2012 to find tractors opening roads and irrigation ditches across their fields, planted in maize, cowpeas, and vegetables. “They plowed right through ripe maize,” Matsimbe told us through a translator. Two other women from the village nodded. There had been no consultation with the community, no warning, and no environmental impact assessment, as required by Mozambican law.

With JA’s support, the community protested to the company and the local government authorities. The bulldozers stopped, and government authorities returned most of the land—250 acres used by about 60 families in the community. But some 12 acres still had not been returned.

What did they eat that year after their crops had been destroyed?

“We had nothing to eat,” Matsimbe said. “We had to ask our neighbors for food.”

Angélica Moyane told us a similar story in the neighboring village of Kana Kana. One Sunday in July 2013, a tractor came in unannounced and plowed right through the community’s fields, destroying her garlic, lettuce, maize, onions, and cabbage along with the ripe crops of some 500 other farmers. “We could not even identify our own farms after the Chinese came through,” she said.

Zunguze said JA found Mama Angélica and other farmers camped outside a government office in Xai-Xai demanding answers. Wanbao withdrew its machines a few days later and farmers returned to their ravaged fields. As in Brutela, the company offered no compensation for the destroyed crops, so crucial to small-scale farmers who live from one harvest to the next.

Frustrated by Wanbao’s repeated incursions, the communities organized a march past the Wanbao offices and through the town on May 20, 2014, to the state governor’s office to present a formal petition demanding the return of their land with compensation. Zunguze said the protest was tense, with 400 angry community members marching toward the provincial offices behind a “No to Wanbao” banner. Placards, most hand-written, demanded an end to land grabbing. “We demand respect for our rights,” read one woman’s simple plea. Police tried to halt the march, but after a three-hour standoff, the marchers proceeded to the governor’s office where Mama Angélica presented the petition.

The farmers never got a formal response, but the company land grabbing slowed. The farmers could certainly take pride in resisting this land grab, but their hard lives were no easier now.

Failure to Yield

For better or for worse, Wanbao seemed to be failing, like so many other large-scale agriculture projects in Africa. In 2013, just as the project was bringing more of its acreage into production, floods destroyed 12,500 of the company’s 17,000 acres of rice. The Chinese government canceled a loan in 2015 after concluding that the flood risks were too high. Climate change added insult to injury when a 2016 drought slowed the recovery from the flooding.

In April 2017, the only rice being produced was by contract farmers and some Indians who were subcontracting land. Even the outgrower farmers were dropping out. Wanbao had trained 68 local farmers and had gotten the more successful of them producing on 5 to 10 acres each. But the company ran the outgrower scheme as a commercial operation, charging for services like plowing. They provided credit but required a 50 percent up-front cash payment for inputs, which was difficult for many farmers to afford. Farmers were obligated to sell to the company, and Wanbao paid a fixed and low price for the farmers’ rice, regardless of market prices.

Contract farmer Boavida Madonda of Chimbonhanine told us that Wanbao paid well below market prices, was unreliable in getting seeds and inputs to them on time, and even expected farmers to arrange their own transportation to get inputs to their farms.

“It really isn’t worth it,” he said. He told us he wouldn’t care if the project failed. “It was better before. I was my own boss. We had enough to eat.”

When I returned in October 2017, Wanbao still had not secured financing, though there were always rumors of new money. But the project seemed to be failing. That would be a victory of sorts for the communities, but a hollow one. What would the community have to show for another failed project?

Zunguze was quick and firm when I asked her what the farmers wanted: “Give all the land back to the communities.”

Let farmers grow food

Lost in Wanbao’s struggle to finance the project and the Mozambican government’s continued commitment to it was an obvious question: Wouldn’t the land feed more hungry Mozambicans if the company left and local farmers were organized to grow rice and other food crops?

I’d seen exactly that, in fact, in Marracuene, just two hours down the highway toward Maputo. There I saw 7,000 farmers, mostly women, organized into 19 cooperatives and using rehabilitated colonial-era irrigation to grow food and cash crops year-round. Those women-led coops, affiliated with the National Peasant Union of Mozambique (UNAC), were growing food while improving the land with the adoption of intercropping and other agro-ecological practices. (See earlier articles here and here.)

Instead of giving all the best land and infrastructure—particularly irrigation—to foreign investors who then displace local farmers, why not give the land to those farmers? Help them organize into marketing cooperatives, water use associations, and credit unions. With the formal recognition of the Tsakane Farmers’ Association, the Xai-Xai farmers are planning to do just that. They hope to get collective land title to 750 acres of good land for their 300 members.

“If the associations are registered and the farmers have collective rights to some land, maybe the land grabbing can stop,” Zunguze told me. Association leaders planned to visit neighboring National Farmers Union cooperatives to learn how agro-ecology could help them grow more food for their families and communities.

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