Green Belt Initiative: What has gone wrong?

Since the inception of Green Belt Initiative (GBI) nine years ago, there have been some stumbling blocks that have threatened its survival and success.

According to the first national coordinator, Professor Kanyama Phiri, the initiative’s stumbling block has been land acquisition for the irrigation projects and schemes among many others.

“The land to be used for these schemes belongs to people and when government tells them to lease their piece of land for large-scale farming, most of the smallholder farmer’s fear that government will grab their land,” says Kanyama Phiri.

As such, some people whose land lies within the irrigable sites are reluctant to let government and other stakeholders to use it for large-scale and small-scale farming, he says.

The resistance by the people to lease their land is also noted in a report by development and governance expert Dr. Henry Chingaipe, conomics Professor Ephraim Chirwa, Political Economist Michael Chasukwa and political scientist Blessings Chinsinga. Titled The Political Economy of Land Alienation: Exploring Land Grabs in Green Belt Initiative, the report said that GBI ensures the commercial farmers have access to large tracts of land for agriculture at the highest possible economies of scale.

“The large growers need vast acres of land for large-scale production. Land has to be identified for them along the GBI. Large growers will have to engage in discussions with local assemblies to relocate villages for intensified farming by using heavy machinery.

Irrigation farming needs sustained funding to succeed

“These will lease the land for a specified period of time as per the current land policy and, thereafter, determine their priority crops to produce and production strategies,” reads in part the report.

Further the report notes that the main concern is that the GBI is widely seen as facilitating both local and foreign land grabs of smallholder farmers who own land designated for the GBI. As further demonstrated above, this has serious implications about the rights of the dispossessed farmers in the course of GBI implementation, especially following the impasse in land reforms for almost over 10 years now.

“The implementation of the GBI raises several concerns. Malawi is a nation of farmers in which land ownership and distribution is highly unequal. It is, for instance, estimated that one in every three smallholder farmers cultivate between 0.5 and 1 ha of land, 55 percent of smallholder farmers have less than 1 ha of land and 70 percent cultivate less than a hectare and devote 70 percent of the land to maize, the main staple. While about 2 million smallholder farmers cultivate on average less than 1ha, 30 000 estates cultivate 100-500 hectares,” reads the report.

The three argue that GBI is being implemented against the backdrop of stalled land reforms which kicked off with a Presidential Commission on Land Reform in 1996. A land policy was developed and endorsed in July 2002 but legislation needed to implement it does not yet exist. A Special Law Commission to facilitate the enactment of the enabling legislative framework for land matters wound up its work more than seven years ago.

Lack of political will

However, according to some sources within GBI, it is lack of political will that is frustrating the success of the irrigation projects in the country.

The GBI concept paper note says that the initiative aims at consolidating the gains made from interventions such as Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp) by intensifying irrigation farming, livestock and fisheries development, among others.

Yet, there is nothing on the ground to match this rhetoric.

In its 2011—2016 strategic plan, GBI was expected to increase sustainable irrigation farming from 90 000 hectares then to 200 0000 hectares and increase agricultural exports.

But so far, much has not been done, according to the official who did not want to be named due to restrictions on speaking to the media.

“Apart from lack of political will, there was departure from the initial plan of developing all four pilot sites at the same time. Along the way, there were changes in priorities and government decided to pursue one project only instead of doing the four of them simultaneously,” he claims.

But Kanyama Phiri begs to differ. He says the move was strategic.

“We thought of concentrating on the sugar scheme project in Salima first before embarking on the other three sites,” says Kanyama Phiri.

Inconsistent funding

In 2013, The Nation reported that records at the Treasury and Office of the President showed the project had failed to take off due to government’s lack of interest to finance it.

The Bingu wa Mutharika regime in 2010 allocated K2 billion but all that funding apparently went back to Treasury due to “low absorption capacity” at the project secretariat.

Some agriculture experts say that at its inception, in 2009/10 the GBI received K2 00 million, an amount which was too little for the project of such magnitude.

However, in the second year after its establishment, the GBI received K2 billion and K800 million in the 2012/13 fiscal year.

Interestingly, government has been inconsistent in funding GBI over the years. It has been noted that during some years, government has been allocating very little amount of money to GBI while in some years, there have been huge sums of money allocated.

For instance, in 2013/14, K1 billion was allocated but GBI only received K500 million. In 2014/15 Treasury disbursed only K450 million out of K2 billion allocated.

This poor funding of GBI projects has been criticised by several civil society organisations (CSOs) including Civil Society Agriculture Network (CisaNet) which in 2015 took government to task over the delay and little amount of money it was disbursing.

Former national director for CisaNet Tamani Nkhono Mvula appealed to government to disburse funding to operationalise the initiative.

“We are deeply concerned that rhetoric is not matching action. Government should make sure that money is disbursed timely and adequately to finance operations at the Green Belt Initiative secretariat,” said Nkhono-Mvula.

For example,  Nthola Ilora-Ngosi in Karonga and Malombe Scheme in Mangochi need over K2 billion. Since then, these sites still remain without development.

Experts say in the absence of clear land agreement terms between the local people and government, clear policy direction and proper funding to the irrigation schemes, it will take many years for GBI projects in the country to be fully completed. n


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