Making land laws work

Oliva Lale’s face said it all. The mother of four smiled broadly as she became one of the first Malawians to register customary land.

Now in her early 40s, she gladly paced on the boundary of her maize field in Kathumba Village close to Mpoto Lagoon in Phalombe as surveyors took down notes.

“I inherited this land from my mother who died in August and I will pass it on to my children in the same way. This is the main source of livelihood. Without it, we would be starving every year—with no spot to call home,” she says.

Lale (R) studies a satellite image of Maone to locate her maize field

Lale’s culture requires that she wills the land to her three daughters and she wants to ensure they get it in full.

 “My children will need this land to beat hunger and poverty.  When I die, someone may spring up and claim that they own this land. This is why I am happy to register this land today. The certificate will be a symbol of ownership,” she says.

No wonder,  Lale braved a sweltering sunshine scorched crops in the rural setting to lead land surveyors Innocent Makoza, Sylvia Kasiya and a member of a newly formed customary land committee led by group village head (GVH) Maone in mapping the borders of her land. This is the first step towards ensuring the land is registered before obtaining certificate of ownership.

Her neighbours looked on as the team took down notes on a narrow footpath marking the length and breadth of the plot. Now and again, they paused to locate her field on a satellite image, pinpointing unique physical features on the plot.

 “We don’t use fixed boundaries, but known physical features such as roads, footpaths, trees, ridges, rivers,  hills and gullies. We encourage neighbours to be available and in agreement when locating boundaries of customary land owned by these people,” says Makoza, marking the stops on the map.

Interestingly, Lale identified a green spot where the mapping exercise begun.

“This is a hedge my mother planted shortly after I married 26 years ago,” she says. “Before she died, she took  me around the plot, showing me the boundaries.”

The next turn was a house roofed with iron sheets, represented by a grey spot on the satellite picture. Without any interjections from the neighbours, her aunts, the team walked to the finishing line, with a handheld gadget recording the location on the ground and on the satellite map.

This, coupled with answers to questions posed by a data collector completing a form, will help Lale acquire a certificate in line with customary land laws Parliament passed in 2016. The proof of ownership entitles her to use that piece of land as collateral to obtain  loans from financial institutions, including banks.

Most importantly, she can triumph over people falsely laying claim to the land—and she has witnessed some land disputes culminate to protracted cases, clan wars, fistfights and hackings.

This is why she is happy that her household is among 179 in Maone, Traditional Authority (T/A) Nazombe, which are in the frame to register customary land, thanks to a project funded by the European Union through Oxfam.

Oxfam is working with the Department of Lands, district councils, chiefs and area development committees to trial the  implementation of the three-year-old land law. Similar trials are underway in two villages under  T/As Mwankhunikira in Rumphi and Lukwa in Kasungu.

According to Oxfam land governance programme officer Andrew Mkandawire, the change agents wanted to roll out the project before the land law came into force “to learn from experience”.

He reckons plans are underway to deploy land clerks in all T/As and establish district land registries in compliance with the new law.

He states: “We are also waiting for government to put in place customary land tribunals and committees to settle disputes at T/A levels. In T/As Nazombe and Lukwa, arrangements to have these committees in place are almost over.

“So far the response has been positive. People have been eagerly waiting for this process and we are certain that the move to register all customary land will reduce the suffering of people who own land without proof of ownership or secure tenure.”

And GVH Maone, who hears an average of one land-related case a month, is happy with the pace. He looks forward to fewer cases and more time for activities likely to uplift his family and area.

“Land conflicts tend to be tense and protracted. If people are not satisfied with a village head’s ruling, they can appeal to a GVH. If they don’t agree, they can appeal to the T/A. Most of them take over a year.

“This will be history if we register every piece of land. Those laying claim to any plot will be required to produce a certificate and we have maps that can be interpreted by anyone. It won’t take time for both parties to locate their plot.”

The chief, who heads the village customary land committee, has been handling land disputes since 1986.

“At  first, we, traditional leaders were afraid that the new law and land committees would hijack our powers, but we are still in control. The participatory process will prevent conflicts that divide us so that we can concentrate on things that unite us and make our lives better.” n

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