Oliver Makwalo has 18 wives and 114 children. Before his 500-acre farm in Chisumbanje was plowed over in 2008, he ran his family like a corporation: Sons worked in the fields; wives and daughters pounded maize into meal; children did their homework, all on a sprawling homestead of huts mingled in with the trees.
Like much of the developing world, it’s not always clear who owns the land in Chisumbanje. People like Makwalo have been living and farming and grazing cattle here for hundreds of years. They know which plot is theirs from tradition and custom, not from a land title or ownership deed. That’s why, when their company was taken away and then given back, farmers didn’t find out about it from the company or the government. They got the news from their chief, the traditional leader with the knowledge, and the power, to engage in the process on their behalf.
Once Green Fuel plowed over their land and planted sugarcane, the company announced they were saving 10 percent of their holdings to be distributed back to the villagers. It was up to the chiefs, as members of a local “land committee,” which would divide the land up and distribute it back to them.
Almost immediately, the system broke down. Former residents who hadn’t lived in Chisumbanje for years returned to claim plots of land, leaving less for the people who had had theirs plowed over. The chiefs allocated one plot to each household, rather than each individual, without taking into account who had more land originally. Makwalo’s family, with its 150 members, was counted as just one household and got the same plot, the size of half a football field, as everyone else.
And Makwalo, it turns out, was one of the lucky ones. Of the more than 1,700 households that were displaced by Green Fuel, only around 500 were compensated with a new plot of land. When villagers complained, the chief told them that the land had never been theirs and that it had been granted to their grandfathers only temporarily. The chief was the rightful owner.
Meanwhile, the chief and the head men allocated themselves one plot per person, granting their own polygamous families vast swaths of irrigated land. Makwalo now pays $100 per year to rent an extra plot from one of the head men.
Other farmers ended up with nonirrigated land several hours’ walk from their homes. They spent weeks clearing brush and cutting down trees to get their new plots ready for planting, only to be told by the chief that the land had been re-allocated to the company. They would have to start over on a new plot. “They were just using us to clear their land,” one farmer told me.
Soon, desperation started to turn the villagers against each other. Neighbors started stealing maize and sending cattle to graze on each other’s crops. The only people who could still grow cotton, the region’s traditional cash crop, were the head men. Many of the other farmers gave up on income entirely and started growing vegetables for food. One of the farmers I met had bought a freezer and generator so he could sell fish by the side of the road. On good days, he earns around $3.
The community eventually started fighting back against the company, stealing sugarcane and destroying tractors. Two years ago, someone burned down more than 1,000 acres of sugarcane fields. Last year, local media reported multiple clashes between security forces and local farmers. After that, the situation reached a tenuous stalemate: Every time the community held a protest or swiped some sugarcane, the company turned off the irrigation water for a few days.
But even this mutually destructive truce turned out to be unstable. Last summer, the company started impounding community members’ cattle, their last source of income. Green Fuel tells community members they are grazing their cattle on company land. The community says the borders of Green Fuel’s property aren’t marked, that the company’s land has been their grazing ground for decades, and that security guards are simply impounding cattle on sight. The company charges $4 for every day it holds the cattle and reportedly doesn’t feed them in the time it takes community members to scrape together the impound fee.
Since 2013, the communities here haven’t met with Green Fuel representatives directly. All information comes filtered through the chief and the head men and usually in the form of decrees — Green Fuel is taking a new block of land, the impound fee is increasing from $3 to $4 — rather than proposals. The protests and vandalism, farmers say, are their only way to communicate with the company. Force is the only way the company has communicated back.
These local authority structures — the corrupt leaders, the divided community, the company using one against the other — aren’t unique to Zimbabwe. The World Bank estimates that more than 90 percent of Africa’s rural land is unregistered or communally owned, most of it administered by traditional chiefs.
Since the end of colonialism, developing countries have been pressured by international institutions and NGOs (like mine) to recognize traditional power structures. In communities without formal land titles or clear boundaries, it makes sense to empower one of its members to speak on behalf of the people living there.
On its own terms, this effort has succeeded. Dozens of countries now recognize customary or collective ownership and have standardized the role of traditional leaders in administering it. Across the developing world, land laws require buyers to consult traditional leaders before they purchase land.
The problem, though, is that these structures were never designed to come up against multinational corporations. Giving chiefs unassailable power over their communities makes sense when their primary role is settling boundary disputes or ordering their younger constituents to pay a pension to one of their older ones. In rural areas, where literacy is limited and the central government is weak or absent, it is, in fact, essential. But when traditional leaders start negotiating land purchases in the tens of millions of dollars or selling tracts the size of small European countries with little transparency or accountability, it’s a recipe for disaster.
In South Sudan, traditional authorities granted a timber company a 49-year lease on a plot of land the size of Delaware for just $25,000. In Indonesia, traditional leaders sold their constituents’ land without mentioning that they were receiving a salary from the company they were selling it to.
In most countries that recognize traditional ownership, communities lose all legal rights over their land as soon as it’s purchased. This allows companies to promise jobs and development to traditional leaders — or simply pay them off — and then cut off all communication once the new title is issued. In 2012, Indonesia’s National Land Agency recorded 8,000 ongoing land conflicts, many over palm oil plantations and forestry developments.
These are the kinds of stories that make me pessimistic about the ability of human rights NGOs to prevent future Chisumbanjes. Global demand for agricultural land has increased 14-fold since the 2008 spike in global food prices. Most of that land is rural, un-tenured, and informally administered — exactly the conditions that make it vulnerable to the Green Fuels of the world.