Blantyre – A land ownership battle dating back nearly 150 years between villagers and commercial tea growers has resurfaced in Malawi’s southeastern districts of Mulanje and Thyolo.
The battle has resurfaced as hand-crafted teas curated and blended by the United Kingdom’s Rare Tea Company and grown by Satemwa Tea and Coffee Estates in Thyolo district were successfully introduced to the United States market.
Malawi’s Embassy in Washington this week said various brands were featured at Jerome Town’s Caduceus Cellars Tasting Room in Arizona to help fund scholarships through the Rare Tea Company’s nonprofit arm, Rare Charity.
Caduceus Cellars Tasting Room manager, Mr Brian Sullivan, said the brands were Masala Chai, Lost Malawi English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Green Tea and Mint, and Lemon Blend.
Malawi was the first country in Africa to grow tea commercially.
Mr Alexander Cathcart Kay, owner of Satemwa Tea and Coffee Estate, said, “It is exciting and gratifying to see Satemwa specialty teas find their way into high quality establishments like Caduceus. Satemwa has struggled to make progress in the US market over the years and the support received from the Malawi Embassy, through their Honorary Consul and the commitment of the Rare Tea Company makes an enormous difference.”
Founded in 1923, Satemwa is a third generation family-owned tea and coffee estate in Malawi’s Shire Highlands.
But not everyone is thrilled that firms like Satemwa are making profits.
Around 150 years ago, the British colonial government started seizing the prime land on which the estates operate, and locals have been battling ever since to reclaim their territory.
Under the banner of the Centre for Democracy and Economic Development Initiative (CDEDI), the locals have been engaging the Malawi government and human rights bodies to address their grievances.
In a letter to the Lands Minister, CDEDI said they had briefed President Lazarus Chakwera on their issue and he had directed the relevant authorities to act on the matter with urgency – but movement had been slow.
“The president’s response, which was dated January 14, 2021, is an acknowledgement that he is aware about the land crisis and tragedy in Thyolo and Mulanje districts, hence the need to act on this seemingly ticking bomb with speed and the urgency it deserves,” CDEDI says.
CDEDI wants the estates to cede idle land to the landless.
“There is a lot of idle land in Thyolo and Mulanje districts which is in the hands of the estate owners, when the rightful owners of the land are left destitute,” says CDEDI executive director Mr Sylvester Namiwa. “Failure to correct this injustice is a recipe for civil strife in this area in the not-so-distant future.”
The administrative councils of the two districts acknowledge a tough balancing act in juggling the demands of locals and investors.
CDEDI says most of Malawi’s land disputes are a legacy of Malawi’s legal system, which is a British colonial legacy.
“Going through the laws pertaining to land, it is so evident that they were drafted in a way that they protected the interests of the British, who at that particular time were Malawi’s colonial masters,” says Mr Namiwa.
The British seized vast tracts of land for tea, coffee and macadamia estates, as well as for tungsten mining.
Mr Namiwa says British Camellia Group, whose largest shareholder is the British royal family, owns a tea and coffee-growing subsidiary known as Eastern Produce Malawi (EPM), and sugar firm ILLOVO, previous known as LONRHO. ILLOVO has land in the southern and central districts of Chikwawa and Nkhoto-Kota.
There have been attempts to amend the laws to make it easier for locals to get title.
In 2016, the Law Commission drafted a Land Bill, whose Section 9 Sub-Section 2 proposed: “Freehold land acquired by a person who is not a citizen of Malawi prior to the commencement of this Act shall be converted to leasehold interest, unless the person currently in possession of such land shall have acquired Malawian citizenship in accordance with the Malawi Citizenship Act within a period of three years of the commencement of this Act.”
Sub-section 3 of Section 9 went on, “Where a holder of freehold land fails to comply with subsection (2) the land shall, at the expiry of the three years, revert to Government.”
CDEDI says an “invisible hand worked some magic and sections 9 sub-section 2 and 3 of the Land Bill were removed to read ‘Freehold land shall not be allocated or granted to anyone’.
Mr Namiwa also claims, “In addition, most of the estates, apart from those directly connected to the Queen of England, have changed hands several times without the involvement of government. It will be very interesting to know under which conditions such transactions are undertaken in the absence of freehold papers in the land management system of the country.”
Malawi contributes three percent of global tea exports, making it Africa’s second-biggest producer of the leaf.