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Fresh land grabs in Zimbabwe kick villagers off ancestral lands

April 29, 2021
topic:Indigenous people
tags:#indigenous rights, #land grabbing, #Emmerson Mnangagwa, #farmland
by:Cyril Zenda
From the vantage point of a small anthill, Luke Matsilele, a 63-year old villager in Chilonga area, southeast of Zimbabwe, looks with sadness at what, until now, had safely been his family’s primary source of livelihood - 15 hectares of prime land. He still cannot reconcile himself to the harsh reality that the crop he is harvesting would be his last ever on this piece of land that was first cleared by his grandfather more than half a century ago.

“These people are cruel, very cruel,” says Matsilele, shaking his head. “In fact they are worse than the colonialists!” In Zimbabwean parlance, ‘these people’ has its own special meaning. It refers to the ruling elites, and every time this loaded phrase is used it serves to convey a deep sense of hopelessness.

Evicted to Make Way For Fodder Grass

Matsilele and nearly 14,000 other villagers in this remote south eastern part of Zimbabwe are experiencing this sense of abject hopelessness after the government suddenly ordered them to vacate the 13,000 hectares of their ancestral lands to make way for the farming of lucerne grass to make stockfeed for a dairy firm. The owner of Dendairy, the milk-processing firm, is closely linked to President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

When the villagers first encountered rumours about their planned eviction, they confronted the Vice President, Constantino Chiwenga, who assured them that no such thing would ever happen. 

“No one is being moved from their land,” Chiwenga assured the villagers last year. “There is no other country which will be created. God did his job and finished it. He is not going to create another world. Let’s forget about it […] we have plenty of land, so let’s open it. Let’s create and give our people jobs here.”

However, suddenly in February, a law to facilitate the evictions was gazetted, ordering the villagers to vacate the land immediately. With the help of human rights organisations, the villagers challenged the gazetted law in court, which ruled in their favour. The government went back to the drawing board and changed the law, this time to make this private lucerne grass project appear to be like a national project in order to give it precedence over the rights and livelihoods of the villagers. 

The villagers, through their chiefs and other community leaders, remained adamant. Realising that the villagers would not budge, the government resorted to intimidation to extract their consent. The villagers understood the message when they started noticing an increase of men in military fatigues moving around the targeted villages - attending each and every meeting and taking copious notes. In no time, the community leaders were expressing support for the project, blaming “misinformation” for their previous resistance.

“We know these people, so we were not surprised at all when our leaders suddenly changed from the agreed position that we are not going anywhere to sing praises for the proposed project,” a dejected Matsilele said. “We cannot blame them… we all saw the soldiers and policemen that have been deployed here.”

This is yet another spirited resistance to forcible eviction that has come to nothing.

Other Evictions are Taking Place

In the Dinde area, in the coal-rich Hwange district in the western part of the country, villagers are also furious about ‘these people’. These villagers are unhappy that a Chinese firm has started exploration activities in their area without any consultation having taken place. Coal being abundant in this area, the villagers know that the next stage is their eviction. 

In the past decade, many other villagers have been forcibly evicted from their ancestral land without being given alternative land or even compensation for their loss. These include the people of Marange in the eastern Manicaland province who were evicted from their land after diamond deposits had been found. Then there were the people of Mwenezi, also in the southeastern province of Masvingo, who were evicted to make way for a massive dam. And there were the people of Chisumbanje who were evicted to make way for an ethanol project. Many other evictions that are smaller in magnitude have gone unnoticed.

State-Sponsored Human Rights Violations

Farai Maguwu, director of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance, a non-governmental organisation, told FairPlanet in an interview that land seizures by the ruling elites were increasing at a worrisome pace.

“Things have not been the same since the discovery of diamonds in Marange when Zimbabwe’s ruling elites were introduced to natural resource looting,” Maguwu said. 

“The state-sponsored gross human rights violations in Marange, which included displacement without compensation and misuse of the country’s security services against citizens in pursuit of narrow self interests of elites, became a new standard and part of an unwritten policy,” he added. “Our entire natural resource sector has become a minefield of organized crime, which is reflected in how the special grants are issued, violation of community rights and undermining of national interests by facilitating smuggling of Zimbabwe’s natural wealth. It was going to be a different case if [the] government was trying to fight the problem, but it is actually the most powerful in our midst who are organising the criminal networks.”

International Human Rights Law violated

“Forced displacement without compensation, termed as forced evictions, violates international human rights law,” pointed out Human Rights Watch Southern Africa director, Dewa Mavhinga. “The African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, which Zimbabwe ratified, requires in article 3(1)(a) that states parties ‘refrain from, prohibit and prevent arbitrary displacement of populations.’ That Zimbabwe signed and ratified the African Union Convention for the protection and assistance of internally displaced people should stop the ZANU-PF government from pushing the people of Chilonga into arbitrary relocation.” 

Mavhinga added that “the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has stated that the right to property includes the recognition of communities’ traditional and collective ownership of land and their protection from forced evictions.”

Farmland Lying Fallow

These land seizures are ironically taking place when the more than seven million hectares of prime land that were seized from commercial farmers of European ancestry under former President Robert Mugabe’s controversial land reform programme remain underutilised.

Image: IWMI Flickr Photos

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Embed from Getty Images
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa. The owner of Dendairy, the milk-processing firm for whose stockfeed some 14,000 villagers face eviction, is closely linked to President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
© NurPhoto
Embed from Getty Images
Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Under Mugabe's rule, land had been seized from farmers of European descent.
© Eric Vandeville
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