News Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

In the first of a series of features focusing on FAO projects in southern Africa, Leyla Alyanak reports on a new land law in Mozambique that puts land rights back into the hands of the community

New land law entitles people to security in Mozambique

Mozambican women at work in the fields

A simple hoe is the only tool with which Elisa Matlombe keeps her five children alive. From dawn to dusk, she struggles on her tiny patch of land in the southeast corner of Mozambique, growing a little maize and groundnuts.

Nor is there a Mr Matlombe to bring money home from the mines in neighbouring South Africa or a job in nearby Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Her husband was beaten to death by Renamo insurgents during the country's 16-year war. As if this was not enough to endure, Elisa faces the constant threat of eviction. She has no clear title to the land and a local developer has laid claim to it.

But help may be on its way for Mrs Matlombe and the hundreds of thousands like her who fled from their fields during the war, if the Mozambican Parliament passes a new land law drafted with assistance from an FAO project.

The new law, taken up by Parliament in November, would give legal backing to a land policy designed to recognize both current realities and traditional land tenure systems. It would replace a law enacted in 1979, shortly after Mozambique won its long war for independence from Portugal.

Reflecting the nationalist and socialist stance of Mozambique's fledgling government, the 1979 law stipulated that farmers must actually use the land in order to retain rights to it. The intention at the time was to support the conversion of large estates abandoned by Portuguese settlers into state farms.

By the time Elisa Matlombe returned to her hilltop village of Munhuangue in 1993, Mozambique was attempting to revive its war-shattered economy through market-oriented policies prescribed as part of a structural adjustment programme. She found that her land, part of a 40 hectare tract that the village had traditionally used for grazing and giving lots to new families, had been listed as abandoned by the authorities and granted as a concession to an investor.

"I had nowhere else to go, no other home," she recalled. "I had no choice. I had to stay." So she planted her field and got on with the business of feeding her family.

Many other Mozambican farmers and communities found themselves in the same predicament, as investors rushed to acquire land rights granted by the government -- the state owns all land in the country, as it will under the proposed new legislation. And many of these concessions led to land disputes between the communities and outside investors.

Elsewhere in the Munhuangue area, peasants' leader Paulo Manhiça says, "Officials are pressuring people to agree to divide the land between the community and the speculator. But we are saying no, we are subsistence farmers, we have no other resources but the land."

The new land policy and the draft code now being debated that would give the policy legal authority are likely to ease such conflicts.

"Our intention with the legal revision was to provide a mechanism which protects wider community rights over land communities were not using but which they considered historically or culturally theirs," said Chris Tanner, team leader of two FAO projects designed to overhaul the country's land policy and law. "The intention was to protect them from a kind of an invasion from the private sector by so-called investors."

He adds: "If you don't respect people's land rights, especially where they have no other way to earn a living, you'll be marginalizing a very large proportion of the population and relegating them to a life of absolute poverty." Already, some 60 percent of the population live below the poverty line without secure access to land.

The FAO team began working on the land issue in January 1995, three months after elections that had sealed the end of Mozambique's devastating war. A reconstituted national land commission installed in May was given three months to prepare a new land policy, with the expectation that this policy would form the basis for revised land legislation.

The FAO team helped on the legal and technical side and insisted the reform should consider all land users, not just small farmers. Otherwise, Tanner and his colleagues believed, the rights of small farmers would never be respected. The land policy now guarantees the land rights of all Mozambicans and recognises the role of traditional land management systems.

"We came up with a new concept called a rural community, which would be defined by customary occupation," said the FAO team leader. "This covers a bigger area than what they're using at the moment. It includes areas in fallow or which are still uncultivated, forests, water rights, grazing land, areas which are being held for future generations or those which are sacred or culturally important. Within these areas, the local community is free to allocate, inherit or transmit land among its members according to local practices."

Once the new land policy was in place, FAO backed a legal team to work on bringing the law into line with the new policy. A final draft of the new law was completed and became a discussion document for a broad-based and successful national land conference held last June. FAO's support to the land commission included the development of a new national land programme and framework to implement the new land policy and law.

While the draft law still allows investors to gain access to community land, this can no longer be done behind the community's back. "The new law gives rights to traditional leaders, and no land can be ceded to developers without consulting first with the community," said João Muthombene, coordinator of ORAM, an organization that defends farmers' rights in land disputes.

The document also contains a key clause stipulating that the absence of a formal registered title document does not prejudice rights secured through the new law.

That clause alone will represent a major step towards restoring a secure life for hundreds of thousands of Mozambicans, people like Elisa Matlombe. "If I had a wish," she says, "it would be for more tools. But I am happy if I can just keep my plot of land."


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