land tenure reforms and the evolving role of traditional authorities in

A Paper
Presented at the Decision Makers’ Meeting on Good Administration of Lands
Land Administration for Poverty Reduction and Economic Growth
Polytech Hotel School in Windhoek, Namibia
7-8 December, 2006
Poverty in Malawi is deep, severe and pervasive, where more than 52% of the population
live below the poverty line1 (IHS 2005). The majority of these are rural based and are largely
dependent on agriculture, and therefore on land, for their livelihood. Considering the fact that
inadequate access to land is a critical contributing factor to food security and poverty in the
country, there is economic sense in handling land issues as a pre-requisite for sustainable
pro-poor growth.
Malawi continues to heavily depend on agriculture, and therefore on land, for the growth of
the economy and sustenance people’s livelihoods. This is particularly true for smallholder
agriculture which contributes the largest proportion (more than 80%) of agricultural
production. Agriculture alone accounts for more than 35% of the country’s Gross Domestic
Product (GDP) and about 90% of export earnings. Smallholder agriculture dominates the
sector and employs more than 80% of the rural labour force. Smallholder agriculture alone
contributes about 30% of GDP, which means that increasing smallholder agricultural
productivity is key to rapid and sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction for
Malawi. However, smallholder agricultural productivity is still low and hampered by, among
other things, poor access to factors of production, especially land and capital.
The Malawi Growth and Development Strategy, which is an overarching strategy for
sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction in Malawi, has identified a number
causes of poverty, one of the most notable causes being poor access to land and land tenure
insecurity. These two feature as one of the major ingredients of low agricultural productivity
among smallholder farmers. The problems of land in Malawi revolve around issues of
access, land tenure security and land use. Due to poor access to agricultural land, most land
constrained smallholder farmers are forced to cultivate on marginal lands, such as steep
slopes, river banks, protected areas etc thereby causing soil erosion and land degradation.
Although Malawi is mainly an agrarian economy and land is probably the most important
basic factor of production, more than 80% of the core poor own less than 0.5 ha. which is by
no means adequate to achieve food security and sustain a decent livelihood given the current
level of technology.
To address this problem, the Government of Malawi has taken bold steps to undertake land
reforms that will lead to increased agricultural productivity in line with the aspirations of the
Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MDGS). In this regard Government adopted a
National Land Policy in 2002 whose goal is to ensure land tenure security, equitable
access to land and reduced land degradation. The policy aims at facilitating the attainment
of broad based, sustainable and harmonious socio-economic development through optimum
and ecologically balanced use of land and land based resources in the country.
Within the context of Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) the Land Policy,
among other things, advocates interventions which aim at providing land to the land
constrained households, promoting productivity on small land holdings, promoting low cost
The poverty line in Malawi is
conservation technologies, integrating gender and HIV/AIDS into land management and
ensuring sustainable environmental and natural resource management.
Existing land distribution in Malawi results from factors such as colonial land policy,
resource distribution policies of the one-party era and population dynamics. Yet, as in most
countries in southern and eastern Africa, much of the existing land policies, till recently, have
their roots in the colonial era. Colonial land policy in Malawi ceded all lands to the British
crown. Crown lands were then selectively allocated as private fiefs to white settlers. By
granting all non-privatized land to the British crown, the colonial apparatus divested land
ownership rights from African communities, who operated under a common property regime.
Native land rights, then, devolved to mere ‘occupational rights’ (The Malawi National Land
Policy (MNLP), 2002).
Until independence in 1964, land rights in Malawi were governed by the 1902 Nyassaland
Order in Council, which enshrined English Property Law as the only framework for land
adjudication on the colony. The 1951 Land Ordinance, which divided land into public,
private and customary was consistent with English norms to the extent that customary land
was designated as a form of public land and so owned by the Crown. This legal
interpretation subjugated non-private land owners in African areas to ‘occupying tenants’ on
their own lands.
Unfortunately, the post independence Land Act (1965) left much of the colonial dispensation
in tact. Not till 1967 was there a serious attempt to rectify colonial land alienation through
two statutes: the Registered Land Act and the Customary Land Development Act.
Unfortunately both provisions were implemented only partially (MNLA, 2002). Without a
proper land policy complemented by and based on proper implementation of the statutes, land
management in Malawi became tenuous. In fact the Land Act was seen to be redundant by
many policy makers who viewed as unrepresentative of the ‘…practical realities of Malawi’s
land management problems and opportunities’ (MNLA, 2002:9).
The problems associated with land in Malawi are many and varied and are, in many ways, a
symptom of a much deeper social discontent and economic hardship. Specific problems
arising from the simultaneous operation of customary land tenure and private ownership
regimes create institutional obstacles with cross-cutting effects. In the absence of a
comprehensive land policy the avenues of expression are limited; and ad hoc policy
interventions by the Government have tended to be reactive, short-term and ineffective.
Without being exhaustive, some of the main land problems prevalent in Malawi are as
Residual effects of colonial land policy
Just like other Southern Africa countries, Malawi inherited a rural settlement structure in
which white farmers held some of the most fertile and well-watered lands. The effect of the
concentration of freeholds in districts settled by the white farmers in the Southern Region and
subsequent expansion of estate agriculture after independence is a relatively skewed
distribution of freeholds in Malawi. As a result there is an urgent need to strategize to relieve
land pressure in the severely affected parts of the country.
High Population-land ratio
According to the National Statistics Office (NSO) the country’s population, estimated at 9.8
Million in 1998, has been growing at about 1.9 percent per annum with an average population
density of approximately 105 persons/km2. However, this population is not evenly
distributed throughout the country where the Southern Region has the highest while the
Northern Region has the lowest density. The Southern Region is urgently in need of
population relief and land redistribution solutions.
Land scarcity in spite of idle land
On the basis of estimates made in 1994, 2.6 million hectares of suitable agricultural land
remains uncultivated in the rural areas. This means that approximately 28 percent of the
country’s total land area is lying idle. Similarly, speculative holding of urban plots and lack
of infrastructure causes artificial shortages of urban development land.
Provocative squatting
Squatting in gazetted forests, national parks, on private land and other protected areas in landpressure districts has become frequent and sometimes violent. This is done to “force”
government and other land owners to yield to pressure even if it is against their will.
Worsening land pressure
Land pressure has substantially increased land tenure insecurity and uncertainty despite
attempts by communities to consolidate access rights both physically and legally. The
difficulties created by land pressure and tenure insecurity manifest themselves through
increased land degradation particularly in customary land areas.
Privatising access to customary land
There is increasing evidence that, as the economy becomes more commercialised and less
dependent on subsistence agriculture, access rights defined by customary rules are also
becoming more private and restrictive than before. In the absence of clear and transparent
policy, it is difficult for most citizens to understand the evolving rules of access to land and
security of existing customary land rights.
Mismanagement of land
The evidence of under utilization of land, obstruction of watercourses, illegal development,
and unplanned or unregulated buildings in urban settlements indicate a failure of
development controls. These are occurring in the context of all land tenure categories and
land uses in Malawi.
Cross boarder encroachment
Evidence of encroachment by nationals of neighbouring countries into Malawi can be
attributed to the fact that many border communities share linguistic and blood ties with one
another and hence claim reciprocal rights of access to land and their kinsman. Thus the
existence of “international” boundaries and territoriality is often ignored.
Encroachment onto conservation and protected areas
The fact that the creation of some National Parks and protected areas involved the
displacement of entire villages, some of which were forced to move into valleys and
uncultivable areas remains a source of grievance making some parks and protected areas
vulnerable to encroachment. This has been compounded by the fact that communities were
not getting a share of the benefits from such facilities.
Uncontrolled allocation of lakeshore land
Particularly prone to illegal development is the lakeshore, which has from time immemorial
been under the jurisdiction of Traditional Authorities. In the recent rush by individuals and
corporations to erect private leisure cottages and hotels, planning and development problems
have gone unchecked.
The Evolution of the Land Policy in Malawi
The first serious attempt to provide a comprehensive land policy and law was made in 1967
with the passage of the Registered Land Act (Cap. 58:01) and the Customary Land
(Development) Act (Cap. 59:01). However, the limited application of both Acts to Lilongwe
West, which was an area of piloting, and failure to extend to the entire country, made the
effort to secure customary rights by the enactment of the Registered Land Act an incomplete
experiment. Therefore, because of the previous policy failures, there was need to enact a
basic land law that would apply to all land, irrespective of tenure.
Failure to deal with the land policy concerns from the 1960s and 1970s is believed to have
contributed to current problems of poverty, food insecurity and persistent inequities in access
to arable land. In the absence of clear policy direction there has been heightened tenure
insecurity, encroachments, deforestation and cultivation on marginal land, thereby
accelerating environmental degradation.
Rationale for a National Land Policy
The Government of Malawi has operated without a comprehensive land policy since
independence. The 1965 Land Act and other related Acts, currently in vogue, no longer
reflect the practical realities of Malawi’s land management problems and opportunities. As a
result the land administration environment in Malawi has been characterized by weak
planning, poor coordination, absence of proactive policy interventions and limited capacity
for effective monitoring of land administration and management. This prompted Government
of Malawi to develop a comprehensive national land policy that would survive the test of
time in a new political dispensation.
National Land Policy Development Process
The process leading to the formulation of the National Land Policy was consultative. First,
the Government instituted a Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Land in 1996 which was
mandated to undertake a broad review of land problems in the country. The Commission
recommended the main principles for formulating a comprehensive land policy that will
foster a more economically efficient, environmentally sustainable and socially equitable land
administration and management. In addition, studies on customary, estate and public land
utilisation were conducted. These studies, among other things, observed that:
Most of Malawi's arable land of both leasehold and customary tenure is either underutilised, unregistered, or legally not recognised.
The land sector impacts on poverty in three main ways: inequitable access to productive
resources and processes, unequal land distribution, and land tenure insecurity.
Secure rights to land underpin the sustainability of livelihoods, particularly among rural
farmers, by providing a secure basis on which to plan and invest for the future, and even the
opportunity to consider broad livelihood options including urban migration. These rights are
critical to the achievement of the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy objectives.
The land sector is an important part of the framework for environmental and natural resource
management. This includes ownership and management of reserved land, the management of
common property, individual land use, and the planning as well as development of rural and
urban areas.
Specific land pressure concerns vary widely around the country, between regions, between
districts, between communities and between individuals. The Southern Region has the most
severe land pressure problem
Policy Policy Goals and Objectives
4.3.1 Policy Goal
The goal of the National Land Policy is to ensure tenure security and equitable access to
land, and to facilitate the attainment of broad based social and economic development
through optimum and ecologically balanced use of land and land based resources.
4.3.2 Policy Objectives
The objectives of the National Land Policy are to:
 promote tenure reforms that guarantee security and instill confidence and fairness in
all land transactions (reduces gender and other biases and facilitate market
 to promote decentralized and transparent land administration (ensure accountability
and establish the legal framework that will limit the two extremes of resource
monopolization or fragmentation);
 to extend land use planning strategies to all urban and rural areas (ensuring effective
land use and maximizing land resources within the market structure);
 to establish a modern land registration system for delivering land services to all (by
formalizing a land registration system);
to enhance conservation and community management for local resources (by
promoting community participation in resource stewardship); and
to promote research and capacity building in land surveying and land management (by
training extension service personnel who can disseminate land management
knowledge to key stakeholders).
4.3.3 Policy Recommendations
The Malawi National Land Policy epitomizes the Government’s desire to address the
constraints to Malawi’s social and economic development recommends the following:
Recognition of three Categories of land tenure- Customary land, Public and Private land Promotion
of equitable access to land and security of tenure
Regulated land access by non-citizens
Extension of land use planning and registration to the entire country
Promotion of democratic and transparent land administration and dispute settlement
Recognition of cross-cutting and inter-sectoral issues such as gender, environment and HIV/AIDS
The Malawi Growth and Development Strategy links land issues with land productivity
concerns and poverty, driven by inadequate land access, inability to use land effectively, poor
quality land, and environmental degradation. In other areas, especially in the Southern part of
the country land shortage is a major contributing factor to poverty which leads to land
degradation. However, in other parts of the country, especially in the North, land holdings do
not differentiate poor and non-poor peasants, rather, the constraint is capacity and the means
to achieve adequate levels of productivity.
Government of Malawi is convinced that since land scarcity, whether actual or perceived, can
have serious implications for land tenure and land relations, the underlying causes and
consequences of tenure insecurity is being addressed by strategies that provide access and
security of tenure to citizens with the ability and resources to make productive and
environmentally sustainable investment in land. Related to that, and in view of the steadily
increasing pressure on land, the policy is being implemented to ensure security of tenure,
peaceful co-existence, growth-oriented investments, and planned utilization of land.
Further Government, through community-based land acquisition, re-distribution and
development programmes, is reducing the growing land pressure in areas prone to conflicts.
Respect for the law and protection of the integrity of accrued property rights is important for
establishing a stable land tenure system. The constitutional protection of private property
rights and due process of law will be applied to protect investments and factors of production
related to land.
Implementation Strategy and Vision for Malawi’s Land Reform
The framework for achieving the goals of the National Land Policy are contained in the
Malawi Land Reform Programme Implementation Strategy (MLRPIS). The aspirations of
this strategy are outlined as: tenure security, access to land, land governance and
administration, sustainable land use, capacity building and training, information, education
and communication.
5.1.1 Tenure Security
Customary land in Malawi does not have secure tenure at present, and the cost of acquiring
formal tenure is very high, particularly to the rural people. In addition, urban squatter
settlements require recognition, considering the fact that they cannot be eliminated. The
Implementation Strategy encourages land legislation with provisions that enshrine tenure
security, especially for the vulnerable groups in society. This will not only enhance tenure
security, but also build confidence and encourage investment on land.
Proposed activities under this result area include creating public awareness about the National
Land Policy and its implications on people’s livelihoods; drafting and adopting a legal
framework for implementing the Land Policy that will recognise land as any other property
which can be owned and disposed of; surveying, registration and titling of customary land;
provision of serviced plots in urban areas; formalizing the rights of urban squatters;
reviewing and rationalizing costs of surveying and registration; reviewing surveying and
building standards; encouraging people to prepare wills and also educating them on the
contents of the Wills and Inheritance Act.
5.1.2 Access to Land
The Implementation Strategy is emphasising on equity in access to land and its distribution,
depending on needs and requirements according to the carrying capacity of the land and its
use. The issue here is about fairness in access to land. Population pressure in Malawi is
impacting negatively on the availability of land, particularly in the southern part of the
country. It is, however, paradoxical, to see that in certain parts in country large tracts of idle
leasehold land exists in areas where people are landless. Although my Government has
found it necessary to regulate access to land by non-citizens, there is need to reconcile this
issue with the provisions in the Constitution. The Special law Commission will work out the
modalities for resolving misunderstandings on the matter.
It has also been noted that there is a lot of discrimination in access to land based on social
status, economic status and gender where for example it is easier for rich people to access
land than the poor, or where influential members of clans make unilateral decisions on land,
very often without prior knowledge of other members of the groups.
The Ministry id considering a number of options available to move towards equitable access
to land, one of such options being that of setting up a maximum size of land an individual or
organization may acquire for a particular use. Depending on the result of the land tax study
which is about to be concluded, there may be a need to have a scheme of land taxation on all
land categories to ensure that there is fairness in what land owners pay to government.
This result area calls for extensive Information, Education and Communication effort on
family planning; putting in place legislation that discourages discrimination on grounds of
status, gender or vulnerability; implementing transparent and accountable land allocation
systems; and increasing tax on land to realistic levels that will discourage underutilization
and speculation. In addition, non-citizens will only be allowed to lease land after furnishing
evidence of investment plans and irrevocable proof regarding availability of capital. The
National Land Policy is trying to empower indigenous Malawian citizens to own, develop
and benefit from their motherland.
5.1.3 Land Governance and Administration System
Transparency and popular participation are important governance objectives and practices in
land administration and are essential factors for winning credibility and support from the
people of Malawi. The Government intends to use the existing village, area and district
development committees and the existing judicial and local government structures for land
governance. Land committees and tribunals shall be sub-committees of the existing
development committees. In the land administration system, Chiefs will have their roles spelt
out clearly according to the decentralisation principles and laws. This will avoid conflict of
interest by the Chiefs. Where there are conflicting provisions in land related Acts, such
discrepancies will be sorted out through the special Land Law Commission which is currently
harmonising all land related laws. The land reform implementation strategy emphasise the
role of the private sector and economic empowerment, to facilitate the acquisition of land by
the landless and land poor communities.
5.1.4 Sustainable Land Use
The Land Policy emphasises the need for environmentally sustainable use of land and landbased resources. However, this is a big challenge because of lack of awareness among the
people, and also poor coordination among line Ministries and development partners. This
result area therefore calls for a revision of the National Physical Development Plan, and a
comprehensive programme on Information, Education and Communication (IEC) in order to
address the communication gap. The ultimate aim is to enhance land values, as well as
reduce unauthorised developments and environmental degradation. Every effort will be made
to have land information and records readily available and up-to-date in order to assist proper
management of land, resulting in an increase in land based investments and reduction of
encroachments in protected areas.
5.1.5 Capacity Building and Training
Many people in the country are not conversant with the contents of the National Land Policy,
let alone their roles and responsibilities in order to contribute to the successful
implementation of the policy. A properly targeted programme on Information, Education and
Communication has been initiated in order to reduce the awareness gap as well as engender a
sense of commitment and ownership of the policy recommendations.
The current deficit of land administration and management staff with essential skills at all
levels is likely to inhibit and delay the implementation of the Land Reform Programme, if it
is not dealt with decisively. To address the situation the Government of Malawi is
implementing capacity building project with support from the EU, which will undoubtedly
go along way in reducing the capacity constraint being experienced at the moment.
Successful implementation of the National Land Policy rests on five key strategies:
establishing tenure security
efficient and equitable distribution and access to land;
transparent and participatory land governance;
enforcement of environmentally sustainable and participatory use and management of
all land; and
strengthening the capacity for implementing the land policy (
In this regard the government is implementing a number of projects which include, but not
limited to:
Land Policy Reform Project
Registration Project,
under which the National Land Policy was prepared
and Started in 2004, designed to extend land registration and
titling to the whole country (The Policy has declared the
country as a planning area)
Land Law Reform Project
The aim is to review existing land related laws which has
culminated into a draft new land law.
Public awareness Campaign The main aim of the project is to create awareness among
the general public about the content of the Land Policy
and its legal framework and the implications of these on
there day to day livelihoods
Community Based Rural
The project aims to increase opportunities for
Land Development Project
sustainable rural livelihoods and and poverty reduction
through land acquisition, redistribution, registration and
farm development among the landless and land poor in 4
pilot districts of Machinga, Mangochi, Thyolo &
Land Reform Programme
This project is supported by EU & GOM. It aims to build
Capacity Building Project
capacity in the implementation of the Land Reform
Customary Land Reform and The project aims to engage communities in participatory
Sustainable Rural
registration and titling of customary land for increased
Livelihoods Project
tenure security and resultant increased productivity of
customary land. The pilot is being implemented in 3
Hydro graphic Survey of
The main thrust of the project is to survey Lake Malawi
Lake Malawi and other
and other water bodies to ensure safety of navigation.
Major Rivers
The project is funded by the Governments of Malawi and
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Vulnerable Groups
The National Land Policy recognises vulnerable groups in society, which include the
disabled, youth including orphans, women and the landless in general. The Policy recognises
that these groups are often ignored or disregarded due to lack of effective representation. The
implementation of all activities under the Land Reform Programme will pay particular
attention to these groups of people, ensuring that they are included in decision-making and
benefit from the programme by gaining control over land use.
Government of Malawi has taken bold steps to address the problem of lack of awareness
about the Land Policy and its implications on people’s livelihoods. Government has started
implementing an Information, Education and Communication, (IEC) strategy aimed at
transferring information to people, regarding the objectives of the National Land Policy.
Training and empowerment is a huge task that requires collaboration with other sectors by
making use of the already existing network of field staff, NGOs, churches, etc. and exploring
innovative ideas and methods.
Low Participation
In order to promote participatory land governance as well as social equity, the Government
has instituted a deliberate policy whereby land administration functions and management of
land-based resources will be devolved to individuals and organisations close to local
communities. This is intended to empower communities to manage land and natural
resources as their own property.
Participation empowers people by providing them with the democratic rights to articulate
their views, which can be translated into informed decisions, plans and actions. In this way,
the landholders themselves become not only beneficiaries, but actors, taking ownership of
facilities, services and processes as a result of their involvement in the decision-making
process. At the local level, public participation will lead to community-based solutions, as
part of genuine reform instead of implementing a nationally designed and imposed plan.
Civil society needs to mobilise itself, discuss and participate in debates. In Malawi, civil
society is slowly organising itself, and needs encouragement in order to contribute more
productively to issues affecting the development process, land administration and
management of land.
The land question is the single most important problem which Sub-Saharan Africa (and I
would conclude Malawi) must resolve if it is to emerge from economic and social crisis. Easy
solutions are not in abundance. The twin forces of population pressure and environmental
degradation, in many situations, have all but made it impossible to fully redress poverty
prevailing now. But as many speakers and commentators have noted, the land question is
burning in the guts of many within the region. The time has come to hold the bull by its
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.Government of Malawi (GOM): Malawi National Land Policy; Ministry of Lands, Housing
and Surveys; 17 January 2002.
Government of Malawi (GOM): Malawi Land Reform Programme: Implementation Strategy
(2003-2007); Ministry of Lands, Housing and Surveys; June 2004.
Newspapers and magazines MALAWI: Access to land a problem for rural poor; 24 January 2006; UN
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Adams M (2004): A Review of DFID’s Engagement with Land Reform in Malawi; DFID;
Chirwa E (2004): Access to Land, Growth and Poverty Reduction in Malawi; paper published
as part of the “Macroeconomic Policy Choices for Growth and Poverty Reduction” research
project, funded by The North-South Institute (Canada); Chancellor College, University of
Chirwa E (2005): Access to Land, Growth and Poverty Reduction in Malawi; Policy Brief
published as part of the “Macroeconomic Policy Choices for Growth and Poverty Reduction”
research project, funded by The North-South Institute (Canada); Chancellor College,
University of Malawi.
Nothale D (2006): Land tenure systems and agricultural production in Malawi; Rural
Development Department; University of Malawi, Lilongwe.
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