In Zambia, gaps in governance are allowing commercial farmers to contravene the law. This has resulted in the physical displacement and dispossession of native rural communities as well as the decline in subsistence farming relied on by poor households for survival.
Recently, the Food First International and Action Network raised concerns over the financing of the largest agricultural investors in Zambia. This is because of the harmful human rights implications of these enterprises, including land disputes with locals in Zambia’s rural communities. Agriculture is the means of subsistence for 58% of Zambia’s population, covering a large area of land in rural Zambia and yet, the poorest households own an average of 0.6 hectares of land each, leaving few households with enough farmland to support themselves financially. The laws designed to protect rural communities from forced displacement are infrequently enforced, as it is rare for Zambian government inspectors to check if commercial farmers have complied with the law in acquiring land for agricultural businesses.
While international and domestic human rights laws do not bar Zambia’s government from displacing people in order to make way for commercial farms or other projects such as mining, most evictions are carried out with little regard for the protections offered by Zambian and international law. These laws require due process, resettlement, or compensation in cases of land dispossession for commercial purposes. This is evidenced by the 2017 Human Rights Watch Report which discusses a number of commercial farms which were established with little regard for resident’s rights and with little real opportunity for local communities to contest their legality; resulting in displacement tantamount to forced eviction.
A number of key human rights are affected by the allocation of land to commercial farmers without the consideration of local communities. For example, the right to housing is affected because locals in rural communities are having their houses bulldozed in order to make way for large scale commercial farms. This is a big problem for the poor farmers in rural communities because they do not have the financial means to rebuild their homes. Other key rights affected include the right to food, the right to dignity, and the right to consult independent counsel in cases where there have been forced evictions.
Zambian law prohibits forced evictions, and international law requires the government to prevent them. However, the laws designed to protect rural communities from forced evictions are rarely enforced. This issue is evidenced by the failure of the Zambia Environmental Management Agency to provide adequate oversight of the commercial farming operations within the Serenje District farming block which has seen some commercial farmers acquire thousands of hectares of land without going through the correct channels for land acquisition in Zambia.
What this means for the affected communities is that they are driven into poverty and uncertainty. For example, if a family in a rural community is displaced, they have no mechanism by which to stabilise themselves financially or provide food for their families, having lost the land used for subsistence farming. This creates a vicious cycle in which families move to new locations only to later be out-competed by commercial farms and displaced again while in the process of building up a new local farming livelihood. Ultimately, many local subsistence farmers are left with little choice but to work on the commercial farms which dominate the countryside, all the while receiving minimal wages as the profits made by managing Multi-National Corporations fail to trickle down.
Moving forward, both foreign investors and the government need to adopt a greater focus on ethical approaches towards dealing with land acquisition and other such activities that have a significant impact on local communities. This is important because it will set a moral precedent to foreign businesses rooted in the belief that is important to value the workforce and livelihoods of the local people in rural communities. In addition to this, it is vital that Zambia’s laws and regulations are followed and enforced equally and reliably in order to promote equality across both the financial and social sectors of the country.