HARARE – At least 12,000 villagers in Chilonga, Chiredzi, are facing imminent eviction from their 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) of ancestral land to pave the way for a grazing grass project.
In the past few weeks, the villagers who live 433 kilometers (270 miles) southeast of the capital, Harare, were gripped with fear after receiving threats for challenging the government’s move through the High Court.
A ruling was handed down, stopping arbitrary evictions before alternative land, compensation and shelter were provided by the government.
According to Zimbabwe Human Rights Association Director Dzikamai Bere, villagers are clueless and traumatized as the war against eviction is not yet finished, despite a triumph in the High Court.
“The situation in Chilonga is very dire. Communities have been threatened and have been asked to leave,” said Bere. “We have received reports that state security agents are now intimidating communities. They are not allowed to speak to people from outside the area anymore.”
The volatility in the area is intense such that some families who fear repression have fled their homes.
“When our team visited last week, there was uncertainty with many families that had prepared their land to grow crops, stopped doing so. Soon we could begin to see several cases of mental problems as the trauma is just unbearable,” added Bere.
Chilonga villagers, like many in Zimbabwe, have lived on their ancestral land for decades but owing to unending land disputes and alleged selective use of the law, the land remains one of the significant sources of anxiety, note human rights defenders.
This is the situation in several areas of the country where land ownership is being challenged.
Evictions at Chilonga
Chilonga villagers received notices to vacate their ancestral land in February, but the government was silent on compensation, right to land and right to agricultural land because it was the agricultural season.
Instead of consulting villagers, the government spirited a law, a statutory Instrument, SI 50/21, which set aside land for the Lucerne Grass Project.
Meanwhile, on the same day, another law, SI 51/21, was also announced. That tried to repeal SI 50/21 but then changed the land’s status from Communal Land to State Land.
Communal land is regulated by the president, although traditional chiefs are the ones who manage the land. Unfortunately, the land does not have title deeds.
“This had a ramification as it means that the Chilonga area people lost their rights to their ancestral land in terms of the Communal Land Act,” human rights lawyer Dr. Musa Kika told Anadolu Agency.
Zimbabwe has several laws that regulate the use, ownership and purchase of land but the supreme law, Constitution, remains the guiding factor.
Most land laws, however, are outdated, with some inherited from the colonial era, according to Kika.
“The uncertainty around land ownership in Zimbabwe is what pains many citizens who feel the land saga was supposed to have been the first to be addressed after independence,” he said.
Despite the confusion, the Constitution provides compensation, provision of alternative land for agricultural purposes and livestock, but that section is often disregarded.
The Southern Africa Director of Human Rights Watch based in South Africa said the government is failing to plan correctly and to follow the law leading to forced evictions.
“Zimbabwe has witnessed a number of such evictions before and the result is that villagers are eventually pressured to vacate because the government will be trying to please individuals or companies that would have a vested interest in the land,” said Dewa Mavinga.
History of evictions
In 2014, when a new dam in Tokwe Mukosi, 411 kilometers (255 miles) south of the capital, flooded while under construction, 3 300 families were left homeless and the government set aside $20 million to help villagers.
Initially, villagers were settled in a Chingwizi tent camp but were forcibly evicted and each was allocated a hectare of land for a house, fields and livestock.
“Today, more than 3,000 of these villagers rely on food aid as their livelihood was taken away,” said Mavinga.
Villagers were promised they would benefit from the sugar cane farming project once the dam had been completed, but six years after its completion, they have yet to hear from authorities.
In 2015, then-first lady Grace Mugabe evicted 200 families from their land on the Manzou farm, 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Harare, to pave the way for her school expansion project.
Although several High Court orders were obtained to stop the eviction of villagers who had nowhere to go, the Robert Mugabe regime ignored the orders.
“Such evictions are widespread in Zimbabwe, but they are poorly documented because they target indigenous or the minority tribes,” said Mavinga. “There are so many cases, especially around mining and developmental projects, but in all these cases, the Constitution is not respected.”
What pains most Zimbabweans is the fact that when evictions are taking place, the government does not consider providing amenities such as schools, clinics, water and even roads, said Mavinga.