Grabbing Land in Malawi | Land Portal

The distribution of land in Malawi is highly unequal and frequently inefficient. Large areas of land are underutilised in a context where many Malawian farmers would be able to put such land to productive use. In this context, the Malawian government has been slow and ineffective in undertaking land reforms, despite large demand for change both from investors and the local population. In our chapter of the book “Corruption, Grabbing and Development: Real World Challenges”, we explore the role that “land grabbing”in Malawi plays in contributing to this situation. This blog post summarizes this work.

The context of land in Malawi

The grabbing of land is not a new phenomenon in Malawi. Much of the current context around land is a result of previous land transfers that took place under colonial rule. These lands had typically been acquired through in some form of agreement with local chiefs, but, in parallel with present day land grabs, it was contentious as to whether these traditional authorities had the right to alienate the land in this way (Holden et al., 2006). 

The coming of multiparty democracy in 1994 was closely linked to a rise in land up the policy agenda. The question of land reform was generally flagged as an immediate course of action to address the problem of poverty should Malawians choose to embrace a democratic political dispensation. However, despite this promise, little has been achieved with regard to land reform to date. The current land framework in Malawi therefore strongly resembles that which existed under colonial rule. The vast majority of land is customary land, which falls under the jurisdiction of traditional authorities and is administered under customary law – powers for the distribution and control of this land rests in the hands of traditional leaders.

Forms of land grabbing

Perhaps the form of land grabbing closest to traditional forms of bureaucratic petty corruption occurs in the allocation of publicly owned land. In some urban centres, for example, land is supposed to be allocated by the government based on need and the date of applications. However, in practice, corruption occurs such that public officials will allocate the land based on other criteria.

More commonly, allegations of land grabbing originate from customary land. The root of such malpractice normally centres on traditional chiefs and other authorities mishandling their duties in exchange for private gain. Much controversy also revolves around traditional authorities ‘selling’ customary land to those from outside the community, typically allowing it to become private land in the process. At times, the government has been demarcating areas of customary land for development purposes, and may be involved in incentivizing the traditional authorities to consent to its transfer (Mwakasungula, 2009). This has led to traditional authorities sealing land deals with prospective investors without the knowledge of the owners or users of the land (Chingaipe et al., 2012; Chinsinga et al., 2013). The communities have only discovered that their land has been sold when they see the new owners working on it. 

Consequences of land grabbing

Land grabbing has a number of important negative consequences:

  1. Worsening land inequality.The distribution of land is highly unequal – it is estimated that between 1.8 and 2 million smallholder farmers cultivate on average 1 ha, whereas 30 000 estates cultivate 10–500 ha (Kanyongolo, 2004).
  2. Resentment of foreign investment. This inequality, combined with the non-consensual nature of many land grabs, has led to the feeling “that the current policy or existing laws favour foreigners in accessing and distribution of land’ (Mwakasungula, 2009). While such anti-foreigner feeling may be justified on occasion, it may make it even more difficult for foreign investors to acquire and invest in land in a legitimate and transparent fashion.
  3. Conflict. In the case of the Makande Estate distribution, neighbouring villages were not satisfied with the resettlement plan and started encroaching into the area. This led to the involvement of police, several violent clashes and two persons being killed. This conflict arose partly due to ‘the perception that there were many rich civil servants, politicians and business people that had obtained land through corruption’ (Holden et al., 2006).
  4. Inefficient land allocation. Since corruption may enable purchasers to obtain land quickly and with greater ease than usual, there is an incentive to gain as much as possible, even if this is more than one could use. Corruption means that land is allocated to those who might be best politically connected at the moment, rather than those that make best use 
  5. Reduced political appetite for appropriate land reform. Since elites who would like to obtain land can do so corruptly, they do not need to change the system in order to purchase land. Corruption in the obtaining of land therefore separates the elite away from other members of society, and shields them from the inefficiencies and problems of the current land framework. Moreover, land reform potentially opens up the possibility of previous corrupt gains being reversed. 


Corruption in land transfers is partly a result of gaps within the implementation of an effective land policy. Moreover, we see a vicious circle, whereby greater corruption reduces the incentive of the government to carry out exactly the type of reform that would reduce corruption. In this way, it aids our understanding of why corruption persists and may be so difficult to fight, despite the obvious inefficiency it causes.

The description of land grabbing above also brings out points that are more particular to land in Malawi. Some of the cases we describe in the chapter illustrate the difficulty of defining acts as corruption when there is a clash between Western-style laws and historical practices. This comes out particularly strongly when we examine the role of traditional authorities in land transfers. Can giving benefits to chiefs in exchange for land be described as corruption when it is a traditional part of the way societies have been organized? Similarly, to what extent are traditional authorities unaccountable in their decisions to transfer land when accountability mechanisms have not been formally defined? These questions force us to think beyond standard legal definitions of corruption.


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