Although Mozambique has a fairly strong national legislation that protects the land-use rights of rural populations, the law is used poorly—privileging leases to agro-investors at the expense of small-holder farmers. This discrepancy has been growing over the last 10 years as authorities welcome private investors to the agriculture sector in order to increase crop production and to bring about rural development. But land transfers are happening quickly and at a large scale: in a period of just four years, from 2004 to 2009, official estimates show that 2.7 million hectares were leased to land developers in the country.1 The process has displaced a large number of peasants, while others face growing pressure to give up their lands.2,3

An example of this is the district of Marracune, located 35 km south of Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, along the Incomati River. Communities there are seeing increased pressure on land use, as local authorities prioritize investments from sugarcane planters and housing developers. Being in close proximity to Maputo, city dwellers with rising incomes are looking to buy second homes in the area.

In response, the National Union of Mozambican Peasants (UNAC) has assisted over 5,000 Marracune farmers to learn about the Land Law to officially register their lands in order to obtain land titles. This participatory approach to safeguard peasant land-use rights matters for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that appropriate solutions can emerge when marginalized people are given a real voice and the capacity to engage with authorities and the outside world. This can tip the balance in shifting power relations and poor practices. Second, it incentivizes communities to invest in sustainable land-use practices, which can increase crop yields and improve food security.


Problems with the Land Law

In Mozambique, land is a property of the state, and as such, it cannot be sold or mortgaged. However, individuals and communities can occupy or use land based on one of three conditions outlined in the country’s Land Law. Each of the provisions represent a state-granted land right, referred to as a “direito de uso e aproveitamento dos terras” (DUAT).4 The first is that people can occupy land based on customary norms or practices. This entails settling on land that has been passed down (or inherited) from one generation to the next.

The second condition is occupation based on ‘good-faith’ for a period of at least 10 years. This provision addresses an important historical account. Mozambique was affected by a long civil war, which ended in 1992, but saw a large number of internally displaced people. Therefore, the Land Law offers land-use rights to citizens who ended up in a new part of the country. Customary and good-faith occupancy-based DUATs are recognized automatically. As such, individuals and communities are not required to register their lands with local authorities.

The final condition upon which individuals can gain land-use rights is through applying for a lease from the state. Such leases are commonly known as investor-based DUATs and are predominantly reserved for private investors, including foreign companies. Investors seeking to obtain such a lease must also undertake community consultations in order to identify lands that are not occupied and/or negotiate their use with communities.5 If there are no contested land claims, the state can approve the DUAT for up to 50 years, which can be renewed once for another 50 years.

A UNAC member cultivating her farm in the morning hours.

In the vast majority of cases, however, land deals have not worked in the public’s best interest; they are often characterized by corruption and improper or no community consultations. The process has also displaced many peasants, while others face pressure to give up their lands.

In Marracune, farmers are regularly intimidated by authorities over their land occupancies. An example is a group of UNAC farmers who farm collectively on land that previously belonged to a Portuguese plantation farmer. At the time of Mozambique’s independence in 1975, the owner fled the country. Peasants settled on the vacated land and continued to use it until they formed an association in 1997 under UNAC’s union branch in their district, the Uniao de Cooperativas Agrricolas de Marracune (UCAM). But now the local government wants to take away the land. Farmers were informed that they did not have legal papers to occupy it.6

Such legal documentations are technically not required, as the farmers have occupied the land for over 10 years, and thus have achieved their DUAT based on good-faith occupancy. However, many rural populations are unfamiliar with the law and their rights. UNAC and other civil society organizations frequently lobby the government to uphold communities’ land rights and to improve the administration of land transfers.7 But such efforts have seen little success.


Teaching Practices to (re)Claim Land Rights

A significant majority of rural Mozambicans use land to produce their food and for various subsistence purposes, such as collecting wild produce. UNAC’s struggle for peasants’ land rights, therefore, comes from an understanding that land is central to food security—both at the household and national level.  A staffer explains that:

We cannot talk about food security in Mozambique when people who live and work the land do not have secure access to it. Peasants conserve our traditional food systems—the place where our national food security will come from—and those at its center cannot be dispossessed of land.8

In Marracune, UNAC together with its member union UCAM have taken a proactive approach to increase community land rights through education and skills training. The movement teaches farmers about their legal rights to land use and assists them in formalizing their DUATs by registering their land with the public land registry services. Community awareness of the land law and use of its legal framework offer a solution to slowing down the pace of land transfers and potentially prevent the worst forms of land dispossession. This participatory process has also contributed to the rise of sustainable land-use practices, which helps to meet the region’s food security demands.

Road construction site in Marracune.

Gaining a comprehensive understanding of the land law empowers rural populations to exercise their land-use rights more effectively. Communities can a) refuse land deals, b) address internal land conflicts, and c) negotiate better terms of engagement, including compensation in land transfers. Greater emphasis, however, is placed on refusing land deals. Although land investors commonly promise attractive compensation packages, employment opportunities, and infrastructure projects, the likelihood for such benefits to materialize is far from clear.9 UNAC has watched helplessly as many of its peasant members in other regions lose their land to large-scale agro-investors, such as in northern Mozambique where vast areas are feared to be transformed into industrialized operations that grow crops for export.10

Those farmers who received the land law training in Marracune articulate that the experience of empowerment comes with understanding their rights. Farmers are now well aware that the land they occupy belongs to them and no one is allowed to take it away without adhering to the law.11  This newly acquired knowledge has given them a voice to engage with authorities and the outside world to (re)claim their rights. Some explain that:

The land law training…has helped us so much because every day we are fighting against authorities and people who want to take our land. We have copies of the land law so we are able to invoke the articles that protect us.6

Because authorities often expropriate land from peasants on the basis that they do not use it efficiently, “in ways that maximizes production,”12 UNAC farmers have adopted agroecological farming practices to give visibility to their land occupancies. Agroecology replicates peasants’ traditional agriculture by diversifying cropping systems and using natural inputs, such as animal manure, in order to regenerate soil fertility and to maintain productivity.13 Crop diversity, in time and space, provides nutritionally diverse diets to farmers in circumstances where they often have limited external support, or allows them to engage in alternative livelihood opportunities.14 Moreover, high levels of agrobiodiversity help communities adapt and build resilience to climate change. Extensive research on agroecological management practices demonstrates that these have significant impacts on the sustainability of food systems and overall food security.15 In Marracune, agroecology is helping farmers meet their food security needs, while acting as a physical buffer for their land security.

Finally, farmers learn how to formalize their DUATs through a technical process known as “delimitation.” This procedure involves a (verbal) testimony from a community leader about the applicant’s customary or good-faith occupancy and registering that DUAT with authorities.16 This offers further protection from land dispossession, as land that is visible to authorities in government databases is less likely to be targeted for investment purposes. In the event that land under a formalized DUAT comes under investment interests, investors are actually forced to negotiate its use with communities.17


Take Away Lessons

The success of this case study provides timely lessons for land deals elsewhere in Africa. The phenomenon of land deals, also referred to as “land grabs,” has grown substantially following the 2007-2008 global food crisis as foreign investors seek land-use rights on the continent to grow crops for global markets. But these land transactions are occurring in some of the most food insecure (and poorest) countries, including Mali, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zambia.18 As in Marracune, rural communities in these countries are susceptible to losing their lands, often their only source of livelihood. Rather than address local development challenges, many land deals inadvertently contribute to the further marginalization and food insecurity of rural populations.

Reversing poor practices in land deals would require participatory processes that build greater transparency and empower marginalized people. Many countries in Africa have in place legal provisions that recognize land occupancy based on customary traditions. Equipping rural communities with this knowledge can help them understand that they too are important stakeholders in land affairs. Well-informed farmers are also more likely to be better prepared to engage in discussions with investors and authorities and be in a good position to negotiate favorable terms on their land leases, for example, by demanding fair compensation. At the same time, being aware of the growing market demand for land in the region can motivate communities, like those in Marracune, to invest in sustainable land-use practices as a way to not lose land to investors.

An agro-ecology demonstration plot at UCAM.

Nonetheless, there remain challenges surrounding the need for African governments to increase funding support towards peasant-based agriculture, particularly efforts to scale-up agroecology.19 Despite policies that promise to do so, states often fail to allocate sufficient resources to increase the productivity of small-scale farmers.20 In Marracune, farmers explain that they would like to gain access to improved farm inputs and technologies, such as seeds and farm machinery, in order to scale up production and to market their produce widely in the country. But their needs are not being met, as their government prioritizes investor-based agriculture that tends to resemble industrial monocultures.

Greater support for traditional food systems through well-targeted investments can significantly improve agriculture productivity while stimulating rural economic development. It is about time that Mozambique’s agricultural policies start to look for solutions from within rather than from the outside.



This paper is based on the author’s PhD field research conducted in Mozambique for a period of seven months in 2014 and 2015. Research in Marracune was carried out in the period of May to June 2014. A total number of 24 semi-structured interviews were carried out with farmers, UNAC, and UCAM activists as well as a government official.



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Helena Shilomboleni

Helena Shilomboleni is a PhD Candidate in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS), University of Waterloo, Canada. Her primary area of research examines how the divergent agrarian...

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