Zambia: Court rules in favour of communities forcibly displaced from their land 7 years later

Author: Juliana Nnoko-Mewanu, Mail & Guardian (South Africa), Published on: 20 May 2020

‘After seven years, displaced Zambian villagers might get land’ 19 May 2020

 “Where will we go looking for land? There isn’t any land left,” Elisabeth, a 24-year-old mother of four, asked me in 2016. She, along with other rural residents of the Serenje district of Zambia’s Central Province, was displaced seven years ago — some forcibly evicted from their traditional land. Some commercial farmers that leased land in the district had burned or bulldozed their homes and uprooted trees. When I spoke to Elisabeth and other evicted residents, they had received no compensation and no meaningful opportunity to contest their removal. 

Dozens of residents evicted by one commercial farmer in 2013 lived out in the open for months, then later in tents or shoddy housing on the fringes of a government forest reserve, with inadequate access to water and no source of livelihood or permission to cultivate land. After the release of our findings in 2017, 13 displaced villagers filed a complaint with the Zambian High Court with the help of the Zambia Land Alliance and Southern Africa Litigation Centre.  On April 30, a High Court in Lusaka ruled in their favour, holding that the conversion of customary land was illegal and that the resulting forced displacement violated the community’s rights to life, freedom of movement and association, dignity, and equal protection of the law. The court ordered the attorney general, the local government and one of the companies at issue to provide relief, including providing alternative land and compensation for rights violations. 

…In the current Covid-19 crisis, community members who have lost land — and their livelihoods — are more vulnerable to infection. Community members who have control over their customary land, plant their own food and are self-sufficient can self-isolate. For others, including indigenous people who have been displaced or evicted and have lost access to homes, farmland and forests, the pandemic exposes and deepens their precarious situation. The president should direct responsible senior officials and local leaders to urgently identify and provide alternate land, compensation and assistance to these community members in a way that preserves their connection to their ancestral area. Given the scarcity of land in the area, alternative land might be difficult to find. But the government has to do its best to find it — and do so quickly. 

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