Bamako — A group of smallholder farmers in Mali have turned to the courts to try to recover land they say they have lost to big private investors. The legal action comes as foreign investors are losing interest in Mali due to political instability and an armed rebellion in the north.
"We have laid a complaint against the agricultural land grabs that have hit so many smallholders," said Lamine Coulibaly, a member of the National Coordination of Peasant Organisations, which is resisting the large-scale acquisition of agricultural land by foreign investors.
The farmers next day in court will be on Sep. 27, in the central Mali town of Markala. They hope to put the brakes on the requisitioning of land they have been cultivating for generations.
"There have already been several sittings without actual deliberation, but we have confidence in the justice system. We are convinced that we are in the right and we can win this case," said Coulibaly.
The respondent in this case is Office of the Niger, a government department which oversees the the development of a million square hectares of farmland in this central region. A dam constructed by the French colonial authorities in 1932 could be the basis for enormous agricultural potential in the region, but barely 100,000 hectares had been developed before the arrival of foreign investors in 2008.
The zone was opened up to private capital, to the dismay of local farmer organisations, who say many smallholders lost their land.
"These expropriations took place to make way for agribusiness projects. The government signed agreements allocating land to investors for massive projects such as Libyan-owned Malibya, which covers 100,000 hectares," Coulibaly told IPS.
Farmers assert that a total of 800,000 hectares have been affected by expropriation. The lawsuit that will resume at the end of the month targets a different project, the Markala Sugar Company (SOSUMAR) which was allocated 25,000 hectares to establish a sugar cane plantation.
"Thirty-three villages in Sana (in the central Ségou region of the country) have fallen victim to SOSUMAR," said Massa Koné, one of the parties to the suit.
According to CNOP, of the vast area allocated to SOSUMAR, just two sugar cane nurseries have been set up, each covering 140 hectares. Smallholder farmers have welcomed the departure of Illovo Sugar, previously the major shareholder in the project. According to CNOP's website, the South African company pulled out of the project due to the sociopolitical crisis gripping the country.
"Yet the smallholders can't farm," Koné told IPS. "The private investors have fenced off their fields and are still maintaining the nurseries."
The court case further complicates an already challenging climate for investment in the region. The Malibya project has been stalled since the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, despite the completion of roadworks and a 40-kilometre canal.
The farmers are worried about food security and the future of family farming throughout the country. But Boubacar Sow, assistant director of the Office of the Niger, said their fears are groundless.
He told IPS that with help from private investors, government is actually developing land to be allocated to family farmers.
"The 100,000 hectares developed by the government was put at the disposal of family operators who produced 564,000 tonnes of rice in 2011," he said.
Sow said that smallholders' opposition to private investors is only hindering the government's efforts to extend the developed area. He also said that the areas allocated to foreign investors were initially unoccupied.
"People were attracted to come and set themselves up in the area because of the improvements made by the Office of the Niger," he said.
At the same time as they pursue their case in the courts, farmers have continued a dialogue with some big investors through the Office. In some villages, farmers were able to negotiate the right to plant in fields they lost three years ago.