The Namibian (Windhoek)

Namibia: Grape Growers Fight Eviction

SMALL-SCALE grape farmers evicted from the Aussenkehr Orange River Irrigation Project (ORIP) who were evicted from their plots by a High Court order last year have lodged an urgent application with the High Court yesterday to have its order rescinded.

The farmers were evicted last year after the then permanent secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Andrew Ndishishi, wrote a letter to them claiming that they had breached various conditions of the leasehold agreement.

Among other things, he said, they failed to adhere to a joint marketing programme and they did not honour obligations towards Agribank which they owed N$1,2 million, service provider Cool Fresh Management Group Namibia and the ministry.

Ndishishi also claimed that the small-scale farmers had failed to make full payment of all accounts due to Agibank and Cool Fresh.

He gave the farmers an eviction notice informing them that they had to vacate their plots by May last year, and repeated this order in a subsequent letter after the farmers refused to vacate the plot because they said there was no lawful basis for the cancellation of the leasehold agreement between them and the government.

In August last year, Government issued a summons against the farmers seeking an order confirming the cancellation of the agreement with the farmers.

On August 24 2011, Judge Shafimana Ueitele granted a default judgement against the farmers where the court confirmed the cancellation of the agreements between the farmers and Government.

The farmers are Anneli Shithingona, Ester Kadhidhi, Risto Shikongo, David Shikongo, Tomas Haitembo, Applonia Hausiku, Simon Olavi, Augustinus Haith, Erna Josob, and Josef Frederick.

In their affidavit filed with the High Court yesterday, they said the termination of the agreement with Government was not valid, and that they were unlawfully given a 30-day notice of eviction instead of three months.

The leasehold agreement states that farmers will in collaboration with the service provider provide the cropping and marketing programme to the Agriculture Ministry and Agribank for approval.

The farmers said the agreement does not specify that the service provider has to be Cool Fresh.

Furthermore, they said debts owed to Agribank have been settled and no monies are owed to the ministry.

In their affidavit, the farmers said after having tilled the land for more than 10 years - since 2001 - they have been treated "in the most high-handed and unfair manner" by Government, and in particular Ndishishi.

They said initially they were allowed to sell their grapes and enjoy profits deriving therefrom. However, they said, with the introduction of Cool Fresh "with the strong backing of Mr Andrew Ndishishi, things changed radically".

They said from a profit-making venture, suddenly they were making "very little money or in fact running at a loss" because of inflated overhead costs allegedly incurred by Cool Fresh.

The farmers challenged that these overhead costs do not reflect the reality of the expenses involved in selling and marketing the grapes they produced.

Government introduced ORIP to assist lower income small farmers to cultivate agricultural crops. The farmers settled on the plots at the Orange River in 2001 when they signed an agreement with Government, then represented by the Namibian Development Corporation (NDC).

They received training in the production of table grapes, and were reportedly promised that after the training, they would be settled on individual plots at Aussenkehr from 2004, and would eventually be entitled to receive transfer of ownership of the plots.

When the initial agreement lapsed in 2004, the farmers made enquiries about the transfer of the plots, but were told that the matter was deferred since Government then did not own the land, but that there was a process through which the land was to be donated to the State.

Cool Fresh was introduced as the seller of the farmers' grapes in 2009, after which the farmers claimed they were running net losses.

The farmers said Cool Fresh was only willing to pay N$3 per 4,5-kilogram box of grapes for the local market, and N$6 per box for the international market.

In 2010, they decided to find their own marketer, D-Quality Survey, which was prepared to pay N$55 per 4,5-kilogram box. D-Quality Survey was also prepared to provide its own workers to harvest and pack the grapes.

In 2011, the farmers received N$40 per box from D-Quality, saying it then became clear that Cool Fresh, the agricultural ministry's preferred seller "was simply exploiting the farmers".

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