Harare — In the past decade, 60-year-old Josiah Makasha, in the rural Seke District outside the dormitory town of Chitungwiza, some 35 km north of the capital Harare, has seen urban sprawl shrink pastures and deplete his cattle herd by two-thirds.
Makasha used to have 15 head of cattle, but now makes do with five. "There is hardly any more grazing land for our cattle, so we don't have a choice but to keep small herds. Our land has been taken over by people from the city who are buying plots and building houses," he told IRIN.
For Seke's villagers, the receding pastures are not their only problem. Traditional leaders - empowered to distribute land to members of their communities - are reducing the sizes of plots to sell parts of the land to buyers from Chitungwiza and Harare for personal profit.
"It seems we will soon end up as backyard tenants in the land of our ancestors. Our headmen are the main culprits as they are enriching themselves at the expense of the villagers by selling the land that is supposed to belong to us as a community. Our children have nowhere to go and end up cramped on our homesteads," Makasha said.
The traditional leaders, Makasha said, are supposed to accept a nominal fee of US$7 from local community members receiving new plots, after which the community members are supposed to pay $5 annually in tenure fees. But instead, the headmen are selling two-hectare plots for as much as $4,000 to home seekers from urban areas.
As a result of the widespread sale of land in the district by headmen and chiefs, he said, villagers have reduced space to plant crops and engage in market gardening, particularly the production of green vegetables and tomatoes that provide extra income to local families.
Warship Dumba, the president of the Elected Councillors Association of Zimbabwe, a group promoting the interests of councillors and serving as a watchdog that monitors municipal authorities, is worried about the unplanned encroachment into rural areas.
"The situation is common in rural areas that border cities and towns and seems to be getting out of hand. Traditional leaders are conniving with chiefs and district administrators to grab land from helpless villagers, and of major concern is the fact that this is making rural dwellers poorer while a few individuals get richer.
"There is no doubt that cities like Harare and Chitungwiza have serious housing problems, but it is not acceptable to change land use without following proper procedures," Dumba, who said his organization has carried out several investigations, told IRIN.
Surplus land has long been held in custody by the traditional leaders to distribute to expanding families among local communities. But growing demand for accommodation from nearby urban areas has turned places like Seke into a sprawling residential areas for urban dwellers.
Low-budget houses have sprouted in rural Seke over the past 15 years, particularly in the last four years, according to Makasha, taking up hundreds of hectares of land that should be reserved for the local people.
Unofficial estimates indicate that Harare and Chitungwiza, the latter having been built to cater mainly for commuters working in the capital, have an estimated housing backlog of over two million units, against a combined population of about four million.
Some of the people buying rural land in rural areas surrounding the two cities of Harare and Chitungwiza are also doing so for commercial purposes.
Simon Makuvaza, 42, a senior bank employee in the capital, runs a thriving piggery project on two hectares that he bought three years ago from a headman whose village is in Seke.
He has built a small cottage for two workers who tend his pigs, as well as pens and water reservoirs occupying slightly under a hectare. He has reserved the rest of the land for chicken farming and a fish pond.
His plot is one of the numerous pieces of land that extend into what used to be grazing wetlands. "The purchase of this land was done secretly because it is illegal. The headman claimed to the chief that I am his nephew who was desperate for land and, in that regard, I am covered," said Makuvaza, whose pigs number more than 500. He paid $4,000 for the plot, he told IRIN.
The headman, he said, persuaded the two families that occupied the land to move to a smaller space on the outskirts of the village, where the soil is sandy and therefore unproductive.
One of the headmen, Patrick Gonyora*, 65, says the illegal sale of communal land has transformed his family's life. He has been selling pieces of land to individuals from Harare and Chitungwiza since 2009, when he was made a traditional leader, taking over from his late brother. With profits from the illegal sales of land in his village, he turned his four-room thatched house into a modern one, complete with electricity.
He also runs piggery and poultry projects that he started with the money he gets from land buyers, and owns a used imported truck from Japan.
"Whenever I sell a piece of land, I notify the chief. I have the right to give land to people who want it, but these days, nothing comes free of charge, so they have to pay. I know that there are villagers who have been complaining to the chief that I am reducing land meant for farming and grazing, but I don't care. I am benefiting from the powers that I was given as a headman," Gonyora told IRIN.
Municipalities get in on the action
Ignatius Chombo, the local government minister whose ministry controls land acquisitions in urban and rural areas, however, told IRIN that traditional leaders did not have the power to sell land to private individuals.
"Traditional leaders are custodians of the communal land and it is illegal for them to sell it, so they risk being prosecuted. Those that buy the land are also doing it illegally, and there is no way in which they can have title deeds, so they would be removed once they are known; they are not entitled to compensation," said Chombo.
He said: "It is unacceptable that the traditional leaders are changing land use by selling plots for residential and commercial purposes, a trend that disturbs villagers' livelihoods."
Unlike private buyers, municipalities are legally permitted to take over land within their districts, said Chombo. Many rural municipalities have worsened the situation for villagers by expanding into villagers' land to build houses for employees, local businesses and workers at rural business centres.
Chombo urged rural district councils to ensure that villagers are not disadvantaged when their plots are taken over by municipalities for commercial and housing projects. District councils must not move people without finding alternative places to settle them, he said.
His words, however, could come too late for Kerina Juru, 65, from rural Goromonzi, about 50km southeast of Harare. The local district council wants her homestead for a housing project for its employees and business owners at the nearby business growth centre.
"City council officials came here last month and told me that I had to move within six months because they want to build houses here. They said it was my duty to find an alternative place to go, but where will I find the land?" she told IRIN.
Caring for her four grandchildren after their mother's death a few years ago, Juru worries she will be forced to sell her four head of cattle to buy a new plot elsewhere. "I am not sure if I will be able to find a school near enough for my grandchildren," she said.
Since 2005, she said, the Goromonzi rural district council has moved scores of families from the village. Some of them have been lucky enough to acquire new land in other villages, while others have resorted to "squatting" with their relatives.
"This forced removal of villagers is ruthless. Many families are now struggling to grow enough crops to feed their families, and the situation has been worsened by the fact that the rains are no longer reliable these days," Juru said.
*Not a real name
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]