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Co-op Lesotho flips its stance on Strafor…withdraws lawsuit

MATIISETSO MOSALA

Co-op Lesotho has backpedaled on its position against Strafor, withdrawing a lawsuit challenging farmers eviction from its commercial land and buildings after being arm-twisted to sublease contested property to the multinational.

Initially farmers were evicted from Co-op Lesotho’s property after a unilateral agreement was entered into by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security and Strafor. An agreement that irked Co-op Lesotho.

Strafor is set to use the Ha-Ntsi site and property for grain storage and milling activities.

Subsequently, Co-op Lesotho took both the ministry and Strafor to court, seeking an interdict against use of its Ha Ntsi site and property. The cooperatives umbrella body argued that it was not consulted when the ministry struck a deal with Strafor.

But, in a new twist of events, Co-op Lesotho’s chief executive, Thabo Shale told MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism (the Centre) that his organisation never had a problem doing business with Strafor.

“…our only concern is the manner in which they (Strafor) went about acquiring our land and properties,” he said.

In our Lesotho expropriates farmers’ land, gifts it to a multinational story, Shale was unwavering that Co-op Lesotho needed its site and property in question which was “earmarked” for cooperatives revival projects.

Somersaulting on his earlier position, Shale has now told the Centre that cooperatives revival projects have since been diverted to be erected in the southern district of Quthing and northern district of Leribe.

Shale said the Ha Ntsi site and property will now be occupied by Strafor on a 20-year sublease.

Shale claimed the “new deal” with Strafor will benefit cooperatives more in the long run but could not divulge nuanced details claiming “…negotiations are ongoing [with Strafor]”.

According to Shale, Co-op Lesotho was approached by Strafor Lesotho director, Navin Mhandas Nair who “admitted guilt, saying his company was wrong to have taken the ministry’s word on use of the land as they came to realise it belonged us [Co-op Lesotho] and pleaded for out of court settlement as they did not want to be sued”.

Contacted for comment, Nair promised to respond to questions but did not respond as promised.

In the wake of Co-op Lesotho abandoning farmers for Strafor, Machache Dairy Association has to source own land for relocation of its milk collection centre by Strafor under new promise.

According to Shale, the tenant (Mesiking farmer association) will have to vacate the storage facility as soon as the contract with Strafor is signed.

The Centre has witnessed that as Co-op Lesotho and Strafor negotiations are underway, construction of the assumed grain storage silos and mill by Strafor continues.

Shale said Co-op Lesotho’s board of directors understands that Strafor is behind schedule on its construction plans and that it cannot afford any more delays, hence decision allowing continued construction.

These developments, the Centre learned are not only gut-wrenching to the farmer associations but to the Ha Ntsi community and its neighbouring communities as they benefitted immensely from the facilities.

Machache Dairy Farmers Association’s Secretary General Monaheng Mahlakeng confirmed to the Centre that Co-op Lesotho has taken a very shocking and unpopular decision for a cooperatives umbrella body by evicting their association’s milk collection centre.

Mahlakeng said their eviction talks were led by District Agricultural Officer Leluma Bereng and Strafor’s agent Tšepo Mohaleroe who verbally promised to rebuild the milk collection centre of the same value once association acquired land.

Mahlakeng has expressed concern that there is no written agreement where Strafor promises to relocate the milk collection centre.

“We need to find land as soon as possible because without a written agreement people can easily go back on their word.

“The only challenge is that we might have to buy the land and we do not have that kind of money saved up,” lamented Mahlakeng.

Mahlakeng said it was hard to speak boldly in meetings with Strafor’s team after Coop-Lesotho “abandoned our association leaving us stranded and at the mercy of Starfor”.

He said they were shocked that Coop-Lesotho reneged on its solidarity stance with farmers when Shale told them to the deal with Strafor on their own as Co-op Lesotho is promised a lot of money for the sublease agreement.

Chief Theko Makhaola, Ha Ntsi area chief, spoke of the loss he suffered having to vacate the storage facility on February 19 after being locked out.

Makhaola said he had to move his business to a location unfamiliar to his clients resulting in loss of business.

Makhaola says before he knew it, he was fenced out of his workplace and denied entry without prior notice.

“The intention was clear; it was to deny me access so that I would move out. Without any prior warning or notice from my landlord, I had to move out,” said Makhaola adding “fairness and justice are never in favor of the poor in Lesotho”.

Makhaola said once contractors dug foundations, a huge fence was put up surrounding the entire site making it hard for him to gain access with restricted movement in and out of the property.

“Farmers knocked at my house every day for services because they could no longer find me at the storage facility. I tried to ask Shale to intervene being my landlord but he angrily told me to stop claiming I pay rent for use of the storage facility. But this baffled me because I did pay rent to Co-op Lesotho for use of the facility,” Makhaola narrated his ordeal.

Makhaola was never reimbursed rent he had paid for the month of February.

He said Strafor offered to help him move his stuff to his residence but he found it hard to function from there without proper storage facilities.

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