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Lesotho expropriates farmers’ land, gifts it to a multinational

MATIISETSO MOSALA

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security has evicted farmers’ organisations from a commercial site in Ha Ntsi, Nazareth and gifted it to a Singapore multinational grain producer, in a controversial move slated as undermining development of indigenous farmers.

The land in question covers an area of 3909m². It is currently home to Ha Ntsi Resource Centre and has been used by Mesiking and Machache farmers associations for more than a decade.

It also houses the Ratau Community Council and the Milk Collection Centre building, with a huge storage facility.

Local farmers have been asked to relocate the resource centre and make way for Singapore-based Strategic Food Resource (Strafor), after the multinational entered into an “agreement” with the government whose terms have not been disclosed.

According to the Land Administration Authority’s customer division, Lesotho Cooperatives Limited (Co-op Lesotho), an umbrella body for all national cooperative societies, holds the lease on the land, which the agriculture ministry says it owns.

Co-op Lesotho has launched a court case challenging the eviction, arguing that it had not been consulted as a rightful owner of the land. It complains that the government’s move will disrupt its plans to revitalise the cooperative movement and force dairy farmers to travel a considerable distance to deliver their produce.

The case was filed in the Maseru Magistrate’s Court in February after trucks offloaded sand and crushed stone at the resource centre area, signaling Strafor was moving in.

The Ministry’s Principal Secretary, Malefetsane Nchaka, told MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism (the Centre) that “buildings and offices built by the ministry on this site indicated its ownership” but would not comment further, saying the matter is sub judice as it was before the court.

Nchaka said the farmers’ associations were only accommodated at the resource centre. He argued that the ministry “did not need to inform anyone it was going to use its land and property [for the Strafor project]”.

Ha-Ntsi area chief Thamae Thamae told the Centre that the land was owned by the agricultural ministry but ownership was later transferred to Co-op Lesotho in 1974.

According to Thamae and the Co-op Lesotho chief executive Thabo Shale, the organisation then sub-let the land to Machache Farmers Association in 2015, when the Machache Milk Centre was launched.

Milk collection centre in background of sand and crushed stones pilled by STRAFor

Co-op Lesotho then sub-let to the Mesiking Farmers Association, using greater part of the storage area for animal feed and wheat which it supplied to Nazareth farmers and neighbouring communities.

Khoarai Sekoetja, a Ha Ntsi farmer, said Mesiking had played an important role in feeding their animals. He said there is no other convenient source of animal feed in the area.

In his 17 January 2020 letter to Machache Dairy Farmers Association, Maseru District Agriculture Officer Leluma Bereng instructed the association to “hand over the milk centre’s keys to allow the investor [Strafor] to assess the land in terms of [its] plans”.

Bereng’s letter continues: “The government has entered into an agreement with investors regarding the Ha Ntsi Resource Centre. (The) investor’s plans will seemingly affect the milk collection centre, therefore the ministry and the investor have come to a decision to relocate the centre …”

Closure of the centre, the farmers say, will sever the connection the between dairy producers in Nazareth and Lesotho Dairy Products, forcing farmers to travel 32km to Lithabaneng in Maseru.

Bereng told the Centre that he had penned this letter after the ministry had come to a unanimous agreement.

The Machache Dairy Farmers Association’s secretary general Monaheng Mahlakeng, said Bereng approached him and invited him to persuade his fellow members to relocate.  Bereng confirmed this, adding that he had communicated with the association both verbally and in writing, as “the investors were running behind schedule”.

 “I told Bereng that the association already had an agreement with Co-op Lesotho over the use of their property. So I don’t see how another agreement could be reached when the owners were not consulted,” Mahlakeng said.

Despite the pending court case, Strafor has gone ahead with preliminary construction works, which are reported to be at an advanced stage.

The Centre understands that Strafor has an interest in investing in crop production to address Lesotho’s food security challenges. Basotho depend on imported maize, their staple food.

Strafor’s bulk grain production project envisages the erection of huge silos for grain storage and a mill that will run round the clock.

Angry farmers have criticised the Strafor for failing to compensate landowners adequately when piloting its project in Nazareth.

The company and the ministry are also accused of phasing out local initiatives aimed at reviving cooperatives and bettering the lives of indigenous farmers.

Unfair compensation

Strafor piloted its project in villages of Ha-Nqosa, Ha-Mpiti, Ha-Matela, Ha-Nkota and Ha-Molengoane in Nazareth, where it sub-let land from residents and planted 700 acres of maize crop.

MNN was told that the village of Ha Ntsi was also earmarked as part of the pilot but that its chief, Thamae Thamae, pulled out “because they could not agree on the terms of partnership”. Thamae argues renting out their fields for a small share of the pie for 20 years did not sound fair to him and his people.

“Also, they did not go through the council for proper channels, it was more of an ambush because some villages had already agreed to the contracts,” added Thamae.

According to Bereng, Strafor compensate each farmer from the five villages by giving him or her 150kg of grain per acre for 20 years.

Several attempts were made to get Strafor’s side of the story including numerous visits to their local office based in one of the hotels in Maseru and emails, texts and phone calls, which went unanswered.

Tšepo Mohaleroe, said to be Strafor’s project coordinator, failed to respond to questions sent to him through his email address and WhatsApp, after he had promised to reply.

MNN also contacted Strafor Lesotho’s director, Navin Mhandas Nair, who promised to attend to questions but did not do so.

Obstructed local projects

Co-op Lesotho’s chief executive officer, Thabo Shale, told the Centre that while their property was used by tenants to store for crop harvests and milk, it was also intended “for development that will bring cooperatives back to their glory days”.

“The ministry’s actions disrupting our and the farmers’ associations’ plans, including the revival of a seed and fertiliser subsidy programme,” Shale said.

According to Shale, Co-op Lesotho has also partnered with Potato Lesotho Association in a project to produce high-quality potatoes in Nazareth. This required a storage facility that the government is now handing to Strafor.

 “We have also sought expertise from West Grow, a company based in South Africa specialising in the sale of potato seedlings in Africa,” he added.

Shale said Co-op Lesotho is also working with Lerotholi Polytechnic for expertise in fixing machinery mainly as a way of addressing the unemployment in the country.

He said the graduates will be absorbed into a “machinery ring”, a co-operative society of farmers and agricultural businesses concerned with reducing machinery and labour costs.

To realize this vision, Co-op Lesotho was working with specialists from German’s Senior Expert Service (SES), a leading public organization of experts in Germany who would provide technical and financial support for the machinery ring.

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