Mulanje mountain in the south of Malawi is a truly mystical place. It rises from the plain in very steep cliffs, to a mysterious plateau high in the clouds. Its near vertical walls of black rock have water pouring down them that glistens magically in the morning and evening light.  From Mulanje town, directly at the bottom of one of the cliffs, you crane your neck constantly to look up the sheer walls to the top of the mountain, often hidden like a tablecloth of mist.  I never tired of that view.

I worked for Oxfam in Mulanje from 1999-2001. The area surrounding the mountain is one of low, rolling hills, and huge tea estates, with their evergreen meticulously even rows following the contours.  Tea is an amazing crop, quintessentially colonial, especially British colonial; cared for well, it crops throughout the year.  It grows on the steepest slopes. It is also very labour intensive.

I had been asked to work with the Oxfam team in Mulanje and their projects trying to raise rural livelihoods. The area was the most densely populated in the country, and farmers had some of the smallest patches of land to grow food on.  The people in the area were amongst the poorest in what was, and still is, one of the poorest countries in the world.

An evaluation of our programme, which had been running for a few years, had identified some real successes, but also drew attention to a major blind spot.  Using the techniques of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) – where communities identify their own problems and then co-create solutions – we had been working with a growing number of villages to help improve their lives.

The appraisal found that in practice we were failing to work on many of the problems identified by communities, but rather favouring our own, preconceived solutions.  Whilst these were nevertheless helpful, the key finding was that we were systematically avoiding the more difficult structural problems, in favour of practical interventions that could make a smaller, but more immediate difference.  We were focusing on making the most of what local people had, rather than asking why that was all they had in the first place.

One of these was land. Lack of access to enough land was one of the top three problems identified by every community.  This was unsurprising, given the high population in the area and the fact that large tea estates dominated the landscape.   Our response until that point had almost exclusively focused helping farmers, and particularly women farmers, develop better techniques to make the most of their small amounts of land.  This involved different crops, composting and other ways of increasing their yields.  But we hadn’t until that point asked why there was so little land in the first place and what could possibly be done to try and fix that.

To their credit, the team was keen to address this, and it was my job to help Oxfam think about how we would face up to these structural issues and instead build a programme that, through advocacy and campaigning, would tackle them directly.  This in turn led to Oxfam becoming a founder of the Malawian National Land Coalition, stepping up to take part in the fight for the redistribution of land both in Mulanje and nationally.

Radical red robin

To help us do that, we had a visit from Oxfam’s Land Rights Adviser, a man called Robin Palmer.  Robin was a tall, rangy, affable, gentle and deeply radical Englishman. We spent a wonderful week together that cemented our friendship.  He was an academic, an organic intellectual in the true Gramscian sense; he had taught at universities in Lusaka and Malawi before joining Oxfam in the 1980s.  He was a part of an amazing group of activist thinkers who sought to build a deep understanding of the nature, workings and profound and long-lasting impacts of colonialism in Africa. 

This deep understanding of history was simultaneously vital, modern and relevant. It helped fuel the very real fight against the dying embers of colonialism. Robin himself was expelled from Rhodesia, as it was then known by the government of Ian Smith who had sought to build a white ruled state, in the model of South Africa under Apartheid.  Whilst working for Oxfam he bought the famous house in Lusaka which Oxfam shared with the African National Congress, then in exile, and fighting a clandestine war against white rule.  He was passionately committed to the fight for social justice and dedicated his life to it.

Robin opened my young mind to these issues, and as I type this I look at my bookshelves, full of books about Africa, colonialism and inequality, and I realise once again how much I owe to that week with him and our many discussions afterwards. 

He explained to me the history of Mulanje: the creation of the tea estates in the 1920s and 1930s;  the relatively unpopulated nature of the area at that time, itself a legacy in part of hundreds of years of slavery; the massive influx of people from Mozambique to the area, fleeing the even more brutal slave labour of Portuguese East Africa, as it was then known; and the welcome with which they were met by tea estate owners desperate for the most important resource – cheap labour.  He situated all this in a broader history of Malawi, itself the poorest of the colonies in the region, not a colony but only a ‘protectorate’ (as my friend Winnie Byanyima always says about Uganda, which was also a ‘protectorate’, “It is a curious phrase, I am not sure what they were protecting us from”). Malawians provided cheap and pliant labour, whether for the mines in South Africa or the farms in Rhodesia.

He also taught me about land and land inequality; the visceral importance of land in the imagination of humanity – something that is hard to exaggerate, and harder to understand and empathise with, too, if you are a middle-class urban dweller in the global north. That land is the original form of wealth, the ownership of which predates money as a store of wealth.  And that, in turn, the distribution of land informs any understanding of inequality, its origins, its causes, and its solutions.  

Land inequality, the original inequality

In late 2020, in a great report published by the International Land Coalition and Oxfam we looked at this issue of land inequality directly.   In many countries land inequality fell during the 20th century, perhaps most spectacularly in East Asia after WW2.  For sheer scale of land redistribution, nothing really beats Communist China, very well illustrated by the Economist recently:

Land was seized from the better-off and given to poor farmers, whose share of farmland rose from 14% in 1947 to 47% in 1954. Hundreds of thousands of landlords were killed. A similarly significant, and relatively more peaceful land redistribution, also occurred in Japan, Korea and Taiwan, often in response to internal and external communist threats.  This major redistribution of land and, with it, wealth, is widely recognised as instrumental in laying the foundations for the later dramatic economic growth that was broad based, equitable and lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

Sadly, for the rest of the world, from Brazil to South Africa, land inequality remains extremely high, and this has been worsening in recent years.  The fight for land remains brutal and fundamental. This really matters as any successful and systematic redistribution of wealth must involve that of land too. It also matters because economic growth alone in such unequal countries does very little to address poverty. This concentration of land is being accelerated in part by corporate land grabbing – the largest 1% of farms operate 70% of agricultural land – and not just in the Global South either. Here in the UK only 25,000 people own half of the land in the country, and 30% of all land is still owned by the aristocracy. Increasingly land is traded in our financialised world as just another corporate asset, with little regard for what it represents in terms of people’s lives.

Sadly, Robin passed away a couple of weeks ago.  Reading the many touching tributes to him, it is clear that many others shared my respect and admiration for his work and also learned a huge amount from him.  May he rest in peace and power, as we continue to fight for peoples’ right to land, and the fundamental redistribution of wealth upon which our collective future depends.

Devastating floods in Malawi in recent days Mulanje is among the areas hardest hit by Typhoon Freddy and huge flooding that Malawi suffered in the last couple of weeks. There are lots of ways you can help. Oxfam is mounting a response you can donate to here, or alternatively, to the Mulanje Mission Hospital. I remember the hospital very well, and it is helping to shelter those injured or who have lost loved ones and their homes.  It has been cut off from electricity and need direct support – do consider sending them a donation here.


Author: Max is the Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International & EQUALS Podcast co-host. He is also Co-Chair of the Global People’s Vaccine Alliance.

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