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Staff from the Masvingo Centre for Research Advocacy and Development (MACRAD Trust) consult with members of the Chilonga community in Chiredzi. © 2021 MACRAD Trust

(Johannesburg) – The Zimbabwe government is evicting thousands of people from an indigenous minority group from their communal land, Human Rights Watch said today. The order affects more than 13,000 people of the Shangani minority.

On February 26, 2021, the Local Government, Urban and Rural development Minister, July Moyo, published a legal notice ordering thousands of people occupying approximately 12,940 hectares of Chilonga communal land in Chiredzi, southeastern Zimbabwe, to leave immediately unless they acquire fresh rights of use or occupation to that land. The legal notice, Statutory Instrument 50 of 2021, said the land was being set aside for lucerne grass production – farming grass for stockfeed.

“The Zimbabwean government should stop these evictions that ignore the rights of indigenous communities and would leave thousands of people destitute and vulnerable – particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should ensure that any eviction process is carried out only when it is strictly necessary, and follows due process, adequate prior consultation with those affected, adequate compensation, and provision of alternative land.” 

On March 4, the Information Ministry Permanent Secretary, Nick Mangwana, shared a video message on Twitter in which the parliament member for the Chiredzi West constituency, Farai Musikavanhu, claimed that the government had consulted the Shangani people of Chilonga and that they supported the lucerne grass production project. However, Human Rights Watch established that Musikavanhu is not the parliament member for the Chilonga area, and several Chilonga leaders told Human Rights Watch they are opposed to eviction and to the grass farming project by a private company.

On March 4, a Chilonga community leader told Human Rights Watch that the community rejected the lucerne farming plans because they were announced without the community’s consent. He also said that the government did not provide reasonable notice for relocation, plans to pay compensation, and provision of alternative land with infrastructure like schools, clinics, hospitals, and roads.

Another community leader told Human Rights Watch that, “We refuse to be forced to leave our homes without any reasonable notice, since the law says we must leave immediately, and without any compensation.”

Another said: “This is not the first forced eviction for the Shangani people in Chilonga community. In the 1960s the colonial government displaced us to Chiredzi from our ancestral lands to pave way for Gonarezhou National Park.”

Zimbabwe’s Communal Land Act, section 10, authorizes the local government minister to set aside communal land for any purpose, after consultation with the local Rural District Council. The law permits the minister to order evictions, under certain limited circumstances, including with reasonable notice and compliance with the country’s constitution. Section 74 of the Zimbabwe constitution prohibits eviction in the absence of a court order issued after considering all the relevant circumstances.

A staff member of a local civil society group working with the Chilonga community, the Masvingo Centre for Research Advocacy and Development (MACRAD Trust), told Human Rights Watch that on April 30, 2020, Minister Moyo met with traditional chiefs, local authorities, the headman of the community, and a few other delegates, to inform the local leadership of the government plan to convert the Chilonga communal area land into lucerne producing farms. The Chilonga community leaders, however, reject the eviction notice, which will affect 678 villages comprising 2,258 households with 13,840 people.

The MACRAD Trust and members of the Chilonga community, through their lawyers, the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA), on March 5 filed two urgent High Court motions to have the legal notice declared unconstitutional and invalid. The filing says that the order infringes on the right to not be subjected to arbitrary eviction, the right to fair administrative justice, and the right to dignity. The cases are pending.

Forced displacement without compensation, or forced evictions, violate international human rights law. The African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, which Zimbabwe ratified, requires in Article 3(1)(a) that states parties “refrain from, prohibit and prevent arbitrary displacement of populations.”

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has stated that communities’ traditional and collective ownership of land should be recognized and protected under the right to property. This includes protecting communities from forced evictions.

In General Comment 7, the UN Committee on Economic, Cultural, and Social Rights defines forced evictions as “the permanent or temporary removal against their will of individuals, families and/or communities from the homes and/or land which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection.”

The committee said that in keeping with their obligations under Article 11.1 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, and Article 17.1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, governments should ensure that “prior to any evictions, particularly those involving large groups, all feasible alternatives are explored in consultation with affected people, with a view to avoiding, or at least minimizing, the use of force.” Governments should also ensure the rights of victims to adequate compensation for any property affected.

“The Mnangagwa government should do the right thing and treat the people of Chilonga with the respect and dignity they deserve by respecting their land and property rights and peacefully engaging with them on its plans,” Mavhinga said. “Forcibly evicting thousands of people amid a pandemic, without reasonable notice, compensation, and alternative land would be a wanton disregard of the country’s legal obligations.”

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