Mozambique Land Reform and Rural Transformation Overview

Mozambique Land Reform and Rural Transformation Overview

Mozambique was colonised by the Portuguese until 1975 when the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) government under President Mondlane, took over power at the dawn of independence. The architecture, motivation and character of colonial land policies in Mozambique were similarly racially discriminatory and exploitative as those introduced under various colonial administrations in Southern Africa. At independence, the new government faced the challenge of transforming the colonial land legislation and governance system known as the prazo system, which was introduced in the early 16th century by the Portuguese colonial settlers.

The colonial system effectively emasculated and denied indigenous people their livelihoods through the creation of large commercial farms, displacing and co-opting the indigenous people as cheap labour for commercial large-scale agriculture and mining. The colonial land tenure system structurally and economically impoverished indigenous Mozambicans by preventing them from meeting their historical and contemporary basic needs.[1]

About 70% of Mozambique’s population of 28 million live and work in the rural areas, majority of Mozambicans live in rural areas, depending on small-scale subsistence farming for their livelihoods.[2] In the year 2016 to 2017 the economy of Mozambique suffered a sharp decline in growth, worsening inflationary pressure and depreciation of the metical. Land reform and agrarian policy is crucial to the development of Mozambique, bridging deep inequality between the rich and poor and uplifting livelihoods in rural communities.  Mozambique faces high socioeconomic pressures emanating from relatively high birth rates, the impact of HIV/AIDS in poor communities in the middle of less developed social amenities in historically economical deprived conditions. Child mortality stands at 29% and HIV prevalence among adults is at 11.5%[3].

Transforming the prazo system should be at the heart of any process of equitable land reform and promotion of rural livelihoods. The colonial government imposed the “prazo” system of land governance until Mozambique’s independence in 1975. This was a semi-feudal system, under which large estates of land and mineral concessions were leased by the colonial administration to white settlers and traders to exploit using semi-slave labour coercively provided by indigenous Mozambicans.[4] Indigenous Mozambicans were simultaneously pushed into poverty stricken labour reserves with poor soils, little rainfall, agriculturally harsh, disabling conditions, while they were forced to produce cash crops like coconut, sugar and rubber for retail and export to Europe, instead of food crops. Huge tracts of land seized from indigenous Mozambicans were exclusively leased as private property with its previous indigenous owners turned into tax paying cheap labour. This system of tenure resulted in concentration monopolised land ownership with the Portuguese colonial settlers disproportionately seizing huge tracts of the most fertile land, equally endowed with variety of minerals. Its supportive coercive system of taxation and semi-slave labour forced upon indigenous Mozambicans destroyed indigenous agriculture as it left only women and children for productive agricultural work.[5]

The efforts of government to usher land reform and transform livelihoods through both nationalisation and market-based strategy failed to comprehensively lift the marginalised ordinary people from poverty. Nationalisation promoted concentration of ownership of land under the state, without restoring land or making it more accessible to indigenous people. Nationalisation of land, plantations and properties formerly owned by the Portuguese also destroyed both rural and capitalist agriculture. Accordingly, the socialist land and agrarian policies adopted by the post-independence government of Mozambique failed to enhance human livelihoods despite good intentions. From 1992, the same FRELIMO government at this era under President Joachim Chissano shifted from nationalisation to market-based land reform.

Nationalisation of land and other properties, and resultant resistance from former land owners simply collapsed agrarian productivity and general land use without creating new opportunities for the majority of the rural population who depended on agriculture for their livelihoods. Land ownership and use, just like the rest of the means of production were nationalised, subjected to tightly regulated state ownership which triggered resistance from former colonial owners of large commercial farms and other means of production. Where rural communities had provided labour under the prazo system, they remained as sources of cheap labour for state owned farms, and after 1992, they became cheap agrarian source for market-based farming largely working under the same wages, except that now they got salary, though meagre. Nationalisation in Mozambique failed to create equitable access or restore land and cultural property rights to rural communities.

The post – civil war government under President Chissano shifted to a free market land tenure system with emphasis on providing title to both rural communities and large-scale commercial farmers under the Land Act of (No. 19/97)[6]. This market-based policy transition was lauded by donors and policy makers who argued that providing title to rural farmers would allow them to access capital, commercialise and modernise, without critically analysing its unequal impact on rural livelihoods. Proponents of private property rights emphasised the positive impact of the new policy approach on security of tenure associated with ownership rights. The Land Law is a significant and necessary step in regularising the legal status of land holdings and in providing security of tenure to smallholder farmers. However, it is inadequate for more equitable distribution of land supportive of rural livelihoods and rural transformation.[7]

The transition from nationalisation to free market land policies is exerting new pressures undermining self-sufficiency and sustainable rural livelihoods among the poor. The Constitution of Mozambique provides for land-use and benefit rights (called DUATs in Portuguese, which stands for Direito do Uso e Aproveitamento da Terr) to be allocated to anyone who wants access to land. Access to and use of land is considered to be a fundamental right for all.[8] The Constitution sought to secure the land rights and title for ordinary Mozambicans on equal terms with large commercial interests in a market based liberalised economy. In theory the 1995 National Land Policy and the Land Law of 1997 secures local community rights and the rights of women, acquired through customary occupation, while promoting new private investment.[9] However the practicalities of this legislation is still biased towards huge property owners and commercial farmers who have capital to buy small holdings of land from the poor, subletting it to rural farmer for commercial production, thus disrupting sustainable small scale farming supportive of local livelihoods. On the other end, the system remains partially regulated. Even though the DUAT in fact represents strong private rights with constitutional protection, the state continues to retain ultimate authority over all land and has special regulatory control over ‘public-domain’ land, such as national parks and other protected areas.

The model and practice of land reform in Mozambique is biased towards commercial medium- and large-scale farming which disadvantages small-scale farming.  The DUAT system has failed to secure the rights of poor communities and individuals despite this being part of its objectives. The central issue of the Mozambican land question concerns the best means for promoting the intensification of agriculture and expanding capital-intensive land use which is aimed at commercialising farming.[10]

The marketisation of land reform through the provision of title deeds to communal farmers and 50-year leases stabilised land governance and support security of tenure for the large-scale commercial farming sector, thereby attracting more foreign investment in biofuels, forestry and export-focused crop production.  However, rural land use is predominantly subsistence farming, which relies on seasonal rainfall. Thus, market-based land reform is pursued at the expense of rural transformation and communal food security. Ideally, the logic of providing title deeds should allow rural communities and individuals to use their land as collateral which gives them access to capital from financial institutions. This privatisation of rural communal land ownership also allows communities to sell and buy land. However, quite often rural citizens lack capital to buy more land or are content to work the land traditionally allocated. In some unfortunate cases they end up selling their land to those who are already rich, further undermining their livelihoods.

Although the major goal of the government is to get more land under production to support national development and alleviate poverty, the bias towards large-scale commercial farming diminishes the desired policy impacts in rural communities and their families. Of the 80 million hectares of arable land, only 45% is arable and only a small portion of that land is productively used to ensure local food security and poverty alleviation. A strategy based on inclusive development of both commercial farming and the growth of smallholder farming, based on shared resources and transfer of skills across the two tiers would be immensely beneficial for Mozambique.

Promotion of alternative rural livelihood through equal access to land and fair distribution of gains from agriculture, are crucial for poverty alleviation and rural transformation. The political economy dimension of land reform is crucial to understanding the needs of local communities, their reliance on agriculture to mitigate poverty, historical and cultural embeddedness of agriculture as a means of production and survival amongst rural communities. Understanding local dynamics also reveals challenges faced by the most vulnerable sections of society like women, children and youth, creating opportunities for the adoption of relevant strategies informed by community local needs.

The thrust of the new Mozambique development model is focused on attracting investment and encouraging employment in large-scale commercial farming. The government believed this will lead to growing incomes and wealth for a substantial proportion of the population. However, incomes could be broadly shared and vertically enhanced if large-scale commercial farming, smallholder and family agriculture mutually cooperated in shared utilisation of existing land, other resources and new opportunities. Rural communities remain poorly integrated in organised agriculture value-chains, except as a main source of much needed cheap labour. Rural citizens typically need to work on their family plots for subsistence and supplement their incomes by working on large-scale commercial farms. In practice large-scale commercial farmers use various tactics to pressure rural communities into providing cheap labour, or alternatively to sell their land to them, or grow cash crops instead of food crops to feed their families. This turns the political economy into a kind of subtle zero-sum game where rural citizens cannot develop their own self-sufficient livelihoods without being seen to jeopardise large-scale farming interests, and vice versa.

In conclusion, the changing land tenure framework in Mozambique allows for title deeds and improves security of tenure, which includes rural citizens. However, the sole provision of title and recognition of land rights alone is not adequate or comprehensive enough a solution to enhance rural livelihoods. There is need for a more broadly supported agricultural strategy which considers the many centuries of land deprivation and exploitation. In addition, more support is needed for alternative rural livelihoods to comprehensively uplift the poor and enable rural transformation.


[1] Galtung, J. 1969. ‘Violence, Peace, and Peace Research’, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 6, No. 3, pp.: 167–191. Available At: [Last Accessed: 27 May 2018].
[2] WB 2018. The World Bank in Mozambique: Overview, on the World Bank Website, viewed on 23 January 2018, from
[3] WB 2018. The World Bank in Mozambique: Overview, ibid.
[4] Newitt, M.D.D.  1969. ‘The Portuguese on the Zambezi: A Historical Interpretation of the Prazo System, Journal of African History, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp.: 67–85. Available At: [Last Accessed: 27 May 2018].
[5]  Newitt, M.D.D.  1969. ‘The Portuguese on the Zambezi: A Historical Interpretation of the Prazo System, [6] Burr, K.  2005. ‘Evolution of the International Law of Alienability: The 1997 Land Law of Mozambique as a Case Study’, Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 43, No. 3. Available At: [Last Accessed: 27 May 2018].
[7] Van den Brink, R.J.E 2008. Land Reform in Mozambique, Agriculture and Rural Development Notes, Land Policy and Administration, World Bank: Washington, D.C. Available At: [Last Accessed: 27 May 2018].
[8] Van den Brink, R.J.E 2008. Land Reform in Mozambique, Agriculture and Rural Development Notes, Land Policy and Administration, ibid.
[9] Van den Brink, R.J.E 2008. Land Reform in Mozambique, Agriculture and Rural Development Notes, Land Policy and Administration, ibid.
[10] Hanlon, J. 2002. ‘The Land Debate in Mozambique: Will Foreign Investors, the Urban Elite, Advanced Peasants or Family Farmers Drive Rural Development?’, Oxfam Great Britain in Southern Africa: London. Available At: [Last Accessed: 27 May 2018].




Gideon Chitanga

Former Media and Communications Specialist

Kudzai Tamuka Moyo

Former Regional Analyst


Follow PESA Online

Follow PESA Online

Follow us on some of your favourite social media.

Contact Us

Please complete the General Enquiry form and submit it to us for a response. Please use the subject “Media” for all media-related requests.


By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. Click here for more information.

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.