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(Refiles to add Tanzania in sixth paragraph and dropped word in eighth paragraph)
By Karen Sanje
LILONGWE, April 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Malawi has tightened its border controls to stop profiteers smuggling much-needed maize out of the country in search of higher prices.
Months of drought had left more than a third of the population reliant on food aid, and the government last month invoked the Special Crops Act, which bans the export of some crops.
The government deployed soldiers to seal its porous borders with Tanzania and Zambia, and impounded trucks that are smuggling out the staple crop in pursuit of more profit.
Malawi police have also been searching vehicles on roads that lead to the borders.
The size of the trucks stopped by the police suggests that large-scale traders may be involved.
“Over a period of two days, we impounded 26 trucks loaded with white maize as they were heading to Chitipa (a district bordering Zambia and Tanzania)," said Enock Livasoni, a police spokesman in Karonga district, which borders Tanzania.
Police in Chitipa detained at least 17 similar trucks carrying white maize last month, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Severe floods in 2015, followed by major drought in 2016, left 6.7 million Malawians out of a population of 17 million in need of food aid, according to U.N. agencies.
This year's harvest has recently begun and has eased the situation, although the World Food Programme said updated hunger figures were not yet available. Its emergency food aid operations ended last month, as planned.
International aid agencies in Malawi say maize smuggling has increased as traders seek the higher prices paid in Kenya and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Severe drought in Kenya has left some 2.6 million people in need of food aid, and a protracted crisis in war-torn Congo means some 6.7 million rely on food aid.
Local groups question whether corrupt police officers have been involved in the smuggling, particularly in Chitipa and Karonga districts.
"The way things are happening is as though the police are complicit in this act," said Grecian Mbewe, district coordinator for Chitipa and Karonga at the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, a non-governmental organisation.
Deputy spokesman for the northern region police headquarters, Maurice Chapola, denied the corruption claims.
"If those making the allegations have evidence, let them come forward with names of the corrupt officers and we shall forthwith investigate and prosecute these officers,” Chapola said in a telephone interview.
Malawian farmers are required to sell their surplus to local vendors and traders. Traders resell it across the country, or to the National Food Reserve Agency, which stores maize and releases it mainly in response to humanitarian crises.
Traders can only export maize, the country’s main staple crop, if they have special clearance from the government. Such clearance has not been granted since 2008, when Malawi started experiencing a downturn in its harvests.
Maize smuggled to Zambia and Tanzania - from where it can be sold to other countries - fetches higher prices than at home.
A 50kg bag of white maize sells on average for 11,000 Malawian kwacha ($15) in towns and cities in Malawi.
Journalists in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, meanwhile, say that the same amount fetches the equivalent of 17,000 kwacha ($23).
“If such smuggling continues, local (maize) supplies will continue to dwindle," said Mbewe.
“As a result, the poor will not be able to afford the price of (maize) which will rise with any increase in demand,” he added.
$1 = 717.7900 kwacha Reporting by Karen Sanje; Editing by James Baer, Alex Whiting and Lyndsay Griffiths.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate