November 17, 2005

To Boost Economy, Some Africans Woo White Farmers

Demonized in Zimbabwe,
Mr. Lombard Hops Border
Into Mozambique's Bush
A Consent From Tribal Ghosts
November 17, 2005; Page A1

CHIMOIO, Mozambique -- David Lombard was driven out of Zimbabwe in 2002 by government-inspired hostility to whites. But the 40-year-old farmer didn't abandon Africa altogether.

Along with several dozen other whites demonized as colonial relics at home, Mr. Lombard moved across the border to neighboring Mozambique. There the government is recruiting white farmers to help build up its economy.

"When I got here, this was all bush," says the stocky, sun-creased farmer. Standing in khaki shorts beside an open-air house that lacks electricity and running water, Mr. Lombard points with pride at the surrounding paprika fields and sheds full of farming machinery.

Across Southern Africa, ownership of prime land by white farmers has become a lightning rod for discontent among impoverished black majorities. Descendants of colonial-era white settlers have long controlled the region's large, modern farms.

Mr. Lombard's cross-border migration was spurred by the opposite approaches taken by Zimbabwe and Mozambique to this explosive brew of race, class, agriculture and politics.

In Mr. Lombard's former homeland, President Robert Mugabe fanned a racial firestorm that pushed white farmers off their land. Over the past several years, an estimated 90% of Zimbabwe's roughly 70,000 whites fled the country. Most landed on relatively comfortable shores of Australia, New Zealand and Britain.

Neighboring Mozambique, which once treated its own white population much more harshly than Zimbabwe ever did, wooed the farmers with offers of cheap land, plentiful labor and tax breaks. White farmers, the government reasoned, would supply the nation with food, jobs and capital. Mr. Lombard was willing to risk hardship and disease to stick with what he knows best: farming African soil.

"A problem for Zimbabwe has become a solution for Mozambique," says Filimone Meigos, a prominent sociologist at the Mozambique Institute of Technology and Science in Maputo, the nation's capital.

Other African nations that lack white farming populations, such as Nigeria, Zambia, Uganda and Senegal, also extended similar invitations, treating families like the Lombards as a valuable development resource.

"Africa is in my blood," Mr. Lombard said recently, even as his 5-year-old daughter, suffering from malaria, lay curled up with fever. In the 1600s, religious persecution in France drove Mr. Lombard's Protestant ancestors to Cape Town. In 1896, they were among the first white settlers in what is today Zimbabwe. "We will always stay in Africa," he insisted, "because I believe we can make a difference here."

Making a Difference

Mozambique government officials say Mr. Lombard and the other white farmers from Zimbabwe and South Africa have already made a difference. According to government statistics, their 35 new farms in the Manica province have created more than 10,000 jobs on about 54,000 acres of previously unused land. The farms have introduced modern export-geared agriculture to the nation, churning out products such as flowers, tobacco and yogurt. "We never had fresh milk here before them," says Cremildo Rungo, a Manica agriculture official who has worked with white farmers since the influx began in 2002. "Our people used to go to Zimbabwe to buy food. Now, it's the Zimbabweans who come to buy food here."

In the 1960s and early 1970s, when Mozambique was a Portuguese colony, more than 100 white-owned farms dotted the province. Some 150,000 Portuguese-speaking whites lived in Mozambique, including U.S. Sen. John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.

In 1974, a military coup ushered democracy into Portugal, and the new government handed over power in Mozambique to a Soviet and Chinese-backed nationalist guerrilla movement, Frelimo. The new regime nationalized all land and dispatched dissidents to re-education camps. Manica's white farmers were often given 24 hours -- and a single suitcase -- to evacuate homesteads where some had lived for generations. Soon, almost all of Mozambique's whites were gone, leaving the country without most of its doctors, teachers and entrepreneurs.

The Marxist experiment went disastrously wrong, and Mozambique's economy collapsed. In 1976, anti-Communist guerrillas launched an insurgency, unleashing a civil war. By the time a peace deal was struck in 1992, almost one million had died. Two years later, the Frelimo party ditched its Communist ideology, embraced free markets, and won the country's first free elections.

Across the border in Zimbabwe, where Mr. Lombard was then living, the climate for whites remained relatively stable during this time, despite political change. In 1980, white domination gave way to black majority rule, and the nation's name changed from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. Mr. Mugabe, Zimbabwe's newly installed president, was advised by Mozambique President Samora Machel not to repeat the excesses of Mozambique's revolution. "You have inherited a jewel," Mr. Machel said. "Keep it this way."

The Zimbabwean leader seemed to have listened, at first. For nearly two decades, Mr. Mugabe presided over racial reconciliation. Most whites chose to stay put. The predominantly white commercial farming sector flourished, turning Zimbabwe into a regional breadbasket and the envy of its neighbors.

In the late 1990s, however, seeking to shore up his sagging popularity, Mr. Mugabe uncorked old racial demons. In speeches, he described Zimbabwe's white citizens as "conceited" saboteurs with "an evil agenda." By then, many white farmers, including Mr. Lombard, were living on property purchased with the consent of Mr. Mugabe's government. That didn't stop authorities from orchestrating waves of land expropriations. Government-sponsored thugs invaded farms, sometimes killing uncooperative owners.

By mid-2002, squatters were massing on Mr. Lombard's farm. "People were digging for gold, making holes and trenches all over, and asking to plant near my driveway," he recalls. Persistent threats from the invaders -- and a lack of police response to his complaints -- led him to the conclusion that staying put, especially with two small children in the house, was not an option. "The writing was on the wall," he says.

As landowners left, peasants settled on the confiscated land. But most lacked the capital, machinery and knowledge to run the farms. Eventually, food ran short, and millions of black Zimbabweans emigrated alongside their white compatriots.

Sensing a business opportunity, Felicio Zacarias, then governor of Mozambique's Manica province, began making entreaties to white Zimbabwean farmers in 1998. In the early 1990s, Mr. Zacarias, an agronomist by training, had worked closely with white Zimbabweans while employed by a South African citrus company. Like many agriculture professionals, he grew to respect the expertise white farmers had developed over generations of running commercial farms.

"I knew that the white Zimbabwean farmers were not happy, and that they were looking for a place to continue farming," recalls Mr. Zacarias, now Mozambique's minister of public works and construction. "I also knew that they are the best farmers in Africa, and that the white South African farmers are next after them." In a pitch in 1998 to the white Zimbabweans in the provincial capital Chimoio, Mr. Zacarias explained Mozambique's investment and land laws, and fielded anxious questions from farmers' wives about hospitals and schools.

Because of its Marxist past, Mozambique still outlaws private land ownership. The Frelimo-led government offered foreign farmers renewable 50-year leases on plots of 2,470 acres or more. Annual rents were set at just $1 per hectare, the equivalent of 2.47 acres. Farmers investing in approved areas would receive tax breaks and 50% rent reductions.

In Mozambique, a country twice the size of California, there is enough room for all. Just 20% of its 89 million acres of suitable terrain are currently cultivated. "Mozambique has plenty of land," boasts Agriculture Minister Tomas Mandlate. "And it is open to foreign investors."

In August 2002, Mr. Lombard decided to abandon his farm in Zimbabwe to the squatters and attempt a fresh start across the border. In Mozambique, the newcomers initially asked the government for a large piece of land they could cultivate together by pooling resources. The government refused, fearing it could lead to a wholly segregated community. Mozambique wanted the new arrivals to spread their agricultural expertise throughout the province.

Mr. Lombard eventually selected an overgrown stretch of bush that decades earlier had been the site of a Portuguese farm. One condition for obtaining the lease was acceptance by the local community.

Meeting the Tribal Chief

When he met with the area's tribal chief, Riquirai Tique Macamba, Mr. Lombard presented him with pieces of cloth, cigarettes, soft drinks and crates of beer for a traditional ceremony. Mr. Macamba, a skinny man who is missing front teeth and wears knee-high rubber boots several sizes too big, would not approve the deal without first consulting the ghosts of his ancestors.

After the ceremony, he issued a verdict: Mr. Lombard could settle on the land. Mr. Lombard began building a new home on an old foundation, which was all that remained of his Portuguese predecessor's home. He planted fields of paprika and tobacco.

"He is welcome. The whites are the ones who have the money," Mr. Macamba said recently, as he sat on a straw mat in a village of conical mud huts.

Mr. Lombard employs as many as 550 people, paying them the government-regulated minimum wage of about $1 a day. Although he had not yet built proper housing for himself, Mr. Lombard pooled money with other Zimbabwean newcomers to build a brick school for the villagers.

They also helped the local police station construct a new jail -- one he hopes never to see from the inside, he says with a chuckle. Like many white farmers, Mr. Lombard sometimes wonders whether he'll still be welcome here once the starvation and destruction of Mozambique's recent past fade from popular memory.

A Family Waits

While Mr. Lombard was getting started, his wife Martie, their two daughters and her parents waited across the border in the Zimbabwean city of Mutare. After Mr. Lombard moved from a tent to a more permanent house last year, the rest of his family finally crossed into Mozambique.

Relations with the villagers at times have been rocky. Nobody had worked in a modern business in decades. Villagers had a hard time grasping that they were expected to show up for work on time, and that they could not just take off several days and reappear without penalty. Some used the word "slavery" to describe those requirements, and bristled at having to show Mr. Lombard a justification letter whenever they were absent due to sickness or attending funerals. Employees especially resented that white farmers used experienced black foremen from Zimbabwe, rather than promoting local Mozambicans.

These grievances were aired last month when the chief of Manica's labor unions, Armando Tangai, met with Mr. Lombard's workers on the farm. The heated session was broadcast on local radio, and caused a stir among Zimbabwean farmers, who grew alarmed that their welcome here may be wearing thin.

A few days later, Mr. Tangai assuaged the farmers' concerns. "These farmers don't know Mozambican laws very well, and our mission is to advise them, not to punish them," the union activist explained recently. "Skin color is not an issue for us. We certainly don't want them to close down and leave."

Mr. Macamba, the local tribal chief, says he is pleased with the changes brought by the newcomers. "Before, we were suffering," he says. "Now we can buy salt, food, clothes and everything. The crime is down, too. Our people come back from work so tired that they don't have the time to go steal and rob."

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