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June 27, 2011

Georgia -- and Congo -- on South African farmers' minds

by Eve Fairbanks

The 20th-century Moses sits in a khaki safari shirt before a laptop on the ninth floor of an old Soviet government complex in Tbilisi, the capital of the formerly communist Republic of Georgia, and manages his flock by email and on Facebook. Like the biblical Moses, though, Bennie van Zyl also struggles with impatience in the ranks.

"The questions they ask!" he said when I went to see him in Tbilisi this January. At one stage a few days earlier, he had been getting 60 online queries an hour. "If they go to the website, the information is all there."

The website he meant is It's the online portal for the project Van Zyl, the director of the Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU), has been masterminding for nearly a year now: to send South African farmers to Georgia to rehabilitate the Georgian agricultural sector, which has languished since the end of communism.

Many of the TAU's (predominantly white) members are fed up with farming in South Africa, hence the flood of queries. But mountainous Georgia is also so far away, it's almost unimaginable.

Farmland looks like farmland anywhere, to some degree. But here's the distinction Van Zyl draws between Georgia and South Africa that makes Georgia appear to be a promised land: he perceives a sense of possibility suffusing the landscape, of flush times to come, as opposed to already receding into the past.

Since early 2008, more than two dozen countries have approached South African farmers to ask them to come till their land. Most of these are in Africa and they mainly work with the TAU's counterpart, Agri South Africa (ASA), which, contrary to the TAU, has set a policy to help farmers go only to other African countries.

"I would go all over Africa, but I will never leave this continent," said Wynand du Toit, the deputy head of the ASA-affiliated mission to settle 49 farmers in the steamy south of the Republic of Congo. "This is my home."

In a world where war is provoked by food scarcity, farmers are the peacekeepers. No surprise, then, so many regimes want more of them. Nations from Gambia to Zambia have been appealing to investors from countries with better-developed agricultural sectors to till their land. Between 2008 -- when a grain-price spike set off riots in 30 countries -- and 2009, nearly 60-million hectares of land deals were announced, an order of magnitude more than the pre-2008 annual average.

In this race to woo farmers, South Africans are emerging as highly eligible catches. In places like Georgia and Congo, they have a reputation as formidable ploughmen, although how they got to be so effective must by necessity remain a little vague in their suitors' imaginations. By extending South African farmers' 30-year leases on 80 000 hectares, with more land likely to come, Congo "is expecting abundant food," said Pierre Mabiala, the Congolese Land Affairs Minister.

Of course, the best for Mabiala would be to boost his own people's ability to grow food. But in many developing countries, the gap between what exists and what is needed is so big, it can seem impossible to bridge. In the Republic of Congo, the oil-rich principality west of the Democratic Republic of Congo, 95% or more of the food is imported, mostly from its former colonial master France and at heartbreakingly inflated prices. Congo has 12-million hectares of fertile land, enough to feed all its people and many others besides. But only 2% is farmed, mainly without modern tools. Building the internal know-how to get all the rest under cultivation would be a staggering undertaking.

In Georgia, meanwhile, reconstruction policies after communism mandated the division of formerly communal land into small private plots, on which farmers also using traditional methods now struggle to achieve any economies of scale.

So it can seem easier to import already successful farmers than to mint your own. The South Africans driving to Congo in a convoy next month to start clearing the tropical grass that grows taller than their Land Rovers have agreed to supply local markets before exporting and to set up an agricultural college to mentor Congolese growers. The Georgians, however, haven't made such demands. They just want what South Africa has got: properly modern-looking rural panoramas.

In Georgia, the farmers on my tour were startled to find that certain problems they had come to think of as peculiar to Africa also existed in Eastern Europe. Surveying the Georgian countryside, Frans Venter realised that, to quilt together a plot big enough to farm, "you'd have to work something out with the villagers" who own bits and pieces of land. He shook his head. "It's the same as South Africa."

But, of course, the benefits farmers are looking for when they seek new pastures outside South Africa are not only economic. They are also emotional -- which doesn't necessarily make them unreasonable.

As a result of South Africa's history, there is a general social understanding here that commercial farmers, although perhaps by now an economically necessary evil, are leading a lifestyle that is at least latently exploitative.
The farmers who go to Congo or Georgia hear the exact opposite message: they will be received as handymen, as appreciated experts, even as redeemers. Observing South African farmers in Georgia, it seemed to me that the chance to put on the robes of the healer could be, for the white South African accustomed to thinking of his broader social role as a destructive one, an incredibly powerful and healing experience.

full article and pics...Mail and Guardian

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