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Zimbabwe farmers set roots in Zambia


KAYANJE FARM, Zambia - When a truckload of government-sponsored thugs chased Chris Thorne and his family from their wheat and soybean farm in Zimbabwe three years ago, ransacking his home and decrying him as a racist, Thorne was left to wonder whether a white farmer like him could have a future in Africa.

Thorne is finding his answer in Zambia.

Just north of Lusaka, Zambia's sleepy capital, Thorne is busy felling trees, leveling termite hills and laying irrigation lines to expand his new 7,000-acre tobacco and maize farm.

"The opportunities are endless here," says Thorne, a ruddy-faced 56-year-old, who clicks through Zambia's advantages as if he were making a sales pitch: good rainfall, rich soils and vast expanses of arable land, about 70 percent of it not being cultivated.

What's more, he adds, the racial tension that led to such agony in Zimbabwe seems nonexistent here.

"It's got it all," he says of his new home.

Cast as greedy colonialists by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, about 4,000 of Zimbabwe's 4,500 white farmers, including Thorne, were tossed off their farms beginning in 2000 as part of what the government billed as a land reform program, in reality a government effort to redistribute white-owned land to blacks.

The program deteriorated into violence as the government dispatched youth brigades and veterans of Zimbabwe's civil war to take over white-owned farms.

Many of Zimbabwe's white migrants packed their bags for Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia, wary of farming again on a continent where Zimbabwe's land reform policies enjoy support from many African leaders.

Preferred destination

For the farmers who vowed to stay on the continent, few destinations have been as attractive as Zambia, a former British colony slightly larger than Texas with a population of 10 million. An estimated 200 white farmers and their families have settled here in the past three years.

Zambia's government, if somewhat cautiously, is welcoming them as the spark the country needs to jump-start its ailing economy. Largely as the result of the arrival of Zimbabwean tobacco farmers and their access to millions of dollars in loans, Zambia's tobacco industry is booming. Since 2001, annual harvests have increased from to 33 million pounds from 6.6 million pounds.

More than 20,000 jobs have been created nationwide, according to tobacco industry representatives, and plans are also under way to build a tobacco-processing plant in Lusaka.

By comparison, Zimbabwe's once-powerful tobacco industry is in tatters, shrinking to 143 million pounds of tobacco this year from a high of 528 million pounds in 2000.

In more than just tobacco, Zimbabwe's economic loss has been Zambia's gain. Zimbabwean mechanics, engineers and other agricultural suppliers are moving to Zambia to do business. Tourists reluctant to visit Zimbabwe are choosing to visit Zambia to go on safaris and visit Victoria Falls, the spectacular waterfall on Zimbabwe's northern border with Zambia.

"It's rewarding to my government to have investors who have in their mind adding value to Zambia and who get on with the people of the country," Mundia Sikatana, Zambia's minister of agriculture, told a gathering of tobacco farmers this month.

After facing severe food shortages in recent years, last year Zambia exported 100,000 metric tons of food aid - much of it going to Zimbabwe. Long dependent on copper mining, the Zambian government now hopes to make grain and tobacco as well as vegetables, roses and beef the backbone of the economy.

"The sky's the limit," Sikatana said.

For Chris Thorne, Zambia at first was not an attractive destination. He had moved to Zambia once before in 1970, believing that the spacious country would offer more opportunities for a young farmer than Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia.

But soon after his arrival, Zambia's economy went into a tailspin; the government nationalized all land and private businesses and the price of copper, Zambia's main export, plummeted. Heavily dependent on foreign aid, Zambia's people were left poorer than they were at independence in 1964.

Retirement postponed

Thorne returned to his birthplace, where during the next 25 years he became one of Zimbabwe's most prominent farmers, operating a consortium that grew one-fifth of the country's wheat and soybeans.

Just when Thorne was looking forward to a relaxing retirement, Mugabe launched his land reform program. When Thorne lost his 3,750-acre property in Zimbabwe's Mazowe Valley in 2001, he began looking for a new home.

The question was, where would he feel welcome? There are no easy answers for whites in Africa, who have often struggled to find a place on the continent since the end of colonialism more than four decades ago. He and his wife briefly considered a move to Australia before vowing to stay in Africa, the place of their birth.

"We are Africans," he says. "We don't want to leave Africa."

He traveled to Mozambique, Uganda and Angola looking at properties before turning to Zambia, which he decided he would give a second chance.

Searching through a database of hundreds of available properties, Thorne eventually found an abandoned organic vegetable farm overgrown with thorn trees and weeds just north of Lusaka, where he secured with a 75-year lease from the government.

Backed by $1 million in loans from a local bank and the Richmond, Va.-based Universal Leaf Tobacco Co., Thorne planted his first crop of 200 acres of Virginia leaf tobacco and 625 acres of maize last year.

Walking through his dusty compound, Thorne proudly showed off his 14 new metal sheds used for curing tobacco and a mammoth warehouse, where Zambian workers sort, grade and bale tobacco under fluorescent lights for shipment to auction.

Rising out of a thicket of thorn and acacia trees is Thorne's new home, a stunning brick house with oriental carpets and cathedral ceilings.

"At the beginning, this was all bush," says Thorne, who lived with his wife and son in tents for the first five months of their stay. Thorne is planning to build brick homes for his 400 Zambians workers, many of who have never held regular jobs before.

Innocent Bwalya, a 21-year-old who pressed handfuls of yellow and brown tobacco leaves into a baling machine, said he plans to save his earnings to study agriculture.

"My aim is to have my own farm someday," he said.

If Bwalya's dream comes true, it would be a step in the right direction for Zambia, whose leaders would like to see the country's newfound tobacco fortunes shared with the black population.

Low-key activity

Zambia's government is reluctant to advertise the arrival of the white farmers, on a continent where efforts to reclaim white-owned land enjoy enthusiastic support, including in South Africa and Namibia. Last year, in what analysts considered a face-saving move at a conference in Paris, Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa publicly dismissed reports that white farmers were moving to his country.

Likewise, Zimbabawe's transplanted white farmers are wary of trumpeting their successes here too loudly, afraid that their economic success might breed the same ill will it did in Zimbabwe.

"I thought we were working closely with the government [in Zimbabwe] but we didn't work closely enough. ... You need to be sure you are carrying everyone with you," says Peter MacSporran, whose lost his farm in 2001 before moving to Zambia, where he set up Agricultural Advisors International, a company that assists farmers relocating to Zambia.

In an effort to spread tobacco wealth beyond the white farming community, Universal Leaf Tobacco Co., which is backing the white farmers with $30 million in loans, plans to offer $12 million to black Zambian farmers wanting to join the industry.

For the tobacco industry, investing in Zambia makes good business sense, says Philippe Rusch, managing director of Universal Leaf Tobacco. After years of reaping a dependable harvest from Zimbabwe, the economic and political turmoil left the tobacco industry without a dependable supply of Virginia leaf tobacco.

Now the tobacco industry is diversifying its investments, investing in farms not only in Zambia, but also Malawi and Mozambique.

"They realized that putting all your eggs in one basket is not a clever thing to do," says Rusch.

Even so, Thorne is placing his bets on Zambia, putting all his savings into his farm in Zambia and hoping that after jumping from Zambia to Zimbabwe and back again, he has finally found a place he can call home.

"This is our third time around. We have to make this one good," he says. "We'll do it."

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