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White South African farmers seek new life in Georgia

A long way from his South African birthplace, amid the sweeping wheat fields of eastern Georgia, farmer Piet Kemp says that he has found a new home in this former Soviet republic.

And if the government gets its wish, hundreds more like Kemp will follow to help revive Georgia’s ailing agricultural sector, bringing in both cash and expertise.

Shaken by violent attacks and reforms to transfer land to blacks in South Africa, many white farmers have been emigrating, and 10 have already relocated to Georgia to set up businesses under a programme launched by the government.

Kemp was the first of them to make the move, lured by local business opportunities — and the promise of security.

"I do not want to live in constant fear," the 67-year-old said emotionally as he recalled the widespread killings of other white farmers in South Africa.

"We tried to defend our rights, but we lost this war."

When the apartheid system ended in 1994, 87 percent of commercial farms belonged to the white minority, including Boers like Kemp, descendants of Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in the 17th century.

Discontent grew among Boers after the government started to redistribute farmlands in an attempt to counter apartheid-era discrimination.

Amid the violence, Kemp said that he felt he had no choice but to leave.

"In Georgia there is no violence, the crime rate is extremely low. So I will never go back," Kemp declared, comparing the situation here to the high violent crime rates back home, which include some 46 murders a day.

He sold his farm in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, was given Georgian citizenship and in March this year rented 700 hectares (1,730 acres) of land in the village of Sartichala, where he now cultivates maize and wheat.

"I moved to Georgia because I see tremendous opportunities here — there is a good climate, fertile soil and a good market," he said.

Georgian Diaspora Minister Mirza Davitaia, who is in charge of the scheme, said "it is a very important investment initiative."

"Serious capital will be invested in Georgia’s agricultural sector."

South African farmers, he said, "will bring in their skills, experience and technology."

A website, www.boers.ge, was set up to attract interest, and Davitaia said he believed that the 10 South African farmers who have already moved to Georgia will be followed by hundreds of other Boers.

But near Kemp’s land in the village of Sartichala, some Georgian farmers said that the authorities should be supporting them ahead of foreign immigrants.

"I have nothing against Boers, but our government should first care about its citizens. Georgian villages, Georgian agriculture and Georgian peasants have been neglected for decades," said one of them, Tengo Paatashvili.

Others said however that they would be grateful for any help in revitalising the country’s agricultural sector.

"Whoever comes to Georgia with good intentions is welcome. There is plenty of land in the country that is going to waste," said farmer Lado Aladashvili.

The authorities need all the help they can get, because although Georgian land is incredibly fertile and a large proportion of its population works in agriculture, more than 80 percent of foodstuffs are imported, fuelling drastic food-price inflation.

Georgia was once one of the larders of the Soviet Union, renowned for its citrus fruits, grapes, nuts and tea, but the amount of cultivated land has diminished by 43 percent over the last seven years.

A hasty privatisation programme after independence in the 1990s aided the decline, when small plots of state-owned land were handed to millions of farmers, saving them from starvation but creating an inefficient subsistence farming system.

"Georgia has real potential to become a net exporter of agricultural products: fruits, vegetables, meat and cattle," said agriculture expert David Shervashidze.

"The main challenge is the lack of funds, both domestic and foreign investments."

Earlier this year, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili called for large-scale modernisation to turn the country’s "mediaeval agriculture sector into the agriculture of the 21st century" and make it a major source of income.

The plan to attract Boer farmers to relocate to this distant ex-Soviet state is part of Saakashvili’s vision, but although their numbers may turn out to be small, they could make a difference, expert Shervashidze suggested.

"They are the world’s best farmers. They bring in cash, create new jobs and set up efficient businesses," he said.

At his new farm in Sartichala, Kemp is now getting ready for his family to rejoin him.

He has made friends with locals, is learning the Georgian language and is even thinking of converting to the national religion, Orthodox Christianity.

"I came to Georgia to be a Georgian," he said.

Irakli Metreveli / AFP / Expatica