ZIMBABWE – Chimoio, Mozambique – A middle-aged white man wearing a khaki shirt and shorts stands on a flat, fertile piece of land surrounded by a group of young black men in bright orange uniforms.
Bill Creswell, 58, owns a farm in the agricultural town of Chimoio in Mozambique’s Manica province. The young men in uniform are his employees. Altogether about 45 of them are working the fields.
Creswell is one of more than 50 white farmers who moved to Chimoio from across the border in Zimbabwe following its controversial land reform programme. Since early 2000, the move by the government of President Robert Mugabe has driven thousands of white farmers off their lands.
“This is home. Zimbabwe is a chapter in my life that is closed,” Creswell told Al Jazeera, inspecting new tomato seedlings while adjusting his sunglasses to block the rays of tropical sunshine.
Creswell said he left Zimbabwe more than 10 years ago, as the world he and his family knew crumbled around him. “I felt unsafe. I left with nothing. No valuables, just a bag containing my clothes. Until that point, I only knew Zimbabwe.”
In 2000, violent land takeovers started forcing out Zimbabwe’s more than 3 000 remaining white farmers. Creswell left and never looked back.
Land ownership was one of the major issues during Zimbabwe’s brutal struggle against white British minority rule. Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, and Mugabe was elected president.
Because of the race-based preferential treatment enforced by the repressive colonial system, white commercial farmers owned an estimated 70% of the fertile land in the country, with blacks pushed out of their ancestral areas onto unproductive land without compensation.
At independence, about 6 000 white farmers owned almost two-thirds of the country’s arable land.
Growing impatient at unequal land distribution and the slow progress of redistribution of arable land since independence, impoverished peasants and veterans of Zimbabwe’s colonial struggle took matters into their own hands starting in 2000 – and reclaimed land by force.
Many white farmers moved to the United Kingdom, from where their ancestors had come. Others headed for Australia and New Zealand.
But many remained on the continent. Dozens moved to Zambia, South Africa, and Nigeria. Others chose to stay closer to Zimbabwe. More than 200 crossed the border into Mozambique, the former Portuguese colony of more than 25 million people.
Mozambique emerged from a bloody civil war in 1992, which had damaged the country’s commercial farming sector.
In light of the developments in Zimbabwe, Mozambique saw an opportunity and welcomed the white farmers with cheap, long-term land leases.
Starting from scratch
In Chimoio, located about 95km from the border with Zimbabwe, more than 50 Zimbabwean commercial farmers were attracted not just by the offer of safety and favourable land leases, but also by cheap loans from multinational tobacco companies.
They started from scratch, clearing bush before planting.
The language barrier between the farm owners and Mozambicans was a big problem at first, and the white farmers struggled to find employees who knew about their methods of farming.
They also had to find new markets for their produce: In Zimbabwe, they had contracts with local supermarkets and multinational companies, but they had to start anew in Mozambique. It was painstaking work, but it is finally paying off, Creswell said.
“We started initially very small and we [have] grown. We now grow 12 hectares of horticulture. It doesn’t sound much, but it terms of turnover it is quiet big,” Creswell told Al Jazeera.
More than 140km north of Chimoio is Vanduzi, another town favoured by white Zimbabwean farmers who escaped Mugabe’s land redistribution programme. Vanduzi, which is also near Zimbabwe, is nestled in the shadows of mountains, and has a small river that flows year-round.
Kevin Gifford moved to Vanduzi 13 years ago after his farm was seized. He is the third generation in his family to have been born in Zimbabwe. On his new 450-hectare farm, he grows tobacco and keeps 150 head of cattle and 160 sheep.
He is happy about how he has been received in Mozambique, but is still bitter about events back home.
“I do feel welcome in Mozambique. I think Mozambique has been very good to us. It started with President [Joaquim] Chisano inviting us to come and help develop his country, and I think the government has been very proactive on that. Of course we have had our problems. Everybody does. But I’m comfortable here,” Gifford told Al Jazeera, his three dogs keeping close watch on any movement on the vast farm.
‘Life is getting better’
The farmers’ arrival has been good news to locals in this part of Mozambique. The once sleepy villages that had no jobs to offer youth have started to thrive. These two farmers together employ close to 200 local men, most of whom had previously been unemployed.
“What happened in Zimbabwe, if it happens here it will be sad for us, because he [Creswell] is helping us a lot. In this community there is a lot of unemployment,” said Jorge Alberto, a 32-year-old father of four.
Other white Zimbabwean farmers found the relocation too difficult, though. They laid down their tools and headed out of Mozambique to seek opportunities in other countries.
“Many of them gave up the fight and left. Some went to Australia and others gave up farming completely,” Creswell said.
Creswell and Gifford are two of the thriving few to have remained, and now they are reaping the rewards.
“Life is getting better and our yield is increasing every season. I have no plans of going back to Zimbabwe. My family and I are going to stay here,” said Creswell.