February 23, 2012
FEW people would include “farmer” in a list of the world's most dangerous occupations. But a South African might. With rural land ownership a particularly contentious part of apartheid’s legacy, over 3,000 predominantly white farmers have been killed in attacks on their farms since 1994. Some people resort to self-defence. A South African farmer told Eurasianet last year that a typical evening would be spent “sat outside [on the porch] with a gun and a radio [walkie-talkie]". On top of that, farmers feel nervous about the government, not least because of mooted land reforms that could threaten their farms
In August 2010, showing commendable imagination from a 5,000-mile distance, the authorities in Tbilisi invited South African farmers wanting a change of scene to consider an alternative: farming in Georgia. The country has an exuberantly pro-business government, low crime rates, and soil that positively squelches with underexploited potential. Once an agricultural power-house, Georgia now farms less than half of its arable land. It has less than half the number of cows and one-third of the pigs that it had in 1990. Agriculture employs over half the population, yet contributes less than a tenth of GDP. Ridiculously, this fertile country now imports 70 percent of its food. As a result, many of Georgia’s poorest people live in the countryside. Agriculture contributed over 16% of GDP in 2005, but only 8% in 2010.
A new report from the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI), a think-tank, suggests that this idea, backed with €65m ($84m) in taxpayers' money, was not as wacky as some thought at time. The 90 or so South African farmers who have visited Georgia so far have been impressed. Five have already moved to Georgia; more may come, subject to clearance of property rights. But the scheme also supports partnerships between farmers in both countries; the government also hopes to increase investment from those who prefer to stay put.
Many local farmers are still suspicious. Most of them are subsistence-level producers; nation-wide, the average farm is less than one hectare. Seeing a government that has long paid them little attention suddenly court South Africans has produced mixed feelings. Last year, local farmers demonstrated in the village of Zeghduleti, near Gori, after common pasture that they had long used for grazing was cleared for sale to a foreign investor. After a number of arrests, the farmers were eventually advised to slaughter their cattle or graze them further afield. Georgia’s impatient government has a taste for dramatic change and short-term results. But as farmers know better than most, patience can be a virtue too.