CHIMOIO, MOZAMBIQUE — Mozambique has little of the natural mineral wealth of its neighbors and, after years of war, few of the luxuries of modern life. But to white Zimbabwe farmers fleeing turmoil in their homeland, the rich, red soil of the former Portuguese colony's western provinces looks like gold.
Many of the dozen or so families who have come to hew new lives from the overgrown ruins of Mozambique's colonial-era plantations, lost their farms in neighboring Zimbabwe in the last two years of political violence.
One man watched as his timber farm was burned by squatters. Another, who had supported the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), fled to Mozambique in fear of his life after several death threats left him sleeping with a gun beneath his head.
"Zimbabwe didn't look very bright, so we came here to try to make a go of it," says Brendon Evans, whose family recently started Manica province's first dairy. "If we can find security in Africa, then that's the place for us. We've lived our whole lives here."
Zimbabwe, once one of Southern Africa's most stable and prosperous countries, has been engulfed by violence since early 2000. President Robert Mugabe, in a bid to garner popular support in the country's parliamentary elections, began backing bands of squatters who invaded white-owned farms, driving off or even killing the farmers and their families. The invasions crippled the agricultural sector and led to widespread hunger and hyperinflation.
Next week, Zimbabwe will hold its long-awaited presidential elections, but few believe that they will be free and fair. Attacks against opposition supporters - and any one suspected of being one, including election observers from neighboring African countries - have increased in frequency and severity.
In Zimbabwe, Mr. Evans helped work the farm of his wife's family. Their dairy and corn farm was one of the first to be invaded and the family was forced to abandon their property for six weeks. Although the squatters are now gone, they could return, but the future in Mozambique looks more secure.
These days, the Evans family sleeps in a cold, unpainted, concrete house. It's not quite the frontier - they are close enough to Chimoio that a cell-phone hung on the patio still rings - but the five miles of potholed dirt road over which they must take their milk to market becomes nearly unpassable when it rains.
Uncertain of their future in Zimbabwe, one by one, families like the Evans's are picking up and moving to countries such as Mozambique, Zambia, and even war-torn Angola to start again.
Mozambique, devastated by decades of war - first for independence and later by a 16-year civil conflict - is welcoming these experienced farmers to help it build a commercial agriculture sector. But many of the basic necessities, such as reliable telephones, well-paved roads, and experienced laborers, are in short supply.
For the last five months, Ben, another new Zimbabwean farmer, and his business partner, have lived in army-green tents without electricity or running water while they rebuilt the ruins of a small, 1928 house and planted their new 250 hectare farm. In less than half a year, acres of well-tended tobacco and corn crops have sprung up and two dozen employees work the fields and wooden tobacco drying sheds. The farm's neat fields are a stark contrast to the thatched huts and small family plots of corn that otherwise dot the landscape.
With their families still in Zimbabwe until the farm is running smoothly, they have only each other for company. Their neighbors speak only Portuguese, the country's official language. The only English-speaking inhabitants are two Peace Corps volunteers teaching in the local school 2.5 miles away.
Financially, moving to Mozambique has meant starting over for most farmers. The Zimbabwean government has severely limited the amount of money and property they can take out of Zimbabwe and land ownership rules in Mozambique make it difficult to acquire financing. One relic of Mozambique's Marxist past is that there is no private land ownership. Land must be leased from the state, at a rate of about $1 a year for three acres, but no bank will take that lease as collateral for a loan.
"The problem is finance," says one farmer. "There are billions of dollars worth of knowledge among Zimbabwe farmers, but very little capital. That's why there's not a hundred farmers here."
The Mozambican government says it has received between 70 and 80 applications from white Zimbabwean farmers, but most are still struggling to get financing or to find available land. Only about a dozen have so far managed to settle in the provinces Manica or Tete, along the border between the two countries.
In general, the people of Mozambique have welcomed the new farmers for the jobs and experience they bring. Ben employees 25 people, the Evans family 75. A survey by a local farmers' union indicated that there was widespread support for the new farmers and a hope that they would help introduce new farming techniques to Mozambique's largely sustenance farming community.
Many of the new farmers say they will return to Zimbabwe if the opposition MDC wins the election and ends the government's land seizure program. But few hold out much hope that the MDC will be allowed to win, regardless of what the people say at the polls on March 9 and 10.
Before long, some predicted, the countryside of Zimbabwe will look like that of Mozambique, with the ruins of scattered farmhouses as the only testament to the flourishing commercial agriculture that once thrived there.
"I have no doubt that if things go on as they are, my farmhouse in Zimbabwe will be roofless in six months," says the MDC supporter. "The country will disintegrate into nothing within a year."