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The transformation of Mozambique into fields of straw and the resulting fires of conflict


David Matsinhe is southern Africa researcher at Amnesty International and Adjunct Professor of African Studies at Carleton University, Canada. Writing in his personal capacity, the views he expresses in this article are his alone and do not represent the position of Amnesty International. [email protected] and @MatsinheDM on Twitter

The transformation of large parts of Mozambique into fields of straw occurs in structural conditions of possibility that negate the Frelimo-led government’s legitimacy. These structural conditions operate as centrifugal forces with the real possibility of throwing the Maputo-based parasitic political class off balance.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Tomás Vieira Mário, a well-known veteran journalist and civil society leader, likened the root causes of the brutal conflict in Cabo Delgado to fields of straw. The point was that abysmal governance had drained Mozambique’s central and northern regions dry as hay, making them prone to fires (conflict). Mário’s allegory raises these questions: How were these regions transformed into fields of straw? What are the material conditions that constitute the straw and how did they come into being?

The Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) recently published Land in South Africa: Contested Meanings and Nation Formation, about connections between land governance and economic, social and political conditions in southern Africa. In the book, 13 authors write about how various aspects of land governance transform southern Africa into dangerous fields of straw. Entitled “Land, Rights and Dignity”, my chapter documents this process in Mozambique, where the current regime of land governance encourages the scramble for resources in the name of economic development, often without due diligence on human rights, just compensation or free, informed, prior consent. This is a prolific production of fields of straw.

Structural conditions

The transformation of large parts of Mozambique into fields of straw occurs in structural conditions of possibility that negate the Frelimo-led government’s legitimacy. These structural conditions operate as centrifugal forces with the real possibility of throwing the Maputo-based parasitic political class off balance. Part of the colonial legacy, these structural conditions include: the vast majority of the population (78.4%) is concentrated in the central and northern regions; poverty is overwhelmingly concentrated in rural areas; the central and northern regions are overwhelmingly rural; mineral resources are by far concentrated in central and northern regions; two thirds (66.6%) of the population live in rural areas; central and northern regions are strongholds of the opposition; the asymmetrical regional economic, social, and political (im)balance favours the southern region at the expense of central and northern regions; the extraction of resources from central and northern ecosystems benefits a small political elite 2,500km away.

From Frelimo’s standpoint, governance entails balancing these centrifugal forces. In Maputo, governance is understood as ensuring the economic, social, cultural, and political docility of central and northern populations while amassing personal wealth through the exploitation of resources from central and northern ecosystems.

Ecosystems governance

To better appreciate the central and northern regions’ transformation into fields of straw, prone to tensions, conflict and violence, let us substitute ecosystems governance for land governance. The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment describes ecosystems as dynamic complexes of plants, animals, micro-organisms and inanimate material, and elements interacting with each other to form a functional unit.

Ecosystems can be comprehensively transformed and systematically managed landscapes (for example, through agricultural and urbanisation activities); they can be relatively intact (for example, untouched natural forests or wetlands). Ecosystems give and preserve life by means of (a) food, water, timber, medicinal plants and fibre supply; (b) floods, disease, waste, water and air quality regulation; (c) recreational, aesthetic, identity and spiritual benefits; and (d) soil formation, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling support. Self-preservation depends on the flows of ecosystem services.

Economic and social exclusion mean communities in central and northern ecosystems are barely buffered against environmental changes by technology and public services.

During the four decades of independence, central and northern regions experienced weak and ineffective governance, little investment in public services and infrastructure, including education, health, housing, water and sanitation, roads and bridges, and internet and telecommunications networks. The effects of this neglect include poor performance in all the 10 three-dimensional human development indicators: health (child mortality, nutrition), education (years of schooling, enrolment) and living standards (water, sanitation, electricity, cooking fuel, floor, assets), and unemployment (notably of youth). Such an economic and social vacuum ensured that communities relied on their home ecosystems for their economic, social, cultural and environmental necessities.

The discovery of mineral resources changed this. Central and northern ecosystems rapidly attracted both the government and mining, oil, and gas companies. Communities became a nuisance that stood in the way of economic progress. They had to be evicted from their home ecosystems through misinformation, manipulation, deception, intimidation and threats.

Tete and Cabo Delgado

To illustrate these regions’ transformation into fields of straw, let us consider the expulsion of communities from their home ecosystems in Tete and Cabo Delgado provinces.

Tete has just over 2.6 million people, most of whom depend on their home ecosystems for survival. Yet, as the map of coal mining projects shows, the government licensed 61% of Tete to mining companies. To do this, it dispossessed communities, banishing them from their home ecosystems, stripping them of their economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights and human dignity.

Contrary to the grandiose promises, dispossession and mining aggravated impoverishment. Tete is a mind-boggling irony. It is the energy capital of southern Africa, supplying power to Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe and coal to international markets. Yet, of Tete’s nearly 500,000 households, only 11% are connected to the national power grid for lighting – the majority live in darkness and shocking poverty.

In Palma, the northernmost district of Cabo Delgado, lies the Afungi ecosystem, home to farming and fishing communities for centuries. Here, Anadarko (now Total) has been building infrastructure for the logistics of gas, people and machines. Offshore gas pumping requires a network of underwater pipelines to transport the gas to the liquefaction plant on land. This would also entail ships travelling between the offshore gas wells and the liquefaction plant. The Afungi and Mocimboa da Praia coastal ecosystems, vital for local communities’ survival for centuries, would now be off-limits.

Palma residents tell of eviction from the Afungi ecosystem through misinformation, deception, intimidation, threats and aggression. Without free, informed, prior consent, illiterate peasants were conned into signing away their home ecosystem, only to learn much later what they had signed.

Working with and on behalf of gas companies, government officials corner a village leader and ask him: “Isn’t it a good idea that the government bring economic development such as foreign investments, jobs, roads, hospitals and schools to Palma?” When the village leader agreed it was a good idea, the officials would order him on the spot to sign a document he could not read. In the face of such contempt for core human decency, Palma communities lost their most valuable economic, social, cultural and environmental assets (their ecosystems) to foreign investors.

On 24 March, the armed group locally known as Al-Shabaab attacked the town of Palma and, for the first time, killed white expatriates, sending shock waves across the globe. What is conveniently forgotten is that years before the alleged foreign radical preacher came to town with his matchbox, the Maputo-based political elite had completed all the necessary groundwork for the preacher’s convenience: the transformation of Cabo Delgado into fields of straw. All it would take was a few sparks of the preacher’s deviant religious ideology, a grotesque distortion of Islam, to ignite the fire. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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