Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Wild Wet Wilderness of Mozambique

Snorkeling through the coral reefs of the Quirimbas Archipeligo

I have been spending the last three weeks in the far northeast of Mozambique. This is the Cabo del Gado province, and it is here that some of the last remaing wilderness areas in Africa can be found. Pemba is the capital city, and at the moment it is best known for its pristine white beaches, the new Quirimbas National Park with dozens of coral islands boasting an amazming varirty of wildlife. Dugangs or Sea Cows, much like the Manitee, live in inland mangrove swamps and bays, ducking among the brachiated coral. Humpback whales come here at this time of the year to breed, and from the top of the lighthouse on nearby Goa Island I watched a pod breaching high into the sky and cavorting in the waves. But there is a dark cloud on this clear blue horizon, more than one.

Here there has just been an announcement by US oil company Anadarko of a discovery of oil and natural gas offshore. Already the Texas swagger can be seen at local resteraunts along with trucks full of military guards driving through the old portuguese town with oil workers under armed guard, ostensibly to deter piracy and kidnapping - two problems which have never been a real problem in sleepy Pemba before. The dark shadow of the BP oil spill has not even entered the debate of whether drilling for oil in this island paradise is a good thing or not. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that it will happen, and the lack of debate about it makes it even more worrying, since the size of the oil deposites may be huge and a cash boon for one of the ten least developed countries in the world. But there is little evidence to suggest that oil money would ever reach the population. Other African countries like Angola and Nigeria that rake in trillions of dollars remain some of the most desperate places to live in the world.

But inland there is also a problem. The new Quirimbas National Park and Niassa Game Reserve are being shot out by poachers. There seems to be collusion or at least aquiescence by the local authorities, who have done less than nothing to stem the flow of illegal elephant ivory from these shores. North of Pemba elephants used to surf in the azure waters, but they have not been seen for four years. Reliable reports suggest that poachers have adopted a more deadly approach to their trade: using rat poison on the beasts' watering holes. A crate of ivory from here that reached Singapore seems to support this idea. Tiny tusks the size of a man's finger were found, suggesting they even hacked them from the very young animals.

Private lodge owners are banding together to fight the poachers with little official support. They have about twenty five private guards and a helicopter, but this is far from adequate, and they are urgently appealing for greater support from the Mozambiquan government and the internationalcommunity. At least two hundred rangers are needed to make any impact on this lethal trade, where every day the pochers are emboldened and the numbers of elephants diminish. Links between the poachers, local businesses, arms smugglers and drug dealers are discussed at length around lodges and bars.

Trees are being felled all over the region. For twelve kilomteres oustide of Pemba there are just wood mills, sawing up the downed hardwood trees and exporting them to the far east, mostly to China. Export permits are a joke and can be bought from corrupt officials. Much of the expensive mahogany wood is already gone, but much also remains that could still be saved. This blog has touched many times on African deforestion issues, but here there is still a chance to stop the majority of the wood loss and choose a different path than the rest of the continent.

Pemba is one of the last frontier towns in southern Africa. Until recently it was isolated -a forgotten town at the dead end of thousand mile road, with no link to nearby Tanzania. But this has changed. In May 2010, a new bridge over the Rovuma River linked the two countries for the first time ever, and trade goods, cars, tourists and local people are flowing back and forth. Development is happening, and it will be up to the people of Cabo Del Gado Province to decide what the future of this incredible wilderness will look like.