World Rainforest Movement

An overview of the problems faced by Mozambique’s forests, forest-dependent peoples and forest workers

Mozambique is a country rich in forest resources, with a total forest area of approximately 40.6 million hectares and 14.7 million hectares of other wooded areas (DNTF, 2007). Most provinces have vast areas of unspoiled, beautiful forests, from where rural communities acquire several goods for subsistence as well as for cultural and spiritual reasons. Forest diversity is however poorly documented due to several reasons such as the vastness of the country, poor transport network, the long-lasting civil war, and the general lack of human and financial resources.

Productive forests (forest areas demarcated for the production and exploitation of wood) cover about 26.9 million hectares, while 13 million hectares have been defined as areas not suitable for the production of wood, where most of the National Parks and Forest Reserves are situated. The forests that have some sort of legal protection or conservation status cover some 22% of the total forest cover of Mozambique.

The most extensive forest type – occupying approximately two thirds of the country – is the so called Miombo Forest. This type of forest occupies vast areas in the central and northern regions of Mozambique and is also important for local people. Main uses include source of firewood, charcoal and medicinal plants, source of nutrients and soil fertilisers, through fires and recycling of leaf material, and as a source of food for domestic animals. Due to its generally fertile soils, Miombo forests are also used for agriculture (Moçambique, 2003).

The Miombo forest is characterised by a dense vegetation cover, with deciduous and semi-deciduous trees, often reaching between 10 and 20 metres. Fire is an important ecological component in these forests, allowing seed germination and soil nitrification. Thunderstorms at the start of the rainy season can easily set the vegetation alight, however, the green vegetation and moist soils prevent the fires from spreading.

The second most extensive forest type found in the country is the Mopane Forest, occurring especially in the Limpopo­-Save area and upper Zambezi Valley, characterised predominantly by the occurrence of trees and bushes.

The unsuitability of the soils and the occurrence of large numbers of fauna in the Mopane forests resulted in the conservation of large areas, such as those forming the Banhine, Zinave and Gorongosa Parks in Mozambique.

Generally, the North of the country has denser and less exploited forests than southern Mozambique (Micoa, 1998).

People, forests and forest exploitation

Although Mozambique has shown increasing rates of economic growth, “differentiation is also increasing, with most of the growth in GDP going to the top 20%, while the spread between the poor, the very poor and extremely poor is increasing” (Hanlon, 2007).

The majority of Mozambicans live in rural areas, relying on natural resources for daily livelihoods. Subsistence agriculture is practiced by the majority of the rural poor, and commercialisation of products only takes place when there is surplus production. Approximately 7% of the population has access to electricity – the remaining makes use of firewood, charcoal, petrol and gas. The collection of firewood and the production of charcoal for cooking and heating represent 85% of the total energy consumption in the country.

Timber and precious woods are also used by communities for the construction of houses and for arts and crafts, particularly carvings and sculptures. Non wood forest products (NWFPs) include medicinal plants, grass, bamboo, reed and veldt foods such as wild vegetables, fruit and tubers, amongst others. Most of these NWFPs are not marketed by local communities, largely due to a lack of infrastructure and the difficulties in accessing towns and markets. The result is that mats, baskets, chairs and beds made out of grass are sold mainly along main roads.

Land Law and the Forest and Wildlife Law

Two sets of laws govern and protect forest resource stakeholders: the Land Law of 1997 and the Forestry and Wildlife Law of 1999, with regulations approved only in 2002. The Land Law (1997) recognises and protects traditional rights to land, including forests. The Forest and Wildlife Law (1999) delineates the rights and benefits of forest dependent local communities, such as: subsistence level use of the resources; participation in the co-­management of forest resources; community consultation and approval prior to allocation of exploitation rights to third parties; development benefits derived from timber production under a concession regime.

The Land Law of 1997 recognises community’s rights to land and makes community consultation compulsory when assigning rights of use to a second party. It also has a limited recognition of customary rights as a means to defend women’s rights (Negrão, 1999). Although communities can utilise any forest product for their own consumption, they are not allowed to commercialise these products without a license (Norfolk et al., 2004).

The Forest and Wildlife Law was aimed at sustainable forest resource management, and to create a more effective structure for the generation and distribution of related tax revenue. Central to this law is the concept of Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM), which has been largely embraced in Southern Africa as a “decentralisation process aimed at giving grass roots institutions the power of decision making and rights to control their resources” (Nhantumbo et all, 2003).

One of the main drawbacks of the Forest Law is that it does not include the criteria of occupancy in relation to communities claiming resource rights. The law only offers some protection in relation to subsistence activities. Therefore, it has to be concluded that the two laws governing forest utilisation contradict each other substantially, as the Land Law enables the transfer of real rights to land, while the Forest and Wildlife Law restricts resource use to non-commercial subsistence levels only, making compulsory the application for a licence for commercial resource use (Norfolk et al., 2004). Thus, the Forest and Wildlife Law puts local communities on the same playing field as the private sector and international companies, which means they have to apply for licences and implement management plans in the same way as does the private sector, despite the fact that they lack both financial and technical resources to do so.

Threats to forests – illegal logging

According to the 2007 national forest inventory, the main cause of deforestation in the country is human pressure in the form of burning forest areas to open cultivation areas, firewood collection and charcoal production. The annual deforestation rate in the country is estimated at about 219.000 hectares per year, equivalent to a change of 0.58% annually (DNTF, 2007).

Despite the Inventory’s suggestion that deforestation rates are directly related to population numbers per province, there are several studies indicating that the main causes of deforestation are illegal and unsustainable logging, and, to a lesser extent, forest fires.

However, human-made fires have become widespread in the country, to the extent that they have changed the fire rotation period, timing and intensity in several miombo forests of northern Mozambique. These actions have major impacts on the survival rates of seeds and younger plants, as the period between fires has been dramatically reduced. Furthermore, the slow growth rate of miombo forest plants makes them incapable of reaching a safe size before the next fire.

The illegal forest exploitation has been a well documented problem and, based on estimations of a study by DNFFB and FAO (2003), clandestine timber production in Mozambique may account for between 50 and 70% of the total national production.

On a recent visit to Cabo Delgado province, communities complained about the extensive logging occurring around their villages, high numbers of abandoned logs in the forest (this happens when forest operators find even the smallest of defects on logs, leaving them behind to no use), the indiscriminate logging of small and large trees, nocturnal activity of forest operators (an illegal activity in Mozambique), and the number of foreign operators in the province.

The mechanism of channelling 20% of forest revenues (1) to local communities has been poorly implemented, with only a few communities receiving the money since its implementation. There are several constraints around this mechanism, felt by both the Province Forest and Wildlife Service (Serviços Provinciais de Floresta e Fauna Bravia) and local communities such as high costs involved in the process, weak dissemination of the law, excessive bureaucracy, lack of communication between different actors, rigid bank mechanisms related to the opening of accounts by local communities, weak civil society, amongst others. For those communities which eventually receive the 20%, there are also problems related to their capacity to manage the money and eventual projects that they may want to implement.

There are other issues affecting community members including the inhumane conditions, backlog of salaries, below minimum wage salaries and lack of contract within the forest sector. For the olheiros (men which walk long distances inside a forest spotting the best valuable trees for logging), the salary is about 1000 Mtn/month, while for a lumberjack is about 700 Mtn/month (2).

The logging teams work in extremely precarious conditions, without access or very weak access to safety gear such as helmets, gloves, masks or boots. No first aid or medical support, which makes any basic injury a major risk and deaths are common. There is a lack of basic amenities such as water. The workers are often forced to use the due (moisture) on the leaves and grasses early in the morning in order to get clean. This lack of amenities further increases health issues.

Government enforcement capacity is extremely weak. Illegal logging is therefore widespread, with forest operators often cutting way above the allowed licensed volume, transporting logs without documentation, logging trees with sizes below the legal diameter, and uprooting trees for export.

Besides the lack of capacity and funds, the co-partnership of fines (3), another legal mechanism implemented aiming to improve forest management and control illegal logging, is nearly inexistent.

During a field visit, communities also mentioned that they often catch previously caught illegal operators back in the field, doing the usual work. In some extreme cases, it was reported that not only did the individuals caught return to the logging area, but threatened the community guards involved in the process. This breaks the trust of the communities in the system and questions the usefulness of placing time and resources in helping with the monitoring of forests.

In an interview with the provincial director of customs (Customs Provincial Directorate, Pemba, 21st of August 2007) he commented on the system’s corruption, such as the under reporting of volumes, false registry of cargo and wood species, and illegal export of raw logs of 1st class wood species (4) or planks bigger than the legal size of 10 cm thick. The Asian exporters dominate the market, having a major interest in raw logs because the main destination (China) does not impose taxes (or imposes very low taxes) on raw logs, but does impose significant taxes on processed woods. Various interviewees commented that the taxes in China were the main reason for the interest in raw logs, and not the high inefficiency of the processing mills (around 50%) in Mozambique, because the losses are covered by the processing mills and not by the Asian buyers, who pay for final product’s volume.

Centralisation is yet another setback in the forest sector. Many of the administrative districts do not have copies of the forest licenses or concessions which fall within their district boundaries. Local governments are rarely involved in the channelling of 20% of forest revenues to local communities.

At the same time, the country seems to be now directing efforts towards the development of strategies for the production of agrofuels and plantations. On a recent visit throughout Mozambique, it became evident that most provinces, administrative posts and localities are eager for agrofuel projects, which are seen as a way out of poverty. There are several plans for the production of agrofuels and ethanol, mainly from jartropha and sugar cane. Depending on the scale and location of these plans, they may become one of the biggest threats to deforestation in Mozambique, as forest areas will be lost to plantations, and rural communities, dependent on agriculture and the collection of forest products will be further marginalised.

It has been said that if deforestation rates continue to grow, the resource base will be depleted in 5 to 10 years time. This will force local communities to migrate to degraded land, putting at risk local livelihoods. Will alternative livelihoods be provided for the rural poor? Can Mozambican cities sustain massive immigration?

The need to protect Mozambican forests and hence local livelihoods is an urgent matter and should be a priority in the State’s agenda, rather than developing reforestation plans and agrofuel projects, which will end up competing for forested land, while putting at risk forest dependent communities.

By Vera Ribeiro, e-mail: The full version of the article is available at:

[1] Decree No. 12 of 2002 stipulates that 20% of the value of access, exploitation and utilisation fees of forest products should be channelled to local communities.

[2] 24 Mtn equals approximately 1 USD.

[3] Decree no 12/2002 of 6 June establishes that 50 % of the value of fines derived from the transgression of the forest and wildlife law shall be attributed to law enforcement officials, community agents and local communities involved in the exposure.

[4] Article 12 of Decree 12/2002 forbids the export f logs for precious woods, first, second, third and fourth class species, allowing first class wood species to be exported after being processed in the country