World Rainforest Movement

Mozambique: Timber plantations expansion

In the South East of Africa, Mozambique glimmers like a bright jewel in the African sunlight.

The coastline stretches thousands of kilometres, the warm Indian Ocean feeding the abundance of life. Ragged tooth and Zambezi sharks patrol the coral reefs, alive with sounds in an underwater spectacle of a wide variety of colourful fish, manta rays and turtles. Line-fish, muscles, crabs, shrimps, prawns and crayfish, these rich food resources are available in Mozambique, and have been feeding the people for thousands of years.

Inland we find the wetlands, fertile floodplains, freshwater lakes and rivers, filtering and delivering life giving water which enables agriculture and enterprise.

Mozambique is one of the last remaining countries where you still find free roaming mega fauna, such as lion, elephant and leopard. Apart from the resources wildlife provides to the communities living in such areas, the presence of these animals provides a enormous eco-tourism potential, and increasingly so, as functional ‘semi-wilderness‘ ecosystems globally are becoming increasingly scarce.

One of the greatest natural assets of Mozambique is its people. The land has produced inspirational leaders, incredible artists and active entrepreneurs. For thousands of years people have been cultivating and utilizing the resources of the land,  ancient and historical trading sites are a testimonial to the abundance of the region.

Millions of versatile coconut trees can be found almost everywhere in the coastal region. These trees provide shelter, building materials, fibre, food and valuable oil.  Massive mango trees dot the landscape in many areas, providing an abundance of nutritious food for countless people and animals, and a livelihood for many. Similarly, Cashew nut trees and the delicious nuts they produce in abundance have contributed to the attractiveness of Mozambique as a country of delicacies. Peri peri chicken – on its own a reason for a traveller to visit Mozambique – deliciously prepared in a small roadside restaurant. Or fish “fresh from the river or fresh from the dam’ in Tete. Wild honey sold in bottles on the side of the road, goats being transported to the market in Lichinga on a bicycle. Peanuts, roasted or raw, bananas, tomato’s and sugarcane at road crossings, an abundance of food and culinary delight around every corner.

Yet – in the Mozambique provinces of Zambezia, Niassa and Cabo del Gado natural forests are being decimated – massive quantities of valuable hardwood timberis being shipped to the east. Forests which used to supply timber sustainably, satisfying the local demands. Forests which could provide food, shelter, refuge and opportunity for the people and wildlife of the land.

Despite the massive deforestation, there is a sense that nature is resilient and that the forests can rehabilitate and grow to its former splendour and diversity – because the seed bed is still intact, much diversity is left behind in the forest when the timber is extracted, some plants survive, – to grow and live again.

According to the valuable teachings of Ricardo Carrere – “Afforestation is MUCH WORSE than De-forestation” – because with ‘deforestation the foresters come – extract the timber resource – and leave’…. BUT when a natural landscape is ‘afforested’ it normally implies the establishment of alien timber plantation monocultures. These trees are planted – and they stay. Never will the planted region be rehabilitated to its former glory – not even if vast financial resources are utilized to achieve such goal.

Industrial timber plantations in the southern African region are composed of primarily eucalyptus and pine species. These plantations are being promoted by multinational corporations and investment funds whose main motif is profit – and who need hundreds of thousands of hectares of land to secure a sufficient return on investment.

Establishment of large scale timber plantations comes with a massive cost to the environment – utilizing huge quantities of precious water, destroying local natural biodiversity and ecosystem integrity. The extractive model eventually leads to impoverished soils and soil erosion on a large scale. Small scale and diversified farming becomes more difficult as land, soil and water resources diminish, leading to less food being produced, insecurity, malnutrition and poverty.

These impacts are clearly evident in neighbouring South Africa – where millions of hectares of alien timber plantations have been established to feed export orientated pulp mills, impoverishing the environment and polluting the air and rivers. Gone is the abundant and diverse natural grasslands and ‘water retention’ services they provide. Diminished is the grazing ability of the land – impacting on traditional livestock farming. Dry is the rivers which feed the people of the lowveld and flow through to southern Mozambique, as the low flow in the dried winter months can not provide for the water ‘greed’ of these alien, evergreen trees, the eucalyptus roots penetrating 50m plus into the soil profile, decimating the precious water resource.

Few workers find permanent and quality jobs in the timber industry in South Africa. Most often the jobs are ‘outsourced’ – and once trees have been planted little management intervention is required, due to the long 9 – 15 year rotation cycles of the trees. The industry in South Africa has become increasingly mechanized, and specialized harvesting equipment has replaced the jobs of thousands of men and women throughout the industry.

Alien timber plantations are of invasive species, and such is the impact on the water resource that timber plantations have been classified as a ‘Stream Flow Reduction Activity’ or SFRA. As such, a ‘license has to be applied for to the department of Water Affairs. Certain provinces in South Africa, such as Mpumalanga, is ‘over-subscribed’ with regards to water allocations – which has made it very difficult to obtain timber growing licenses in the province.

South African based timber farmers are now looking to Mozambique for investment in plantations, and the state timber company ‘Komatiland’ has already invested in plantations in Manhica and Zambezia provinces. Similarly, Sappi is investigating the possibility of establishing timber plantations and a possible pulp mill in Zambezia province of Mozambique.

As land resources are becoming scarce on a global scale, multi national corporations are looking to the Global South for access to arable land resources. At a conference in Stockholm, a Swedish Industrialist said: “If you want eucalyptus to grow quickly, learn to speak Portuguese..” in context implying that Mozambique and Angola are the regions that investors should explore with regards to timber plantation establishment.

And so it is that hundreds of thousands of hectares of Niassa, Zambezia and Manhica provinces in Mozambique are experiencing the dangerous phenomena of ‘afforestation’.  Vast industrial timber plantations of primarily eucalyptus plantations are being established by multinational corporations claiming to plant ‘forests’ but in reality causing land degradation on a scale never before experienced.

We cannot sit in our electrified houses, drinking our piped water, and demand that there be ‘No Development’ and only environmental protection. It is a fact that there is a need for ‘development’, for ‘growth’ and opportunity for all. But we caution that monoculture timber plantations throughout the world have shown impacts which need to be comprehensively considered and debated, with the full participation of local people whom will be affected by changes in land use of their environment.

There are development alternatives which need to be assessed and could potentially be much more beneficial to the people and the land. Organic agriculture models which provide more jobs, food security and resilience to climate change. Agriculture models which do not require hundreds of thousands of hectares to be degraded, but that can be applied on much smaller areas of land and still be financially viable. Land use models which provide for more value adding, processing and job creation potential.

Ideally, more land need to be left to be ‘semi-wilderness’ – but utilized – for the many diverse services nature provides. Then Mozambique will remain a Paradise, one of the few places in the world where a night can be truly silent and where the stars truly shine bright.

By Philip Owen, Geasphere, email: