Africa, Environment, Headlines


Mercedes Sayagues

PORTO DOBELA, MOZAMBIQUE, Nov 23 1999 (IPS) - “Do not destroy our existing wealth to create new wealth,” wrote in 1973 Mozambican environmentalists to the Portuguese colonial government.

They were complaining against a railway that would cut thought the Maputo Elephant Reserve towards a deep sea port to be built in Ponta Dobela. The veterinary services, wildlife lovers and ecologists argued it would affect the flora, fauna and water resources, and detract from the pristine wilderness.

Twenty-five years later, a new generation of greens is battling the resurrected Port Dobela project.

It has been moved a bit south but is still in the middle of the coast that stretches south of Maputo to Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa. The area is considered among the world’s 240 areas of great biodiversity. Africa has roughly 25 of these.

It is likely to be declared a World Heritage Site for its unique bio-diversity wealth.

In July the government signed a memorandum of understanding between the state railway company, Caminhos de Ferro, and two South African businessmen.

The 515-million-US-Dollar port will channel the coal and magnetite exports from the Transvaal, South Africa. It would offer more competitive rates than Richard’s bay in South Africa, they say. How, it is not explained.

“One more time that Mozambique builds things to serve South African interests,” says Antonio Reina, regional director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

The principals of Porto Dobela Development Limited are Barry Swart and Colyn Braun. Documents show that their company was incorporated in the Isle of Mann with a capital of 2,000 pounds (3,242.20 US Dollars).

Both are tight-lipped about funding and co-investors. It would not be the World Bank. It has just approved a 100 million US Dollars to Mozambique to upgrade the port-railway systems in Maputo, Beira and Nacala.

Critics point out that Richard’s Bay is expanding. The Transvaal coal deposits of export quality are estimated to end in 20 years. Experts say 515 million US Dollars cannot build a deep sea port from zero.

Environmentalists are gearing for battle. They request that the environmental impact assessment be conducted by an independent body, such as the World Conservation Union, and to help draw its terms of reference. An inter institutional committee should monitor the process.

The port’s impact should be huge, say experts. The world’s highest vegetated dunes would suffer. So would the sand forest, home to unique butterflies, birds and plants. Pollution could kill the 7 kilometre-long coral reef, one of the southernmost in the world. Two species of turtles nest on the beaches. Wildlife habitat would be drastically reduced.

“To build a port there is madness. It is criminal,” says Reserve manager Richard Fair.

Another argument against the port are the recent findings of a study on elephants and people along the Futi river. Fred de Boer, an ecologist at the Biology Department at Eduardo Mondlane University, says 205 elephants were counted; only two were out of the Reserve. The area along the Futi is scarcely populated.

“From the perspective of both people and elephants, it is feasible to open the Futi corridor between Tembe park in KwaZulu Natal and the Reserve,” says de Boer.

The World Bank supports this idea. But the proposed railway and port cut across the Futi.

“The port would be bad for the elephants, the sand forest and the ecosystem in general. We would lose biodiversity,” says de Boer.

Porto Dobela would also affect the eco-tourism focus of the Spatial Development Initiative recently signed by South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland.

The port would be located just south of the Maputo Elephant Reserve, in the middle of Matutuine district. A national master plan designates Matutuine for conservation and eco-tourism; yet an industrial project from colonial times is resurrected.

“The port is in contradiction with the master plan,” says Helena Motta, coastal adviser at the Ministry of the Environment.

The vast area was granted in concession for eco-tourism in 1996 to American billionaire James Ulysses Blanchard III. His promised investment of 800 million US Dollars for five-star lodges and golf courses never materialised.

Last week, the Council of Ministers revoked the concession. It is not known what the government plans to do with the area.

If, in agreeing to the port, the government was sending a signal to the company to invest or divest, it also sent wrong signals for potential investors — procedural irregularities, lack of transparency and contradictions in policy. Not the best way to attract investors.

Blanchard, with his Disneyworld dreams of steam trains and floating casinos, delayed any serious tourist development in the concession. But this may turn out to be his greatest achievement. By blocking the land, Blanchard stopped both its development and its destruction.

He may go into the annals of conservation not for what he built in the Reserve, but for all that was not built, from South African time-share condominiums to an industrial port.

At stake is what kind of development does Mozambique want. It has opted to go for mega-projects, like the Mozal aluminum smelter factory. Other grandiose schemes failed for lack of funding and poor infrastructure: the settlement of Boer farmers in 220,000 hectares in Niassa province; Blanchard’s 800 million US Dollars investment.

In 1996, the government stopped a deal with the South African firm SAPPI to grow eucalyptus in Matutuine district because the area was declared for eco-tourism. Now an industrial port rears its head. But the government hastens to sign an agreement before an environmental impact assessment is made.

It appears that a group of international conservationists could step in to protect the wilderness. Maurice Strong, UN under- secretary-general and convener of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is said to be brokering the deal.

Also interested are Ted Turner’s United Nations Foundation; Vance G. Martin, president of the 25-year-old Wild Foundation, and Teresa Heinz, of the Heinz Family Philantrophies associated to the multinational food giant. South African magnate Anton Rupert is believed to be keen as well.

Two weeks ago, Strong, Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, with Graca Machel, wife of former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, as their guide, they toured Inhaca island.

A take over of the area by environmentalists might save it. The environmental impact assessment will throw light on the amount of damage a port would do.

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