Africa, Economy & Trade, Environment, Headlines

TOURISM: US Billionaire’s Dream Of Floating Casinos Shattered

Mercedes Sayagues

MAPUTO, MOZAMBIQUE, Nov 22 1999 (IPS) - The future of southern Africa’s most pristine wilderness is uncertain. Last week, the Mozambican Council of Ministers revoked the concession of 236,000 hectares (ha) for eco-tourism granted in 1996 to American billionaire James Ulysses Blanchard III.

In March, the paraplegic Blanchard (54) died of a stroke. His estate was not keen to pursue his dream of floating casinos, five- star lodges and marinas. The heirs, however, expected to sell the concession, not to have it revoked.

It is not known what the government plans for the vast area, stretching south of Maputo to the border with Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa.

The area — an unspoiled, complex eco-system of sand dunes and sand forests, freshwater coastal lakes, savannas and wetlands, along gorgeous beaches and waters teeming with fish — is a likely candidate to be declared a World Heritage Site for its bio-diversity.

The concession was controversial from start. Blanchard, a rightwing gold magnate with ties to the conservative Heritage Foundation, supported rebel group Renamo during Mozambique’s civil war that ended in 1992.

Probably in exchange for ceasing his support to Renamo, Blanchard was awarded a 50-year renewable concession over an area the size of Mauritius, including Inhaca island and the Maputo Elephant Reserve.

Blanchard promised an 800-million-US-Dollar investment. The sum was duly incorporated in the national yearly estimates for national growth. But little materialised.

Mozambican law stipulates deadlines for investors to follow their approved plans or concessions can be revoked.

Blanchard was not prepared to fork out his own money but looked for co-investors. At one stage, his company advertised 200 plots of 0,4 ha each at 50,000 US Dollars each and 500 plots of 2ha each at 100,000 US Dollars. However, all land belongs to the state in Mozambique.

A South African consultancy prepared a fancy, expensive brochure, known as Blanchard’s Black Book. It describes a Disneyworld paradise of golf courses, luxury hotels, and even a steam train along the dunes.

Against Mozambique reality of rutted roads and non-existent infrastructure, the plan seemed out of touch. Investors were not forthcoming.

When a couple of tourist operators proposed to start with simple tented camps and thatched lodges, Blanchard declined. He wanted luxury facilities. Being wheelchair-bound, he wanted smooth, comfortable travel. Helicopters and boats would bring tourists from the capital Maputo.

Another factor that must have shaped his vision of tourism is that he always saw his domain from a helicopter or airplane. From the air, Blanchard saw a postcard. Easy to fill in a lodge here and a golf course there.

Only in late 1998 Blanchard once had ground vision, from the back of a four-wheel drive. Reserve manager Richard Fair, who organised the drive, recalls Blanchard’s elation.

The project was marred by the choice of people at Blanchard Mozambique Enterprises (BME). Its first manager, John Perrot, an oil engineer, spoke of importing lions, elephants and San people for the viewing pleasure of tourists.

The firm claims some 5 million US Dollars were invested. There is little to show for it, besides the black book.

Paradoxically, work at the Elephant Reserve picked up after Blanchard’s death. The turning point was the contract to manage the Reserve signed last December between BME and the National Directorate for Forests and Wildlife.

With this assurance, bits of money began trickling in. Never big quantities, though: for example, one week before his death, Blanchard transferred 60,000 US Dollars to the Reserve.

BME introduced 24 kudu and 14 waterbuck, supplied uniforms and radios for 43 scouts, refurbished their derelict lodgings, and set up regular anti-poaching patrols to control spotlight hunters who drive at night in their four-wheel drive vehicles from Maputo and Ponta de Ouro to shoot roebuck and wild pigs.

To protect peasants and crops from the Reserve’s 200 elephants, roughly 30 kilometres of electrified fence were erected since 1997. The fence was always a sore point with local communities, unhappy about its path. It differs from the old Reserve boundary, since Blanchard’s concession is larger.

Even before the billionaire’s death, the troubled BME was wooing a group of conservationists to become partners.

One was South African magnate Anton Rupert (82). A tobacco magnate who headed the luxury goods Rembrandt Group, Rupert’s contributions to conservation are less well known. He is president of the World Wide Fund for Nature-South Africa, and founder and chair of the Peace Parks Foundation, which wants to set up cross- border conservation areas in Southern Africa.

It appears that a group of impeccable environmental credential wants to take over.

On Nov 5, Maurice Strong, UN under-secretary-general and convener of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was in Maputo. Together with Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, with Graca Machel, wife of former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, as their guide, they toured Inhaca island. Turner’s UN Foundation could step in to protect the wilderness.

Strong is said to be brokering the deal. Also interested are 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. Rupert is believed to be keen as well.

“We have wasted three years without developing the area,” laments Antonio Reina, regional director for the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Blanchard did not make any use of his domain, but this had a positive effect. If he had not held the concession, the lovely wilderness might have been partitioned irresponsibly.

In July, environmentalists were shocked when the government signed an agreement to build a deep-sea port at Ponta Dobela, the jewel of the Reserve’s coast. This resurrects a project from the 1960s to channel exports of coal from the Transvaal, South Africa.

By doing nothing, Blanchard preserved the spectacular wilderness. If the conservation lobby can come up with a team, a management plan, and the government’s commitment, it will benefit local people and preserve for future generations, one of Africa’s most spectacular wilderness.

 
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