Ed’s letter: Catches, cuts, leaves

Posted on 22 July 2019

Words by Catherine Hofmeyr, Deputy Editor

Somewhere south of Vilanculos on Mozambique’s EN1 highway recently, I passed a convoy of flatbed trucks. Each one held a huge wooden crate. They had come, I’m sure, from Kruger and were bound certainly for Zinave National Park. Their cargo was elephants and other game to be released in pristine wilderness, lush with over 200 tree species.

Mozambique’s forestry law enforcement search a truck near Pemba for illegally logged wood. Image: Getty/Gallo Images.

In May, Getaway detailed the extensive re-stocking of Mozambique’s reserves by the Peace Parks Foundation. It was so gratifying to see it for myself. Another day on the EN1, another huge truck, this one heading in the other direction – to Maputo and ultimately China. Its cargo? Freshly hewn tree trunks.

Whether it’s slaves, ivory, fish or timber, the world’s powers have always helped themselves to Africa’s resources, mostly without asking; often without paying. And so it continues, with Chinese companies in the thick of it. 

Earlier this year, Mozambique’s Minister of the Sea, Inland Waters and Fisheries, Agostino Mondlane, estimated that illegal fishing within Mozambique’s exclusive waters costs the country’s economy around R900 million a year. But because foreign trawlers don’t land their catch in Mozambican ports, the cost could be much greater. 

Gauging the extent of illegal logging is easier. In 2013 the UN’s international statistics database reported that Mozambique officially exported 280 796 cubic metres of timber to China. Chinese ports recorded 601 919 arriving. The London-based Environmental  Investigation Agency (EIA) estimates that the annual discrepancy cost the poor African country over $29 million in lost tax. Funding Mozambique’s forestry law enforcement for four years comes in at a paltry $1 million.

Nando Mhaca was a casava farmer struggling to feed his large family, until a Chinese businessman arrived with a chainsaw and offered him MTS 300 (R75) for each tree he cut – in China the rare chanate, ebony, panga panga and pau preto sell for a hundred times that. Nando knows his new-found ‘wealth’ is illegal, but what would you do if you were in his threadbare sandals? Buying from independent loggers means timber companies don’t need a logging licence and are under no obligation to replant trees. Quoted in the Mail & Guardian, Ana Alonso, a Spanish writer campaigning against illegal logging in Mozambique, said, ‘If Chinese companies would respect the rules, they would only make about 10 per cent profit.’

US-based Global Forest Watch claims Mozambique has already lost some 10 per cent of its forests since 2000. It’s what happens when China’s rapacious appetite for timber collides with corruption and weak law enforcement.

In March the world watched scenes of devastation around Beira in the wake of Cyclone Idai; Cyclone Kenneth followed in April. Forest cover is Mozambique’s best defence against flooding and other extreme weather patterns. And when it’s all gone? In a Mail & Guardian interview with a Chinese timber company owner, ‘Mr Huo’ laughs loudly when asked what he’s going to do when there’s no wood left in Mozambique. ‘Move to the next country where there’s still wood, obviously.’

In June last year China and Mozambique signed a Memorandum of Understanding, to lessen the stripping of Mozambique’s forests. We wait with baited breath… 

For our cover story on Mozambique (page 86), colleague Gabby Jacobs and I drove from Joburg to Vilanculos and back. Two women alone – we felt safe everywhere. Despite the pillaging, Mozambique is still a magnificent place to holiday and the people welcome tourists everywhere. Repay them by not being a neo-colonialist. Buy local, limit your fishing catch to subsistence quantities, scuba with a light touch on delicate coral reefs and don’t speed.

For those who are wondering, the editor is enjoying his first leave since joining Getaway in February last year. He’ll be bouncing back from the UK for the next issue. In the meantime, enjoy planning for the spring that’s just around the corner.

Image: Getty/Gallo Images

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