Eco-model <a href="">Summer Rayne Oakes</a> visits Mezimbite.
Eco-model Summer Rayne Oakes visits Mezimbite.

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Mozambique: The "Poster Child" Under Review

Jun 30, 2009

Mozambique was once the darling of southern Africa. Teeming herds of buffalo and elephants drew celebrities and tourists from around the world. Yet this wildlife was wiped out to feed militia and civilians during a civil war that spanned a decade and a half. The country became a different kind of darling: a triumph of humanitarian intervention and peace negotiations for the United Nations, which was still reeling from failure in Rwanda.

More recently, Mozambique has been portrayed as an exemplar of World Bank policies: a socialist-turned-capitalist government, outfitted with structural adjustment programs and put on the path to development. As Woodrow Wilson Fellow Anne Pitcher writes in Transforming Mozambique: Politics of Privatization, Mozambique serves as a "poster-child for the 'success' of neo-liberal prescriptions."

Yet the success story of Mozambique is not complete. A new war is being waged on Mozambique's environment, one that demands the same spotlight as before. The forests are being destroyed by slash-and-burn agriculture, firewood and charcoal production, and over-harvesting of hardwoods by Chinese timber companies, in consort with the Mozambican government, to feed the world's appetite for cheap furniture. The National Forestry Inventory reported in 2007 that Mozambique is losing about 219,000 hectares of forest and woodland per year, though this is difficult to assess due to the prevalence of clandestine and illegal logging.

Economist Nicholas Stern praised China for its reforestation efforts at a recent Carnegie Council event, presumably referring to the recent China Natural Forest Protection Program, and China Fast-Growing and High-Yield Plantation Program. Yet while China may have taken steps to bolster its own natural resources, it seems less concerned about deforesting other developing countries to meet demand at home and abroad. Its import of raw timber has tripled between 1997 and 2007, and the United States receives 40 percent of its wood furniture exports.

Mozambique has become one of China's primary hardwood sources in East Africa, where local forestry laws are manipulated to acquire raw timber at low cost. Following an illegal timber scandal in 2000, nationwide sustainability quotas were set, with permits granted to Mozambican nationals for local use on given areas of land. The original limit of 18,000 cubic meters of wood was overshot and extended to around 50,000 cubic meters as of 2004. Furthermore, the licenses are given to a dispersed array of small operators who largely serve as fronts for Chinese middlemen and senior members of the government. After acquiring the logs at low cost, Chinese companies send the raw timber back to China, stripping the forest at an alarming rate and depriving Mozambicans of the value-added processing.

The Mozambican government has favored a concession system over licenses in an attempt to achieve greater sustainability. Yet concessions are expensive and difficult to acquire, demanding timber inventory, proof of adequate technology to process wood, and proof of greater community involvement.

Into this picture comes Allan Schwarz, a South African ex-MIT architect who decided, mid-career, to abandon the finer things in life in favor of saving the forest. I visited Allan for two months at his Mezimbite Forest Center, where he makes high-end furniture and jewelry from sustainably harvested timber, as well as natural body care products from wild-harvested oils.

Allan calculates tree growth rates to make sure that anything he takes out, he puts back in greater proportion. The impact of Allan's project is manifold. He incentivizes locals to use the forest in a more sustainable way by teaching them how to create products that provide a better return than truckloads of raw timber. Most importantly, he demonstrates that in order for this return to keep on giving, you have to give back.

Allan frames his operation in practical terms, offering Mozambicans a better livelihood for now and for generations to come. "I want the forest to be around," he says bluntly.

A hardwood table bought from Allan carries a much higher price tag than one made with cheap laminate, but Allan is out to challenge the throwaway consumer culture. Inspiration often comes from his largest customer base in the United States: Mexican families in the Southwest who invest in a dining room table as a generational heirloom. As Allan says, "The wood took generations to grow, so the table should last at least as long."

In addition to employing local men for his forestry projects, a host of local women tend to his garden, growing the armfuls of leafy greens that are served everyday at lunch on the farm. While providing basic employment, the garden also serves as an inadvertent nutrition program. In lieu of preaching about the virtues of eating vegetables, Allan simply pays the women to grow them and trusts that after a couple months of eating on the farm they will start feeling a difference and take some seeds home. Indeed, this has been the case. Moreover, permaculture vegetable gardens provide an alternative to the slash-and-burn agriculture that is steadily consuming the forests.

While the basic premise of Allan's project draws on the "universal" profit motive, he does not neglect the particularities of indigenous concerns. Before embarking on any community venture, he undergoes a day of drinking with the local chief in a ceremony to appease the spirits of the area. Ignoring this step would undermine the success of any initiative and open up the project to abuse by locals.

Allan is not interested in dominating the sustainable forestry industry in Mozambique. Like the vegetable gardens, he encourages workers to start their own nurseries and craft centers, welcoming the competition.

Environmentalists often face the argument that developing countries can't afford to worry about conservation, that they deserve to benefit from their natural resources. Projects like Allan's turn this argument on its head. He demonstrates that sustainability and economic development go hand-in-hand, generating tangible benefits, not just distant promises.

Demonstrating sustainable forestry as an alternative to unfettered exploitation is necessary to help the Mozambican government better regulate Chinese timber companies. As locals become aware of the opportunity costs of giving away their resources, they can begin to push back against exploitation and demand greater protection of their rights.

As the international community wavers on how to judge China's new economic relationship with Africa, Mozambique can set the standard. Although it is by no means the worst case of environmental devastation in Africa, its "poster child" status and sustainability potential make it a critical case study.

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