Cabo Delgado, the northernmost province of Mozambique, is suffering. The invasion of the transnational gas industry, attacks by extremist groups and military deployment from a government that seems to hate its people, are all creating a frightening breeding ground for murders, forced disappearances, the persecution of journalists and social activists and the displacement of peoples.
In a context of extreme poverty, local communities are feeling disrespected, disregarded and abused. They are awaiting answers from a government they do not trust. While families displaced by insurgency attacks and fossil fuel companies from the Global North are looking for ways to survive, the Covid-19 crisis introduced by the very same companies is already wreaking havoc in an area where health services are deplorable.
The catalogue of abuses suffered by Cabo Delgado is more complex than the brutal attacks the local communities have endured for almost three years. Attacks from extremist groups including the al-Shabab group of Mozambique, also called Islamic State Central Africa, that have been occurring weekly of late.
Hopeless, frustrated young peoples have found – in religious fundamentalism and its discourse against State corruption and the old politics – a sense of belonging never experienced before. They are attacking villages and cities, beheading civilians and kidnapping women and children, resulting in an estimated 900 deaths. Approximately 100,000 people have been displaced and their villages set on fire.
The organization Justiça Ambiental (JA!) – Friends of the Earth Mozambique, who are working with communities in Cabo Delgado, is sending out a global warning about the extreme situation in the area, and is urging people to act in internationalist solidarity. JA! is especially targeting the countries of origin of gas corporations from the Global North who are operating here and profiting from a business that relies on human rights abuses to thrive. Real World Radio interviewed Daniel Ribeiro, a Mozambican activist and member of JA!
From the pride of independence uprisings to the current rage
The northern area of Mozambique has a strong tradition of struggle. According to Ribeiro, some of the most iconic battles for independence from the Portuguese empire took place in Cabo Delgado. The communities “are very proud and respect is very important” for them. “When you continuously disrespect, disregard, abuse and take the little that the community have, that’s going to sooner or later start causing problems.”
At the same time, the Mozambican North is one of the least developed areas in the country, with few hospitals and health posts and serious difficulties within the educational system. What has saved the population many times from serious health crises, such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is the fact that they are not connected with the global system, explained Ribeiro. But this changed with the arrival of foreign oil and gas giants.
Almost 80 per cent of the Mozambican population depends on agriculture or fishing for their livelihoods. “So the link with the land and environment is crucial. It is critical for livelihoods, for wellbeing,” explained Ribeiro.
But the government´s plans to turn Mozambique into a global liquefied natural gas giant has already resulted in the displacement of over 550 families. To give way for infrastructure works, these families were taken far away from the Indian Ocean or given much smaller pieces of land far from their new houses.
This results in uncertainty for the peoples, who, having lost access to the sea or land, do not know if they will be able to produce their own food, and are bracing themselves for a food crisis. The Mozambican activist highlighted: “So what happens if you don’t give any options for the people on the ground to solve the problems, to deal with the problems, to protect their families, protect their lands? No individual goes into these extreme forms of violence if they have a more peaceful, easier option. So this is more an indication of the level of frustration and anger of the people in the North.”
The gas industry in Mozambique: displacement of communities, militarization and Covid-19
There are two offshore gas projects to highlight in Cabo Delgado, which have already been granted the permits and funding needed and are expected to begin extraction operations in 2022. These two projects are located in Rovuma Bay, near the border with Tanzania.
One is the Mozambique LNG Project, led by US company Anadarko, within Concession Area 1. Anadarko’s involvement was handed over to French company Total in May 2019 when it acquired assets from the US corporation in Africa. Meanwhile, the project “Coral South Floating LNG” led by Italian Eni and US ExxonMobil, is in Concession Area 4. Neither project has started construction works in Mozambican waters yet, although works on land have started.
The new hydrocarbon business in Mozambique also favors other giants in the sector, such as British BP and Anglo Dutch Shell, as well as French banks such as BNP Paribas, Société Générale and Crédit Agricole, Chinese and Indian State companies, Japanese companies such as Mitsui and companies from Korea, among others.
The arrival of Covid-19 is not surprising then with the movement of people from these corporations between Cabo Delgado, the capital Maputo and their countries of origin. Consequently the gas region has become the epicenter of the pandemic in Mozambique. The first confirmed case in Cabo Delgado was a foreign worker on Total´s construction site. And in two weeks, two thirds of people infected with COVID-19 in Mozambique were employees from the French oil corporation or linked to the company (Total staff or service providers).
The transnational corporation isolated the sick people on site, but cooks, cleaning staff and security guards, among others, arrive every day from the surrounding villages to serve them. Total started testing their employees, but their efforts to test and protect the local communities have been inadequate, warned Ribeiro.
Meanwhile, JA! states that the attacks by extremist groups in the area have been the perfect excuse for the government to militarize the region. According to the organization, their real goal is to protect transnational corporations. In reality there has only been one attack against a convoy from a contractor company in three years.
In the interview, Ribeiro told us that the military deployed in the area have persecuted community leaders, activists and journalists who raise the voices of the local communities and social organizations, aiming to “hide the truth”. JA! had to remove their permanent staff from Cabo Delgado due to threats. They do not know when they will be able to return.
“The military was going at night, breaking into houses. We can’t claim they were arresting people, because they were not making arrests, they were just taking people. We do not know where they have gone, we do not know what the charges are, we have no information,” Ribeiro said, based on what JA! has experienced in the area.
All this has only increased the fear among the local population. The communities are warning that soldiers are imposing random curfews and assaulting people.
Ribeiro deplored the fact that intimidation by military officers against civilians happens on a regular basis and the government has plans to expand militarization. For this, he explained, they are forcibly recruiting young people in the cities and training them. “Military action won’t solve the social issues,” stressed Ribeiro. He said it is necessary to address the structural causes of the serious situation in Cabo Delgado: corruption, the role of transnational corporations and a development model that benefits elites. “The situation is dire, plus you add the epidemic to it, and it’s really a sad situation,” he said.
Popular demands, an international call and a necessary claim: system change
Real World Radio asked Ribeiro to outline the main demands of local communities affected by the gas industry. Ribeiro reaffirmed the demands expressed by communities before being evicted: fisherfolk wanted to be near the sea and farmers need land near their homes, no smaller than their original land. The reality is that fisherfolk were taken 20 km away from the sea and the farmers were given homes but no land yet, and the proposed land is far from their homes. They did, however, receive economic compensation. As a result, there are many people who have nothing to do all day, and alcoholism and domestic violence are increasing.
The Mozambican activist told us that some members of the community are saying that since the gas companies arrived, people have become poorer. “This is not acceptable. Before at least they had food, they had the land, they had access to the ocean, they had peace.” And the worst thing may be the discredit, the lack of hope: communities know that the government, tainted by corruption and human rights abuses, will not listen to them.
Ribeiro is outraged by the fact that transnational corporations (and the governments of the countries they come from) are operating in Mozambique with the support of a government accused of serious human rights violations and corruption. “The companies are accomplices, they are the catalysts, they amplify, they are the ones developing more resources for our government to do more of what it’s doing,” he declared.
This is why JA! wants to denounce what is happening in Cabo Delgado at the international level. “First of all we want to show that all eyes are on Mozambique, that they are watching what’s happening, that we have solidarity,” stressed Ribeiro, referencing in particular people from countries where the gas corporations come from. “People do not want to be associated with the blood that’s occurring, but that blood is on the hands of these companies and on the hands of your flag.” For this reason, the activist urges the citizens of these Northern states to lobby these companies and their governments. According to Ribeiro, the message to corporations and governments must be very clear, “We don´t want this. If we stop now there is still a chance we can turn this around. We can stop it.”
The JA! activist also criticized Mozambique’s plans to expand the gas industry in contradiction of International science: we can renounce dirty energy because there are sustainable alternatives. And change is needed. “There is nothing to be fixed in the capitalist system, the problem is that it’s actually working too well, the capitalist system is working exactly how it was designed, how it is meant to work. That’s the problem. Thinking that we can fix, or improve, or adjust it, is not realistic. We need system change.”
* JA! (Justiça Ambiental/ Friends of the Earth Mozambique) and Friends of the Earth International are asking for support from our friends around the world. To sign on to our letter to the Mozambican government and UN bodies, please add your name to this google form. (link: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1vXWlhGHmAV4bUMo3XV2LnUQe9iebfbqCkaFW8uXv-2Q/edit?ts=5ed92e68)