Mozambique, among the poorest of countries, sits atop the world’s ninth-largest natural gas reserves. Discovered nearly a decade ago off the coast of the northern province of Cabo Delgado, these reserves have been a honeypot, attracting foreign companies and investors, and hold the tantalizing possibility of generating enough income to push the southern African nation into the ranks of the middle-income countries.
But there’s a big catch. Environmental campaigners say gas development will do more harm than good, contributing to climate change and uprooting villagers in an area beset by under-reported violent conflict due to Islamist militancy. As extraction projects accelerate in Mozambique, questions about who actually profits from resource wealth also intensify.
This summer, the French energy giant Total reached its final investment decision for the $20 billion Mozambique Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) project, which will encompass both offshore drilling and onshore construction projects. The deal is the largest of its kind in Africa to date, with the money involved topping Mozambique’s annual GDP. And it’s just one of three gas projects in Cabo Delgado.
‘The local population sees that massive amounts of money are being invested in their region, [but] they are only suffering from it and not gaining any advantage,’ said Cécile Marchand, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth in France.
Death by a thousand paper cuts
Some 550 families have already been forced to leave their homes to make way for Total’s construction operations. The company compensated and relocated displaced communities, but fisherfolk who depend on the sea have been moved as far as 15 kilometres from the water. And farmers who have cultivated crops all their lives have been given smaller plots of land.
Daniel Ribero, a founding member of Justiça Ambiental (Environmental Justice) in Mozambique, says this uprooting represents only a fraction of the ongoing upheaval. As new businesses arrive in Cabo Delgado as a result of gas companies’ activities, more and more people stand to lose their homes. ‘It’s death by a thousand paper cuts,’ he said.
The extent to which opportunities in the gas industry will benefit communities whose way of life has been altered remains unclear. When queried, a spokesperson for Total emailed that the company had created 550,000 construction jobs for Mozambicans, but there would be only ‘1,500 direct long-term jobs in operations’. There was no response to an enquiry about worker salaries.
‘People were really expecting their lives to get a lot better,’ said Anne de Jonghe, of the Dutch organization Both ENDS, which works closely with local farmers’ unions. But, she added, ‘[Development] just didn’t happen.’
Meanwhile, Cabo Delgado is in the grip of a brutal insurgency. An Islamist militant group going by the name of Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah has killed at least 1,500 civilians and forced 210,000 more to flee their villages since conflict began in 2017. Fighters have burnt villages and beheaded victims. The central African wing of Islamic State also began to claim attacks in northern Mozambique last year, but little is known about their connection to local militants.
Aid groups have abandoned posts in the region, citing security concerns. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Data Project, the conflict is getting worse. More than 100 violent events have occurred since the start of 2020.
Mercenaries and soldiers deployed to Cabo Delgado have been largely ineffective. Human Rights Watch has documented a litany of abuses by the Mozambican military, including arbitrary arrests and summary executions of suspected insurgents.
Reporters often struggle to access Cabo Delgado, making it difficult to obtain comprehensive information about the escalating violence. ‘The government has gone absolutely out of its way to prevent foreign journalists, but also domestic journalists, from having access to the conflict,’ said Samuel Ratner, a political analyst and contributing editor of Mozambique’s Zitamar News.
The Islamic State has called for attacks on gas projects, but the true role resources play in the ongoing fighting remains as murky as the conflict itself.
International companies have only been attacked on one occasion. Total signed an agreement with the Mozambican government in August, creating a joint security task force to protect its assets. The company representative declined to disclose details of the agreement to New Internationalist, stating it was confidential, but promised all task-force members would receive human rights-related training.
A new form of colonialism
Unsettling violence and the concerns of climate activists have not deterred seven export-credit agencies from providing billions of dollars of public funding in direct loans and loan guarantees to Total for the Mozambique LNG project.
United Kingdom Export Finance, which contributed some 1.5 billion taxpayer dollars, said it undertook an Environmental, Social and Human Rights Review, as required for projects which can cause significant and irreversible environmental and social damage, under Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development guidelines, but told New Internationalist the results of this review were classified.
The Export Credit Association of South Africa, another investor, said it had applied the internationally lauded Equator Principles in assessing its funding decision, but failed to provide further information. Atradius Dutch State Business signed an accord with Total to ensure that the company respect international human rights principles, but its details remain private. Export creditors from the United States, Italy and Thailand, and representatives of the African Development Bank, which operates with both regional and international funding, all failed to reply to requests for comment.
Twenty private banks provided additional funding for Total. US giant ExxonMobil has yet to reach final investment decisions for similar gas development projects.
Adam McGibbon, a senior campaigner at Global Witness in London, who leads efforts to divest United Kingdom public funding from fossil fuels, is blunt is his assessment of these investments. ‘It’s a new form of colonialism,’ he said. ‘We export our pollution to the Global South and lock those economies into fossil fuels, at a time when [the Global North] is getting off them.’
Mozambique is particularly climate vulnerable, with some 250,000 kilometres of coastline. Devastating cyclones in 2019 caused widespread destruction across Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. The Mozambique LNG project alone is expected to account for 10 per cent of the country’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions.
Alex Vines, Director of the Africa Programme at foreign affairs thinktank Chatham House, expects extraction will continue unimpeded by conflict and climate woes. ‘This is world-class gas,’ said Vines. ‘It is transformative for Mozambique.’
‘The goal should really be about poverty reduction,’ he added. ‘That’s what we should all be thinking about. How do you get there for one of the world’s poorer countries?’
For now, residents of Cabo Delgado remain caught in a complex web of crisis.
Sophie Neiman is a freelance reporter and photojournalist. She has covered politics, conflict and human rights across East and Central Africa for, among others, African Arguments, the Christian Science Monitor, the New Humanitarian and World Politics Review.