Economic Growth and Ecological Demise? Questions from Mozambique for Africa's Marine Ecosystems

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    Mozambique in many respects exemplifies the new optimism about Africa’s economic future. GDP growth, albeit from a low base, has averaged 7.2% during a decade in which the global economy experienced the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. In September 2012 Mozambique exported its first shipments of coal – within five years these exports are expected to increase to about 40 million tonnes annually, climbing to 100 million tonnes annually within a decade.

    Some of the world’s largest global energy companies are vying for a stake in Mozambique’s gas reserves, estimated at 130 trillion cubic feet. The country’s mineral and energy resources dominate reporting on the country, but significant public and private investments are also being made in the country’s ports, roads, airports and other infrastructure, while investments by retail, manufacturing and trading companies are also growing rapidly.

    Putting Mozambique’s growth in the African context

    Mozambique is one of the ten economies that have been growing fastest over the past decade, but the list also includes five other African counties. From 2000-2008 the continent’s real GDP grew by 4.9 percent annually, more than twice the rate of the 1980s and 1990s. While mineral and energy resources have undoubtedly played a central role in this impressive growth, analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute indicates that resources accounted for only about a third of Africa’s growth, while the remaining two-thirds resulted from investments in other sectors including retail, transportation, telecommunications and manufacturing. Africa’s population is growing faster than any other region in the world. The continent’s rapid population growth is bound to result in challenges relating to food security, urbanization and infrastructure, yet it is also likely to drive economic growth through rising domestic demand, as well as swelling the Africa’s labour force. In 2009 Africa’s population surpassed 1 billion, doubling since 1982. By 2050 Africa’s population is projected to reach 2.1 billion, with a labour force of 1.2 billion – by which time one in four working age people in the world will be in Africa. Africa also has the highest rate of urbanization. By 2020 Africa is expected to have 70 cities with populations over 1 million, including eleven mega-cities with populations of five million or more, while Lagos will be the continent’s largest city with a population of 20 million inhabitants.

    Is the boom environmentally sustainable?

    Clearly Africa is likely to undergo significant transformation over the coming half century, yet as African economies, populations, and cities grow, it is essential to consider the implication of these trends for the continent’s ecological systems, as well as the societies that rely on various services provided by these ecosystems. In Mozambique Rio Tinto has proposed using barges to transport coal from its mines in Tete Province to the coast on the Zambezi River. The scheme would require extensive dredging of the river, which may increase the risk of flooding and have significant implications for the mangrove forests of the Zambezi delta, the single largest stand of mangroves on Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline. Mangrove habitats in Mozambique and elsewhere in Africa face numerous threats including unsustainable exploitation of timber for construction and the conversion of mangrove habitats for agriculture, urban expansion and aquaculture.

    Population growth, rising food demand and technological advances are also likely to place further strain on fish stocks, which in many cases are already being exploited at unsustainable levels. Mozambique, like most African states, faces significant resource constraints in implementing effective fisheries governance strategies, yet the country’s lucrative shrimp fishery is relatively well managed. Increasingly, the government is able to address illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities in its waters. Small scale fisheries, however, continue to expand, and in the future fisheries officials will need to strike a fine balance between the need to limit pressure on the stocks targeted by small scale fishers and the important role that these fisheries play in providing employment, fuelling local economic activity and serving as a social safety net in times of socio-economic crises.

    Africa’s marine ecosystems are productive and resilient, providing a range of services to African populations over centuries. More recently these ecosystems have faced increasing demands, as reflected in dwindling fish stocks, deforestation of coastal forests and biodiversity loss. As optimism mounts regarding Africa’s burgeoning economies, therefore, it will be essential to question the paradigms through which we view economic growth and ensure that the integrity of Africa’s natural ecosystems are preserved through sustainable development paths.

    Alex Benkenstein is a senior researcher with the South African Institute of International Affair’s (SAIIA) Governance of Africa’s Resources Programme. His research focuses on the fisheries and mining sectors, particularly in Southern and East Africa. Alex graduated from the University of Stellenbosch with a Master’s Degree in International Studies (cum laude). He has worked as a researcher in the nonprofit sector and the private sector, completing projects for various clients, including the Parliament of South Africa.

    This article was published in Great Insights Volume 1, Issue 10 (December 2012)


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