We left not too early on Sunday, after waiting in a line at the only gasoline pump open in town with the electricity cut. The sensation of leaving town is always good. The sky opens. The greens were still weak or light before the first major rains, the rust-brown of the mud, the yellow of the capim grasses, the grey walls of the neatest houses. The landscape north of Lichinga is punctuated by hills, and villages of Yao speakers.
One of the things I noted was the quantity of new grass on the rooves of houses and the fences around the houses. Just before the rain starts, women go and cut capim to fix up things, and men are in charge of the DIY home improvements.
I love the trip to Metangula, which is the only “town” on the Mozambican side of the Lake. The road leaves Lichinga district, and goes through Sanga district, bending west in the direction of the Lake.
I particularly like a stretch of the road with a beautiful native forest just after the border between Sanga and Lago. There were acacias, Massukos (fruit trees), the forest at least 15m high. Lots of birdsong. So it represented for me the ideal of what the Province must have been like before deforestation for agriculture and firewood. Below is Google Earth capture dated 2006.
Just that this time, to my shock and horror, this forest had been entirely cut down and destroyed. Devastated. I saw a lookout platform from the company that committed this crime: it’s called “Chikweti” (which means “wealth”). Chikweti plans to plant lines and lines of pine trees on top of this defunct native forest. So it can produce pulp for paper. I could already see the saplings peaking out from above the wreckage of the native forest. (There are few things in the natural world so chilling as a massacred forest.)
We saw saplings planted by Chikweti until quite close to Metangula, invading another native forest closer to the Lake. The scale of these plantations is vast. And the “consultation” of communities was via its “régulos” or traditional leaders, who motivated by personal or family interests, accept presents from the companies and concede huge land areas. Even some civil servants from the district revealed recently that they had no recourse, that the decision for this “came from above”.
In the province, both the government and Swedish Aid have promoted tree plantations under the guise of “reforestation.” The government in its long term planning documents speaks of 2 million hectares of pine and eucalyptus plantations. They would like to turn the province into the largest producer in the world.
The case of Chikweti appears to transgress all kinds of social and environmental limits. In private, elements of the government and the Swedish are also horrified at the actions of Chikweti. Recently a national NGO called ORAM did a study on “Forest Governance” in the province and highlighted this case as one of the worst and most flagrant abuses.
It was really difficult to see this situation. I have kept up with the question of the industrial tree plantations in other parts of the province. I have seen families removed against their will from their fields. I have seen communities with problems with the “consultation” process – one visit to the traditional leaders and voilá – usufruct rights for companies. But I confess that the environmental devastation was the strongest blow.
Good thing we were on our way to the Lake. The province, which is characterized by a large planalto and a vast, sparsely populated territory, has as its name “Lake”. Those who live close to the Lake speak Nyanja, which is basically the same as Chichewa, spoken on the other side in Malawi. Due to untiring colonial missionaries, they are also Anglican. The contacts today between those who live lakeside and the rest of the province seem weak.
We had with a gentleman from a Yao community near Lichinga who had never been to the Lake. He had seen it on his trips to Malawi. I’ve been a number of times to the Lake with people who had never been their whole life.
On the descent to Metangula, the Lake occupies all of ones vision. It looks like a sea. On my trips to the Lake, I’ve never actually seen Malawi on the other side. Metangula is a hot place for people from the planalto. There are baobabs, trees that seem to have a greater impact on outsiders than the locals. There were tons of mangoes for sale, enough to excite – a lot! – my colleagues.
We went to buy beer for the beach. The selection showed that the trade in Metangula is a mix of Mozambican and Malawian. We continued, along the lakeside, on the road to Chuanga, the beach about 4km from the city, that was improved recently so that a normal passenger car could pass. The bar and restaurant at the beach continues in total decadence. We bargained for grilled fish and corn meal balls (shima).
My colleagues seem like kids arriving at the beach. I felt like one too. Floating, diving, splashing. Simply grateful for the existence of the Lake. It was the first time with them I felt this sense of simple happiness. One of my colleagues is still trying to convince his wife to go to the Lake on her brief visits to Lichinga (she lives in the south of the province). He wants to share this joy with her.