China’s Relations with Mozambique: A Mixed Blessing

Mozambique is positive on China. Mozambican leaders have gone beyond the usual declarations that Sino-Mozambican ties are “harmonious” and “based on equality and respect” to say that relations with China have given the country benefits and new opportunities that where never provided by western nations. Reflecting this upbeat view, Mozambican President Armando Guebuza has stated that “a China e muito bem vinda a Africa” – “China is very welcome in Africa.” But while there are indeed enormous benefits and possibilities in the China-Mozambique relationship, leaders of the former Portuguese colony should be aware that there are many negative aspects to this growing interaction.

China’s phenomenal economic growth has substantially increased its demand for energy resources and other raw materials. China is currently the world’s second largest consumer of oil and the largest consumer of steel, iron, manganese, nickel, zinc and other commodities. In 2005, China added timber to the list by becoming the world’s major importer of logs. While Russia and Burma have been the principal suppliers of logs to China, in the past five years Chinese timber imports from Africa have steadily increased. Chinese companies have been aggressively scouting forested areas throughout the continent.

Despite the increase, Chinese timber imports from Africa account for just 5 percent of the total, but the impact on African forests must not be underestimated. This is certainly the case with respect to Mozambique, where Chinese companies began to actively export timber in 2004. Logging is primarily concentrated in the northern province of Zambezia, where in 2006 alone according to local NGOS some 94,000 cubic meters of logs where exported to China. Chinese timber imports from other African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Equatorial Guinea are larger, but China’s appetite for Mozambican timer is creating some serious environmental and social problems.

According to Daniel Ribeiro, a preeminent Mozambican environmentalist, Chinese timber buyers are targeting certain types of slow growing species due to their high value. These species are concentrated in semi arid regions, and the rate of cutting simply makes it impossible for rejuvenation to occur. These depredations, according to Ribeiro, will lead to the disappearance of large forest areas in the next 5 to 10 years. Soil erosion and the beginnings of desertification are becoming major problems in a country which was once a stranger to such phenomena.

Meanwhile, increasing Chinese demand is leading to the spread of logging to other provinces of the country. The virgin forests of Niassa on the shores of Lake Malawi are fast becoming a major focus for Chinese timber companies and may in the foreseeable future supplant Zambezia as the principal source for logs. Niassa’s remoteness kept its flora and fauna safe even during the Portuguese colonial period and Mozambique’s bloody 16 year civil war. But this time around it seems that remoteness won’t save Niassa. The trade is also fast spreading to the provinces of Cabo Delgado and Nampula in the north, and to Ihambane Province in the south. In September 2007, Nampula provincial authorities announced the seizure of an illegal shipment of timber worth $7 million bound for China. The apprehension led to the suspension of licenses and fines for 8 timber import companies, all Chinese. However, by February 2008 most the offending companies were back in business.

Illegal logging is usually accompanied by other predatory trade, such as illegal poaching of elephant tusks, rhino horns, and leopard skins, with many Chinese timber traders being the main buyers of these products. Rhino horns in particular are highly valued by the Chinese for their supposedly aphrodisiac qualities. These same traders are also often involved in the smuggling of precious stones such as emeralds, tourmalines, grenadines, and blue topaz. The trade in illegal precious stones is primarily located in Niassa and Zambezia – coincidently two of the provinces where logging is more pronounced – as well as in Manica Province along the Zimbabwe border. Local NGOS have also accused Chinese fishing vessels of large scale poaching, particularly in the coastal provinces of Sofala and Zambezia for prawn and Inhambane for lobster and various species of fish. In 2005, a Chinese vessel carrying 4 tons of illegal shark fins was reported to have left Maputo harbor bound to Hong Kong.

Unfortunately for Mozambique, the Chinese are not the only culprits, with many western and Japanese nationals engaged in various sorts of damaging and illicit trade. A mid-rank official from the Servicos de Informacao e Seguranca do Estado (SISE), the Mozambican state security agency, told the author that even some western diplomats posted to Maputo, the capital, have been involved. A European Union diplomat has been questioned over an alleged attempt to buy illegal tourmaline stones. In the past decade, Mozambique has experienced significant economic growth, with GDP increasing at rates of 7 to 9 percent a year. However, the bulk of its people have seen very little benefit coming their way and despite the impressive growth figures, the Mozambican government is relying on foreign aid to meet 58 percent of its 2008 state budget. Corruption and organized crime have reached epidemic proportions, with allegations of official involvement now commonplace. Chinese businesses find very little choice but to associate themselves with local corrupt officials and crime bosses. Indeed, assassinated journalist Carlos Cardozo, now a folk hero for his anti corruption reporting, once said that “In my country there is very little difference between the government and the crime world.”

Chinese traders usually provide money to local small businessmen to buy logging licenses and than sell their logs to the Chinese. In 2004, some 167 such licenses where awarded, often with very little legal supervision. Various high ranking officials are reported to be selling timber from their lands, with the sales taking place in very dubious circumstances. In the province of Sofala, an army Colonel was reported to be charging a Chinese businessman for protection against the local police.

The corruption problem makes it extremely difficult to assess the real extent of China’s logging activities. For instance, in 2005 the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests claimed that 33,200 cubic meters of logs were produced in Zambezia Province and that of this 28,400 cubic meters were exported. However, the port authority’s records for the same year show that 17 bulk carriers and 27 container ships loaded with logs totaling 51,000 cubic meters left Zambezia bound primarily to Chinese ports. The true volume of Chinese timber imports from the country is likely to be at least three times more than the official number.

The Chinese timber traders have been so predatory that local NGOS now refer to the trade as the “Chinese takeaway.” The highly secretive manner in which many agreements are signed between the two governments further complicates issues of transparency and accountability. The Chinese did not bring corruption to Mozambique, but rather they had in many instances to adapt to the rules of the game they found there and feed the pockets of corrupt government officials, as so many others have had to do. However, China’s need to play by these “rules” has created greater opportunities for plunder in an already debilitated country. Before the arrival of the Chinese, illegal logging was already a problem, but never in the current proportions. Unless the Mozambican government begins to act more responsibly, China’s and increasingly India’s appetite for African resources are likely to lead to more corruption and environmental damage. As a former Mozambican Ambassador and a good friend noted:

“Lets stop blaming the Chinese, they have money and they want to buy. Nobody is forcing us to rape our resources; we are being paid generously for it. In the end, my friend, it’s up to us to decide how we want to do business. This is our country, so it’s our fault.”

Indeed. In the end, it’s up to the Mozambicans to decide what they want out of their relations with China. China has a desperate need for timber and other raw materials, Mozambique has them. It’s a simple supply and demand equation, and its up to the Mozambicans now to decide how to manage such an equation to their benefit.

By and large, China’s assistance to Mozambique has been beneficial and has significantly diminished the country’s overdependence on its traditional western donors. Beijing’s support for Mozambique dates back to the early 1960s, when the country was fighting for its independence from Portugal. Since independence, China has provided extensive ajuda amigavel e gratuita (free and friendly aid) by building various important government buildings at the national and provincial level free of charge. These include the national parliament, the foreign ministry, the Joaquim Chissano conference center, and an entire residential neighborhood to house members of Mozambique's defense force (FADM). China has also gifted to Mozambique a brand new national stadium at the cost of $15 million. In recent years, China has sent large numbers of professionals to Mozambique as part of its assistance program, including doctors and nurses, engineers, agriculture specialists and teachers. In addition, China has given nearly $3 billion in soft loans for major infrastructure projects, such as the Mphanda Nkuwa mega-dam in Tete Province, expected to cost $2.3 billion.

However, if not managed responsibly, China’s presence in Mozambique may turn out to be no different from past colonial experiences that brought the country so much loss. In the end, as noted by a former minister: “The Chinese like anyone else will pursue their interests. They will plunder us to the extent that we are stupid enough to allow them to. In the end it’s more up to us than up to them.”

Loro Horta is a research associate fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He lived and worked in Africa for several years and has written extensively on Portuguese Africa.

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Loro Horta