Mozambique: another victim of the resource curse?

The “resource curse” is a term used to characterize the risks faced by poor countries where natural resources that are object of international greed are discovered. The promise of abundance arising from the enormous commercial value of resources and from the investments required to achieve it is so convincing that it starts to influence the pattern of economic, social, political, and cultural development.

The risks of this conditioning are, among others: GDP growth instead of social development; widespread corruption of the political class that, to defend its private interests, becomes increasingly authoritarian in order to keep the power, now seen as a source of primitive accumulation of capital; increasing rather than reducing of poverty; growing polarization between a small super-rich minority and a vast majority of indigent; environmental destruction and countless sacrifices for the people where the resources are discovered in the name of a “progress” they will never know; creation of a consumerist culture that is practiced by only a small urban minority, but imposed as an ideology to the whole society; suppression of dissident thought and practices of civil society under the guise of being obstacles to development and prophets of doom. In short, the risk is that, at the end of the cycle of the resource orgy, the country finds itself economically, socially, politically, and culturally poorer than at its beginning. Herein lies the resource curse.

photo by Mário Macilauphoto by Mário Macilau

After the investigation I conducted in Mozambique between 1997 and 2003, I have visited the country several times. From the visit I have just made I have collected a double impression, that my solidarity with Mozambican people has turned into a double concern. The first has to do precisely with the orgy of natural resources. The successive discoveries (some of which are old) of coal (Mozambique is already the sixth largest coal producer in the world), natural gas, iron, nickel, and maybe oil announce an El Dorado of extractive revenues that may have an impact similar to that independence had on the country. A sort of second independence, as it is said. Will Mozambicans be prepared to escape the resource curse? I doubt it.

The big multinationals, some of which are well-known by Latin Americans, i.e. Rio Tinto and the Brazilian Vale do Rio Doce (Vale Mozambique), carry out their activities with very little State regulation, enter into contracts that allow them to loot Mozambican riches with minimal contributions to the State budget (in 2010 the contribution was of 0.04%), violate with impunity the human rights of the populations where there are the resources, arranging for their resettlement (sometimes more than one within a few years) in undignified conditions, with disrespect of sacred sites, cemeteries, and ecosystems that have organized their life since tens or hundreds of years.

Whenever people protest, they are brutally suppressed by the police and military forces. Vale is nowadays a central target of environmental and human rights organizations for its neo-colonial arrogance and the collusions it has established with the government. Such collusions are sometimes established on dangerous conflicts of interests between the interests of the country ruled by President Guebuza and the interests of the business-man Guebuza. From them serious human rights violations may actually result, such as when the environmental activist Jeremias Vunjane, who was carrying complaints of Vale’s abuses to the UN Conference Rio +20, was arbitrarily denied entry to Brazil and deported (and only returned after much international pressure); or when government permission to visit the resettled populations, as if they lived under the jurisdiction of a foreign sovereign agent, is required to social organizations.

photo by Mário Macilauphoto by Mário Macilau

There are many indications of the fact that the promises of resources are beginning to corrupt the political class from the top to the bottom, and that the conflicts within it are between those who “have already eaten” and those who “want to eat, too.” Under these conditions, it is unlikely that Mozambicans as a whole will benefit from the resources. Rather, an angolanisation of Mozambique could be ongoing. It would not be a linear process because Mozambique is very different from Angola: press freedom is incomparably higher; civil society is more organized; the new rich are afraid of ostentation because every week it is sharply criticised in the press and also because they fear kidnapping; the judicial system can nevertheless act more independently; there is a critical mass of internationally accredited Mozambican academics who are able to carry on serious analysis showing that “the emperor has no clothes.”

The second impression/concern, related to the previous one, consists in verifying that the drive for democratic transition, which I had observed in previous stays, seems stagnant, or even to have come to a stop. The revolutionary legitimacy of Frelimo increasingly overlaps its democratic legitimacy (which has been declining in recent elections), with the aggravating factor that it is now being used for very little revolutionary aims; the influence of the party on the State apparatus is increasing instead of decreasing; surveillance on civil society tightens up whenever dissidence is suspected; the party’s cell continues to interfere with the academic freedom of teaching and investigation in universities; and even within Frelimo, therefore in a controlled context, political discussion is seen as a distraction or an obstacle face to the undisputed and indisputable benefits of “development”. An insidious authoritarianism disguised as entrepreneurship and aversion to politics (“stay out of trouble”) germinates in society as weed.

photo by Mário Macilauphoto by Mário Macilau

When leaving from Mozambique, a sentence of the great Mozambican writer Eduardo White dug into me and remained inside of me: “nós que não mudamos de medo por termos medo de o mudar” (“we who do not change our fear because we are afraid of changing it” , on the Mozambican independent weekly issue Savana, 20th July 2012). A sentence perhaps as valid for Mozambican society as for Portuguese society and many others chained to the rules of a global capitalism without rules.

Translation:  Alice Girotto

by Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A ler | 6 December 2012 | activism, mozambique, resources