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Amid the coal mines, Mozambique stakes out game park

Mozambique's newest game park nestled between massive coal mines is proof of the Southern African nation's efforts to balance mineral wealth with a vulnerable environment damaged by a 16-year civil war.

The 350 000-hectare Magoe Park located on the southern banks of the giant Cahora Bassa dam was last week declared a national game park to boost wildlife and tourism.

It is set to be an oasis for wildlife in the northern Tete province where 60% of land has already reportedly been allocated to mining firms through concessions.

Known better for its beaches and diving destinations than wildlife, Mozambique lags behind regional neighbours South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania in game parks.

Nearly a fifth of its surface has been set aside for environmental protection and to build up wildlife numbers, but it has been tricky in the coal-rich Tete province in the north-west.

This overlap in concession and conservation areas causes a "difficult dilemma" to the government, according to Charles Laurie of Maplecroft risk analysis, "as it attempts to strike a balance between safeguarding important habitats while fostering economic growth".

Two decades after the end of a crippling civil war the country is still struggling with poverty and is eager to tap coal as well as vast reserves of natural gas discovered in 2010 to spur growth.

Companies from Brazil, Australia and India have over the past three yeats set up polluting open-cast operations on some of the world's largest untapped coal reserves — by some estimates enough coal to supply a quarter of the world's fuel by 2025.

Almost 60% of Tete has already been set aside for mining, according to advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

'Finite' resources

So the government's declaration of the new park came as a relief.

"The main objective of the park we have created is to reduce pressure on the use of natural resources, given that they are finite," said government spokesperson Alberto Nkutumula.

Situated close to the Zimbabwe border, the park will protect hippos, elephants, lions, leopards and the rare roan antelope.

"The rest of the province is being mined for whatever they can get out, so it is good that some has been put into conservation," said Mozambique-based environmental consultant Sean Nazerali.

"This is one of the most active countries in the developing world in making new concession areas," Nazerali said, cautioning that "it will take more than 20 years for game densities to catch up".

Firms can win mining concessions in national parks if they prove what is under the ground is more valuable than the current use.

But the law prevents them from prospecting for minerals in protected areas in the first place, according to Nazerali.

Yet mines limited the Magoe Park's area, which had to be cut by a third from original plans.

"We found out that there were mining exploration concessions there," said Oscar Zalimba, a provincial government conservationist.

The new park will put mining firms on their toes as the environmental impact of their operations shall receive greater scrutiny, said Laurie.

"Extractive companies in Tete will … face reputational damage should their activities be perceived as harming protected sites or undermining the ability of local communities to pursue their livelihoods," he told Agence France-Presse.

Meanwhile the tourism industry also celebrated the new drawcard to the area which has a newly tarred road.

"Tourism is non-existent around this lake. It should be big," said hunting safari operator Simon Rodger.

Mozambique's seventh national park, Magoe "will offer huge protection against mining", added Rodger.

Since the civil war ended in 1992, some big game is returning to Mozambique and sports hunting, especially for elephants, is becoming a major attraction.

A buffer zone around the park will be given to hunting companies, with a project already running to give local communities a cut in the profits.

The government still needs money to run the reserve and mulling partnerships with the private operators like it did in the central Gorongosa park.

Before it can open, rangers also need to stop bush-burning, illegal logging and poaching.

Around 3 000 people live off fishing and hunting bush meat inside the declared area, according to Zalimba.

"If necessary we will re-introduce some species," he said. – AFP

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