Curse of Geography: Mount Mabu
Curse of Geography (8/8)

Curse of Geography: Mount Mabu

Deep in the interior of Mozambique, Indigenous tribes protect one of the world’s last undisturbed rainforests while contending with corporate extractivism and foreign conservation efforts that place their primordial livelihood in peril.

At the perimeter of the township of Lugela, the paved road ends abruptly at a narrow dirt path – one continuous pothole, just wide enough for our truck to wind its way through the rippling hills towards Limbuè. Women and young girls carrying buckets of water, cleanly washed dishes, bananas, maize, and other essentials perfectly balanced on their heads walk to the edge of the road and duck into bushes as we approach. Some villagers lay idly in the shade of thatched roof huts, chatting in subdued tones, avoiding the intense tropical heat. As we gradually ascend towards the “Google Forest,” the cloud density increases incrementally. The amount of rainfall will determine how far into the rainforest of Mount Mabu we will be able to hike. It is early in the rainy season and we’re hoping our luck will hold.

watercolour truck stuck in mud on dirt road

Prior to 2005, Mount Mabu had been all but forgotten, save for the Indigenous communities and extractive entities looking to cultivate exportable crops around the base of the massif. Around the same time, Dr. Julian Bayliss, a biologist and researcher with the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, was scouring GoogleEarth when he noticed what appeared to be a mid-altitude, old-growth forest atop the mountain in northern Mozambique. In 2008, Bayliss and a team of researchers traveled to Mount Mabu to plant their flag and claim their “discovery” of the “lost forest of Mozambique.” Although his announcement was celebrated in a series of Guardian articles, the hubristic echo of Vasco da Gama’s claim to have “discovered” the country itself over 400 years prior resonated. 

Mount Mabu was protected from outside encroachment and industrial development by Mozambique’s decade-long War of Independence from Portugal, the subsequent fifteen-year-long Mozambican Civil War, intertribal conflicts, geographic isolation, and harsh terrain. Proximity to the Malawian border meant that the region was used as for strategic munitions transportation for various revolutionary factions, as well as an escape route for combatants and communities under the gun. Mount Mabu was a transition zone between RENAMO (South Africa-aligned right wing paramilitaries) and FRELIMO (left wing Marxist revolutionaries) who were vying to govern Mozambique in the wake of independence from Portugal. Absolute devastation was wrought upon the land on the fringes of the rainforest during the armed conflict that lasted from 1977 to 1992. 

Mount Mabu is the cultural and linguistic transition zone between the four primary Indigenous communities – Nangaze, Nvava, Namadoe, and Limbuè – that have been stewards of the rainforest since time immemorial. The vestiges of war are never far – scars in the earth overgrown and resigned to a quiet niche in history. There are residual traces of concealed clearings nestled between the crests of Mabu’s peaks and valleys, once gathering places for these neighbouring communities to hide in the shadows of the rainforest, evading opposition soldiers hunting them down in order to “liberate” them.  

The Indigenous people of Mount Mabu have, over the course of generations, developed a knowledge system based on a peaceful co-existence with their natural environment. Their premise for navigating the forest is simple: dangerous, edible, medicinal, conspicuous, and common. Their hunting and trapping practices have been refined over time to have minimal impact on species populations and to reduce by-catch. Generation upon generation have compiled knowledge of the forest, and humans’ place within it. This symbiosis is threatened by new waves of forced displacement by corporate agriculture. 

Corollary to this knowledge system is a transportation and communications network that accounts for the vast distances hunters and foragers need to walk (sometimes up to 24-32 kilometres a day) to reach the remote corners of the forest, and to transport game, maize, sugar cane and other crops back to villages for consumption and sale. This requires extraordinary strength (porters can carry up to 35 kilograms of weight on their heads); agility (climbing steep inclines, and skipping boulders across rivulets and streams); stamina (sometimes hiking for four to eight hours nonstop under heavy sun, depending on the task at hand); and a familiarity with the almost non-existent forest paths – superhuman abilities to a city kid like me. Without the help of guides and porters, Bayliss and his team (like us) would never have found their way in or out and certainly would not have been able to transport their gear into the forest, so their claims to “discovery” are trifling at best. 

The communities of Mount Mabu now find their land in the crosshairs of foreign and domestic extractive capitalist ventures, and themselves unwitting actors in an economic and socio-political imbroglio. In the now distant past, small Portuguese tea plantations spread out from the lower haunches of Mount Mabu. These days, local farmers have been pushed further up the mountain slope by the massive rubber plantations owned and operated by Mozambique Holdings Limited (MHL). Protected by private security and administered under the auspices of local government, the raw rubber is primarily for sale to the Asian market. It is common knowledge that MHL has indirect links to Mozambique’s former two-term President Armando Guebuza, a central figure in the FRELIMO party and one the of richest people in Mozambique.  

watercolour of fields surrounding a mountain

According to activists working with Justiça Ambiental (JA), a Mozambican environmental advocacy organization that has worked with the communities in and around Mount Mabu for the past 11 years, attempts at partnership with Bayliss have proven problematic over the years. The tendency toward strict environmental conservation ethics clashes with community needs and has resulted in contentious fall-out and a severed relationship. This shortsightedness has threatened to fracture the trust that JA had built with the communities over a decade and put them at odds with Bayliss and the scientific establishment. 

On one visit to Mount Mabu, Bayliss and his team planted high-powered cameras to capture movements of new species in the forest over time. They did so without consulting or informing local hunters, community leaders, or chiefs who control tracts of the forest. Hunters discovered the cameras hidden in undergrowth and adorned with small skulls. The scientist had attempted to play off local superstitions, which he apparently hoped would prevent anyone from disturbing the skulls and removing the cameras. The hunters were not fooled, or amused; they were disrespected and insulted. The community informed JA that he was not welcome to return.  

Most recently, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) signed a four-year contract with the Mozambican government to “manage” the rainforest and integrate local communities into the conservation plan. The government they rely on for permission to do their conservation work is comprised of the politicians that are benefiting from the imposition of corporate agriculture. It stands to reason that with few other avenues to achieve their objectives, Bayliss and WWF will join forces in what feels to be a new wave of environmental colonization cloaked in scientific inquiry and biological conservation. Time will tell if their conservation efforts can be integrated into an agenda of socio-cultural preservation, or, if they offer a convenient salve for the brutality of extractive capitalism.

watercolour of light shining thru forest canopy

Without foreign funding, there would be no NGO sector in Mozambique, a country that has consistently been listed as one of the poorest in the world since its independence. However, by putting forward an agenda that prioritizes environmental conservation over local community stability and cultural preservation, the WWF and Bayliss may find their interests aligned with those of Mozambique Holdings and the cabal of Chinese-cash-infused corporations looking to extract all manner of resources – timber, coal, fisheries, gemstones, etc – from Zambezia Province. Tactics have already been deployed to criminalize farmers with no remaining options but to “slash and burn” fields further up the mountain slopes and to intimidate community members who refuse bribes or stand up to the coercion of MHL. The communities that have occupied the land of Mount Mabu for longer than anyone remembers are well aware that they are engaged in a hostile takeover. Whether the WWF and Bayliss agree to participate in meaningful consultation with local communities and coalesce their efforts, or bulldoze a neocolonial agenda, remains to be seen. 

During my brief time in Mount Mabu, I was unable to discern (or they were unwilling to disclose) any definitive written history or visual culture. No one made claim to having a unique textile, ceramic, or any other traditional artisanal practice. Still, one imagines that something must have existed prior to Portuguese occupation and the wars that followed. There are some written records from the region, mostly documents from the tea planters whose estates laid to the north and south of the massif. 

According to our guides Manuel and Ernesto, who have spent their lives farming and trapping in the far recesses of the forests of Mount Mabu, oral histories are passed down from one elder storyteller to a younger person from the community who exhibits a strong memory, as well as the capability and desire to carry on the tradition. These traditions are passed on through a process of selection rather than blood lineage. Much of this has to do with the transmutation of the tribal social structure into the cosmological system centred around Mount Mabu and its two younger siblings: Mount Muriba and the River Mugue. 

At night, Mabu becomes a mesmerizing aural bounty: crickets, frogs, the slow crumpling of leaves by termites, their counterparts sliding down the smooth exterior of our tent, the sporadic barking and yelping of dogs, our guides snoring. The crescent moon glows blood orange like the embers that scar nearby mountain slopes, remnants of fields slashed and burned to plant anew. The same colour as the eyes of the “bush baby” peering out and cackling from up on high, chucking unripe mangos that plummet from a great height crashing into the brush nearby. The sun begins rising at 4:30 a.m., the roosters preempt their call and response an hour prior and carry on long after daylight has broken, the village comes alive, and work begins. Somehow all perfectly syncopated. 

As a city-dwelling outsider, I caught myself romanticizing this seemingly peaceful, primordial existence. Notwithstanding the stunning natural beauty of Mount Mabu, these communities, like everywhere, have their complications and contradictions: polygamy, underage marriage of young girls, high infant mortality (often during low yield harvests), inter-communal fighting, and corruption vis à vis theft and betrayal. The sudden infusion of cash (the average monthly salary in the region being 80 USD) administered by an outside authority – through the WWF – will have a divisive effect on communities that are barely surviving while commuting to higher, more treacherous parts of the rainforest for their basic subsistence. A little bit of money goes a long way in Mount Mabu, and the effects of its allure – and influence – are potentially catastrophic.

Population displacement to make way for industrial agriculture is pushing the communities of Mount Mabu down a treacherous slope. The felling of trees to make way for expanding rubber plantations had already affected wind and rain patterns in the area, which normally receives the highest rainfall in Southern Africa. The compounded effect has expedited the process of erosion and led to recurrent mudslides and widespread destruction of property, particularly during storms at the peak of the rainy season. 

watercolour of woman walking down dirt road with mountain in background

During a meeting of village representatives, someone remarked that maybe things were better under colonial rule, back in the days of the tea plantations. The Portuguese had little interest in combatting their labour force and understood the value of a community that was able to feed itself, and thus cut overhead costs, unlike MHL and other multinationals, who place maximum profits over any form of even relatively peaceful co-existence. And FRELIMO, once a bastion of independence and a movement of the people, today, with its nepotistic political dominance and corporate deference, has lived long enough to see itself become the villain. 

It is clear that the activists of JA feel the strain of an uphill battle with formidable and ruthless opponents, and the frustration with how financial desperation can turn valuable community leaders into corrupt politicians overnight. But this has not slowed their determination to withstand the hostile takeover. They hold steadfast in the belief that a deeper survival instinct, one that values Indigenous land sovereignty and political autonomy, will ultimately prevail over the allure of immediate and fleeting gains.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays

Text by

Sidd Joag is a visual artist, journalist and producer working on issues closely related to social inequality and human rights, and the managing editor at ArtsEverywhere.

Watercolours by

Born in Beijing, China, Tian Tian Tan (Sky Tan) is a watercolor artist and pianist with the San Francisco Ballet.

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