Recent business reporting on newly discovered natural resources in Eastern and Southern Africa evokes a new frontier for explorers on the Indian Ocean: Mozambique, Kenya and Tanzania have become the center of an “energy boom” and thus, in the words of The Economist, the new “El Dorado,” the lost city of gold. This frontier fantasy raises hopes in a sector that needs to adapt to new challenges, and Mozambique, in particular, is at the center of attention with “four of the five largest oil and gas discoveries in the world this year.” What is being cultivated at the new frontier of global capitalism—and for whom?
Off the Mozambican coast, the Italian company Eni has been exploring gas deposits and regularly made news this year with new finds. The New York Times estimates that Mozambique may have larger gas deposits than Norway, the “emirate of the north,” and expected export levels would put the country in the league of Qatar and Australia. Not just Western companies are involved in the resource hunt, however. Further inland, the Brazilian company Vale is building the world’s biggest coal mine, reviving coal production in Central Mozambique after it had been interrupted by the post-independence war that ravaged the country from 1976-1992.
That Mozambique is a place for economic opportunities is nothing new, of course. Many Brazilians and Portuguese, having trouble finding jobs at home, have moved to Mozambique in recent years to try their luck—and often succeed. Plenty of South Africans in Maputo take advantage of the proximity of the Maputo port and engage in import/export business in the neighboring country.
Where does this leave Mozambicans? Al Jazeera speaks of a “crucial juncture” in Mozambique’s development. The country has experienced steady growth of 6–8 percent over the last years, which is expected to rise once gas exports begin in about ten years’ time. While most Mozambicans have yet to see any effects, positive or negative, of the discoveries, prices have already risen sharply in Pemba, the capital of the province Cabo Delgado on the Indian Ocean, due to the influx of foreign workers linked to gas exploration companies. In the coal sector, effects have been felt more severely. Earlier this month, again, The New York Times shed light on the other side of the coal boom—the people left behind by international companies that don’t deliver on their promises to build schools and employ locals. Vale, the coalmining company operating the mines in Moatize, in Mozambique’s Tete Province, was just awarded the title of the “most evil corporation” 2012 for its “human rights abuses, inhumane working conditions and the ruthless exploitation of nature.”
Far from taking such criticism as an opportunity to make international corporations more accountable, Mozambique’s president Armando Guebuza accused unnamed foreign “professional agitators” of creating discord among Mozambicans. At the recent congress of the Mozambican Workers Organization (OTM), he said that such agitators “in the name of friendship with the poor are sowing an atmosphere of intrigue among Mozambicans.” This rhetoric is reminiscent of wartime language. The “war of destabilization,” as many Mozambicans call it, was long blamed entirely on Rhodesia and South Africa, major supporters of the then rebel army Renamo. The curious thing here is, though, that—although mostly foreign—global capital is left out when it comes to identifying the scapegoat for discontent among Mozambicans. Until the government under Guebuza’s party Frelimo finds a way to regulate the exploitation of the new finds and split its benefits among all Mozambicans, international explorers will have enough time to divide up the re-discovered lost city of gold amongst them.
* Corinna Jentzsch is a graduate student in political science at Yale University.