Was the Cabo Delgado massacre a curtain call for Mozambique’s methane capitalism?

Written by  Joan Martinez-Alier  and Patrick Bond 

Now in retreat, Total talked “net zero” emissions while pursuing ultra-risky gas extraction

On March 26, In a tropical site of great beauty and a centuries-old peasant lifestyle, scores of local residents and a few foreign workers died violently, as a major French oil company allied to a climate-unconscious African government gambled far too much in search of what they assumed would soon be the continent’s biggest fossil fuel bonanza – and ran into guerilla army resistance.

MozambiqueAt the northern end of Mozambique, the country’s politicians and state officials (who tellingly are concentrated in Maputo in the country’s far south) should have known, that if you want trouble on your territory, then count on the notoriously corrupt Paris firm Total to exploit your wealth. Total supposedly aims for “net zero” emissions by 2050, its website pledges, but in reality, its 2020 Climate Report promotes the highly dubious voluntary carbon offset market and plans a radical increase in Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) production: from 34 million tons per annum (MTPA) in 2019 to 50 MTPA in 2025, as far north as the Arctic’s fragile Yamal Peninsula.

Total claims gas is a bridge fuel to renewable energy, in spite of LNG-related wreckage of local ecologies due to fracking and greenhouse-gas climate damage when methane is flared, vented or leaked. Ironically, this damage was confirmed late last year by the French government’s own climate-catalysed retreat from gas, in spite of the resulting losses in massive Texas LNG export potential sustained by the partially state-owned firm Engie.

TotalAs for social responsibility, Total often funds regimes guilty of human rights violations and socio-economic oppression. Twenty years ago, Total was taken to several international courts, including by EarthRights International, for complicity in crimes against humanity by providing moral and financial support to the Myanmar military government as it built the Yadana Gas Pipeline to Thailand. It is besieged by protests across the world, according to the EJ Atlas.

Until the Palma massacre at the end of March, Total had joined Rome-based ENI, Dallas-based ExxonMobil and Beijing-based China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) in hoping “counter-insurgent” Mozambican military support would allow more rapid gas extraction offshore Cabo Delgado, near the Tanzania border. For decades, this province witnessed severe socio-economic exploitation and growing anger at environmental injustices.

In the most recent injustices, reports Ilham Rawoot of Friends of the Earth Mozambique/Justiça Ambiental! (JA!), oil companies led by Total – which took over a concession of Anadarko’s in 2019 – were in the process of displacing thousands from homes and livelihoods, including fisherfolk, without adequate compensation:

Residents face the danger of environmental disaster due to the gas drilling. According to Anadarko’s 2014 environmental impact study, the project will produce a large amount of greenhouse gases and sulphur dioxide, introduce new species into the sea, and cause soil erosion. There are growing fears that gas drilling will affect biodiversity in the area, especially the Quirimbas Archipelago, a UNESCO biosphere which is located just 8km from one of the gas fields off the coast of Cabo Delgado. The archipelago is home to 3,000 floral species, 447 bird species, eight species of marine mammals, as well as lions, elephants, buffalo and leopards. The dredging, waste disposal and the physical construction of onshore and offshore facilities will significantly diminish much of this ecosystem. Many species will flee the area due to noise and habitat degradation, while the impact of a potential gas leak or spill will be disastrous.

The gas fields are said to be worth $128 billion, with Total’s stake in the area closest to shore valued at $20 billion. But a full-cost accounting would subtract major ecological, social and economic debits, including the country’s massive uncompensated natural wealth depletion. By deploying ecosystem valuation, even the World Bank admits, Africa as a whole loses the net equivalent of 3% of its income annually due to resource extraction, twice the rate at which funds are lost to “Illicit Financial Flows.”

No less important is the adverse impact on the global environment: the metabolic contribution in terms of fossil fuel energy that will be taken out and exported to industrial areas including Mozambique’s neighbor South Africa. To prevent climate catastrophe, the global energy transition requires an urgent cut in coal, oil and gas extraction to about half the current amount, so that the CO2 produced can be absorbed by oceans and new vegetation without further increasing greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere.

The search for new materials and energy sources is speeding up because industrial economies are not circular but instead entropic, dissipating fossil fuel energy, tending towards deterioration and chaos. To feed the machine, new extraction frontiers are continuously discovered and commodified, especially natural gas given how extraction technologies have improved. This is the logic behind the unfolding catastrophe at Cabo Delgado.

Inequality, evictions and abuse create conditions for local ‘terrorist’ insurgency 

The Islamic insurgency, generally credited to some version of localised (not Somalia-sourced) ‘al Shabaab’ or ‘Islamic State’ extremism, began in earnest in 2017. But the region’s grievances date back many decades, to Portuguese colonial underdevelopment, to post-colonial neglect after independence in 1975, to recent disruptive ruby mining and timber extraction which failed to trickle the wealth back, and now to abuses committed by the gas companies and their white mercenary armies.

Having been attacked earlier, Total retreated from building its main LNG plant, but returned in January during the rainy season, demanding the Mozambican government provide it a 25 km safe zone perimeter at Afungi Peninsula (ENI, ExxonMobil and CNPC are further offshore). It did so using for-profit military allies: the notorious Wagner Group from Moscow, and from South Africa, the Dyke Advisory Group – run by an ex-Rhodesian soldier whom Amnesty International last month accused of authorising random fire by his troops into civilian sites (even a hospital) – and the Paramount company, a major weapons supplier to regimes across Africa and the Middle East. More ominously, U.S. and European armies have recently been “training” Mozambican forces.

But thanks to the thick bush and their integration into civilian populations, the guerrillas escaped detection last month. The end of the rainy season left the town closest to Afungi – Palma – vulnerable to what was a terrible attack on March 26, leaving dozens dead, including several international consultants and expat managers.

Leaving the gas offshore, in exchange for a climate debt downpayment?

Among the most eloquent critics of Total, the Mozambican state and the mercenaries is London-based journalist Joe Hanlon, who regrets how a corruption-riddled state elite became “dazzled by the gas, and believed Mozambique would be like Abu Dhabi, Qatar, or Kuwait. Gas would make the elite fabulously wealthy and also trickle down to ordinary people.” Instead, the insurgents have disrupted the corporate-state extraction strategy, as Hanlon reports: “Total says work ‘is obviously now suspended’ and will only resume when government really can provide security. ExxonMobil has made clear it is unlikely to go ahead; ENI has said nothing about anything more than the initial floating platform.”

But South Africa remains a dangerous player, because not only is the country’s main oil company – formerly state-owned Sasol – already drilling and piping gas from offshore wells 1900 kilometers to the south (and desirous of access to the northern fields), Pretoria’s SA National Defense Force troops are available, according to foreign minister Naledi Pandor. As she testified to parliament last September, a “great opportunity exists for South Africa to import natural gas from Mozambique, thus the security of Cabo Delgado is of great interest to South Africa and her energy diversification strategy. South Africa’s security agencies need to enhance their capacity.” (However, in other parts of Africa, Pretoria’s troops have suffered severe humiliations in similar crony-capitalist deployments.)

There must be an alternative, and indeed one presents itself: the concept of a downpayment on the “climate debt” that the Global North – including CO2-addicted South Africa – already owes Mozambique. According to a proposal made by Ecuador’s government from 2006-13 to prevent oil drilling in the Yasuni Park (on its eastern Amazonian border with Peru, the world’s main biodiversity hotspot), such financing for state social and development programmes – and in Mozambique’s case also ensuring a Basic Income Grant is available to Cabo Delgado communities – could justify a halt to fossil fuel extraction.

After all, unprecedented cyclones tore through Mozambique in March-April 2019, killing hundreds and doing at least $2 billion in damage, including in Cabo Delgado where Cyclone Kenneth was devastating. As Rawoot remarks, there must be a way for the country to avoid future reliance upon fossil fuels, for otherwise the country’s “coal and LNG projects – which are more carbon-intensive than the regular extraction and processing of natural gas – will only further contribute to global warming.”

Mobilising grant finance to “leave fossil fuels underground” in wretched sites like Cabo Delgado should be a top priority for the coming COP26 in Glasgow. Even as Boris Johnson is trying to reduce already-miserly British overseas aid, Christian Aid’s leader Amanda Khozi Mukwashi demanded (just after the Palma massacre), “Vulnerable countries on the frontline of a climate emergency they did not cause need financial support.” The urgency now for Mozambique is apparent, not only as an impoverished majority-peasant country that certainly did not cause the crisis, but as one that might in future, since it is so vulnerable to further rounds of multinational corporate fossil extraction fused with imperial and sub-imperial militarisation… unless an alternative is urgently identified.

The conflicts at Cabo Delgado are multifaceted. They arise from neo-colonial extractivism – of which Mozambique is both villain and victim – whether it is coal from Tete province mined destructively by Brazil’s Vale and by Coal of India, hydropower electricity for smelting exported aluminium for BHP Billiton, eucalyptus monocrops for paper pulp and illegal hardwood harvesting, cashews exported raw not processed, or other sites of unequal ecological exchange. But in addition to Sasol’s gas fields, the potential dimensions of the Cabo Delgado plunder of energy from gas have no precedent in Africa. The robbery taking place is just one further instance of commodity frontiers being pushed to extremes, by destructive changes in the eco-social metabolism of the world industrial economy – a process we must strive to reverse by any means necessary.

Joan Martinez-Alier (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) and Patrick Bond (University of the Western Cape)



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