It is a mistake to insist on extractive mega-projects”

Anabela Lemos says Mozambique should not move forward with gas projects

This interview was originally published in Jornal Savana in Portuguese on 10th December, 2021.

At the beginning of November, a great controversy erupted, mainly on social networks, as a result of statements made by Anabela Lemos, an environmental activist, who argued that Mozambique should not proceed with the natural gas exploration project. But what arguments support this position, at a time when most social sectors in Mozambique, including civil society, see gas as a great opportunity to develop the country and fight poverty?

In an interview conducted by Boaventura Monjane*, Anabela Lemos, founder of “Justiça Ambiental” and one of the loudest voices in the environmental movement, responds to the question, arguing that insisting on this type of extractivist mega-projects will always contribute to serious violations of human rights, will cause irreversible damage to the environment, and will deepen the climate crisis. She also claims that Mozambique’s position at COP26 was largely inadequate.

At the beginning of November, in an interview to a television channel, Anabela Lemos stated and defended that Mozambique should not proceed with the natural gas exploration project in Cabo Delgado. Her statements provoked several reactions, mainly on social media. Can you explain this position?

By choosing to explore natural gas, Mozambique is following the same path followed by other African countries such as Nigeria and Libya that have also tried to develop through the exploration of fossil fuels. In all the examples we have on the continent, these projects have led to an increase in corruption, conflict and militarisation, national debt, poverty and a general deterioration in the standard of living of local populations, without having generated sufficient benefits for the country. This is not a position of radical activists. Even the World Bank has acknowledged, in its Extractive Industry Report, that the oil and gas industries in developing countries have not only failed to improve the lives of the poorest people, but have made them even worse off.

Mozambique is one of the countries most affected by climate change, and is looking to boost one of the industries that contributes most to this crisis, in the midst of a global movement calling to end the exploitation of fossil fuels. This is a contradiction and therefore we have to fight for our right to say no to environmentally destructive and socially unjust projects.

What do you mean by the right to say no?

The fight for the right to say no aims to challenge the usual way in which mega-projects are allowed in our countries, where public consultations or negotiations are carried out in the final stages of the project only to agree on small details and compensations. The right to say no aims to bring about a drastic change in the way affected people and civil society are brought into these debates. If the option of saying no is on the table, it is an indication that the people have power, and this opens up space for creating real debates about the best paths for development for the country.

This right started being demanded in several popular struggles of communities directly affected by extractivist projects, whose negative impacts affect these communities. People lose their land, livelihoods, access to rivers and the sea, ability to support themselves and to survive. The environment is destroyed and the people who survive are harassed. When everything is exhausted, corporations leave, leaving a trail of destruction and a huge debt for the State and the people.

For us perhaps the greatest reference to the right to say no is an inspiring struggle of a community in South Africa, in the Eastern Cape province. The community association Amadiba Crisis Committee, together with a team of lawyers and a South African civil society organisation, took its Ministry of Mineral Resources to court. And they got the higher court to recognise that a titanium mining project in that region could not proceed without the consent of the local community.

Does JA! fight against any and all development projects? After all, didn’t the industrialised countries develop with these types of projects?

We say no to any project that we believe will bring more negative than positive impacts for the people and the environment. Unfortunately, we are part of a national and global context in which governments are captured by the interests of large transnational corporations, and therefore the projects that are coming to our country will invariably benefit local and global elites, as they are not intended to solve the needs of the people.

Regarding the argument that industrialised countries developed with these types of projects, this is a misconception. European countries, for example, controlled virtually every component of the global value chain. They got rich from patents, from research, from manufacturing the equipment, from exploring, processing, and transporting resources. They became rich because they controlled and owned all the significant companies and markets at that particular time. And they got rich mainly because they colonised and exploited countries in the Global South. No African country that is already exploiting its fossil resources has developed from the exploitation of these, as it controls absolutely nothing in the value chain or any other critical component of this industry. So, regarding the gas, we’re actually being exploited once again.

Regarding the climate crisis, there has been a lot of debate about the right of less developed countries, such as Mozambique, to exploit their fossil fuel reserves to boost their economic growth. Don’t you think that industrialised countries should have a greater responsibility to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, rather than countries that have contributed little to these emissions?

Certainly. That is why we speak of historical responsibility, because it was the countries of the North that created the climate crisis, and the countries of the South, such as Mozambique, are suffering the greatest impacts. This means that the past and present actions of industrialised countries are creating damage and losses as we saw with cyclones Idai and Kenneth, with direct and indirect economic losses projected at $3 billion.

As a country, we don’t have to lead the way in terms of climate action. But this does not mean that in Mozambique we should explore gas or any other fossil fuel, and contribute to global emissions. We can pretend we’re fighting for a right, but given the climate crisis and the other impacts I’ve already mentioned, we’re basically fighting for the right to jump into an abyss.

But we can be an example of a country that is looking to its future and the future of planet earth, by moving towards a more sustainable economic model, while demanding that the Global North drastically reduce its emissions and pay the South a climate debt. This financing will allow the country to develop and be able to provide clean, just and decentralised energy to the entire population.

In Mozambique, and in many other African countries, energy poverty still affects the majority of the population. Many families still depend on polluting energy sources that are very harmful to health, such as firewood and charcoal. How does JA! propose to resolve these issues in Mozambique?

In a country like ours, the priority is certainly to create a strategy of decentralisation and diversification of energy sources, analyse the country’s energy potential by different areas and geographies, and build a system based on justice and the right of everyone to have access to a safe, healthy and clean energy source. Part of these studies already exist, completed by JA! and other researchers, but they continue to be largely ignored.

In September 2021, Friends of the Earth Africa published a “Just Recovery Renewable Energy Plan for Africa” which shows that it is not only urgent but completely feasible to reduce emissions, transform our energy system and make a just transition in our continent.

The plan, based on the work of renowned academic Dr Sven Teske of the University of Sydney, outlines how the continent can dismantle existing dirty energy systems and achieve 100% renewable energy for all by 2050. This plan would require more than 300 gigawatts (GW) of new renewable energy by 2030, as agreed by the African Union, and over 2000 GW by 2050. The plan also highlights the potential to create 7 million new jobs in renewable energy on the African continent. It is not just a technical plan, but a vision of how renewable energy systems can serve people and protect biodiversity.

Don’t you think that a lot could be done if each of us, individually, had greater environmental awareness? I’m talking about reducing consumption levels, not throwing garbage on the floor, saving water – with these types of actions wouldn’t we be able to achieve major changes?

It is always good for individuals to practice sustainable habits and protect the environment. But individual actions, as important as they are, must somehow aim at more structural changes in society, because if they are not intended to bring about a general change in how we understand the system and what attitude we take, they have no real impact.

Furthermore, we need to recognize the ecological footprint (a method of calculating the pressure that the human population, and each of us in particular, exerts on natural resources and the planet) of the majority of the Mozambican population; with the exclusion of our own elites, it is absurdly small. The huge ecological impact of industries makes any action at the individual level completely meaningless. Mozal, for example, consumes more water and electricity than all domestic consumption in the city of Maputo. And it is a company that did not even pay dividends to the Mozambican State throughout 2019.

So the big problem here is that industrial consumption and the linear model of extraction (production – use – disposal) are not compatible with ecological balance. We need circular systems that are capable of reusing all the components produced, as raw material in other processes. Of course, reducing consumption levels, especially in rich countries and our domestic elites, is fundamental for this to be viable.

Looking at the impacts of extractivist mega-projects in Mozambique, many claim that their positive impacts are not felt due to high levels of corruption. How do you see this issue of corruption?

The debate about corruption in our country is on the rise and we all see the impacts of corruption on a daily basis. This scenario must be urgently reversed and we need to fight it at all levels. But we also need to recognise that corruption is intrinsically related to the economic viability of extractive projects. If it weren’t for corruption, they wouldn’t advance. Buying off some government officials to sponsor this type of investment project will always be cheaper than bearing all the real costs of fair compensation for land expropriation, decent wages, damage to health, restoration of the degraded environment, and the impacts of climate change, among others things.

By solving the problem of corruption, would it be possible for Mozambique to be able to exploit the gas in a way that would benefit the country and the majority of Mozambicans?

The problem of corruption will not be resolved within the current development model that we have in the country. But beyond that, there are economic trends around fossil fuels that are undeniable, for anyone seeking to examine. Coal is a declining resource, with several countries (including China) already with divestment strategies and phasing out coal projects. Fifteen years ago when we started betting everything on coal, the scenarios were absurdly optimistic. We believe that gas extraction will follow a very similar path to coal. According to calculations by the Global Energy Monitor, there are already close to $100 billion in gas investments at risk of becoming stranded assets. Coal had a slow transition to become an unproductive asset, but with gas this risk will be faster and more abrupt, because it is a less labour-intensive industry.

As if this were not enough, current gas exploration contracts provide enormous benefits to private companies during the first decades, and only later will the country gain from exploration. All of this should be worrying for Mozambique, as we have major infrastructure problems, socio-economic instability and conflicts that are causing delays, putting gas projects even more at risk of becoming unproductive assets and having a minimal contribution to the country’s economy. Other studies such as those carried out by CIP, which do not focus on the risk of unproductive assets, still project weak gas contributions to the country’s economy, due to tax exemptions, tax havens, low gas prices, high operating costs, among others. And this, of course, without even counting the costs of militarisation and security that will fall on the State.

At the national level, some see environmentalists or human rights defenders as having anti-development agendas or accuse them of being manipulated by outside interests. How do you, Anabela Lemos and JA! deal with these criticisms?

The reason for the attacks on JA! because of our views is because our views are very upsetting to the interests of the elites – both national and international. There is no interest in having in-depth debates on these issues because then we will arrive at the undeniable facts that these projects do not bring development. There is a lot of information available and studies to be done that confirm our positions.

We are always available to debate views and alternatives, but we don’t waste too much time on strategies that are based on hearsay and misinformation and are intended to avoid deeper discussions.

What do you think of proposals like the one tried in Ecuador, in which more than 300 million dollars were pledged to stop the exploration of 846 million barrels of oil beneath the Yasuní National Park, one of the richest areas of tropical forest in the world. Do you think this solution would be viable for Mozambique?

Yes. With this kind of funding, and access to patents and technology that are unfortunately mostly owned by the Global North, countries like Mozambique can focus on energy transition.

It is very clear that funding for this exists. Data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) state that around $50 to $100 billion USD are lost each year due to tax evasion. Data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) show that $89 billion USD are lost in illicit financial flows. Data from the Tax Justice Network shows that $600 billion USD are lost every year due to tax fraud. Friends of the Earth International figures show that the wealth of the 53 richest people around the world could provide 100% renewable energy for Africa by 2030. We clearly know that this money exists, so we need to fight to demand the political will necessary to make the changes we need. This fund could also come from the payment of climate debts by industrialised countries.

The UN climate summit in Glasgow, UK, has just ended. World leaders have pledged to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy by 2050. Do you find this goal realistic? What did you think of Mozambique’s position at that summit?

Mozambique’s position at COP26, given that we are one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, was largely inadequate. We should have brought a discourse relaying respective demands around the right to life, the right to develop our country without exploring fossil fuels, and the right to the climate debt. COP26 is a suicide pact for Africa that African negotiator Lumumba Di-Aping warned us about at the 2009 COP. Twelve years have passed and African leaders want to set the continent on fire.

The 2050 goal is completely unrealistic. As we often say at JA!, these negotiations are debating how many people we agree to let die, how many forests we accept to destroy, how many islands will be submerged, so that fossil fuel companies and captured governments can continue to increase emissions and their profits.

Rich countries do not take responsibility for creating the climate crisis. They also fail to meet the financial commitments for countries in the Global South to embark on a just transition. Furthermore, we are shocked that they have reached an agreement on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement – carbon markets. This undermines emissions reduction targets because it allows polluters to continue to pollute, giving them an escape route. A study published by the “Glasgow Agreement” during COP26 demonstrated how there are at least 800 new fossil fuel projects under exploration. COP26 was nothing more than an insubstantial conversation to safeguard the interests of those who want to continue to pollute.

A photo of an activist holding a sign that said ‘Stop funding gas in Mozambique’ also raised a lot of controversy and debate on social media. It is known however that a group of activists in the UK have filed legal action to force the government to withdraw from Cabo Delgado gas. Is JA! involved in this campaign?

The British agency United Kingdom Export Finance (UKEF) has pledged more than $1 billion for gas projects in Mozambique. The gas industry in Mozambique has already had irreversible impacts even before any gas has been extracted. People have lost their homes and livelihoods, and the climate impact of the construction phase, which is not even complete, is already significant. It is essential that people know this, because corporations, pension funds, investors and even governments of various countries (with tax money) are financing these projects. This is unacceptable and a big risk for the Mozambican people. And that’s why we support Friends of the Earth groups in the UK, who are working in solidarity with us, and challenging their own government in court to stop funding Mozambique’s gas because of its negative impacts. We need an energy transition. Instead of gas, we want people-centred renewable energy.

This interview was originally published in Jornal Savana in Portuguese on 10th December, 2021.



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