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Sustainability and politics: experiences from Mozambique

Discussion paper by Rozenn N. Diallo, Montreal University

The increasing scarcity of natural resources tightly bonds together the very ideas of sustainability and ecological concerns. As a matter of fact, sustainability and biodiversity conservation are today on everybody and every international organisations’ mouths. A sort of commonly-shared ecological sensibility seems to be self-evident: it has become obvious, and even mandatory, to promote “sustainability” and to live today having tomorrow in mind.

Ever since the Stockholm Declaration in 1972, and even more since the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were issued, “sustainability” has become unavoidable: for international organisations (focused either on the development or on the environmental field), for states and for local populations. A whole range of actors daily uses the very same word, that can thus be seen as a buzzword; it has notably become essential in international organisations and beneficiary states’ relations. It can indeed be seen as a shared language, a common grammar that underlies interactions and negotiations, and that has concrete implications on the field, such as the implementation of development projects, for instance in protected areas.

In this respect, two remarks can be raised. First, “sustainability” can be considered as a notion mostly elaborated in the North and disseminated in the Global South. Some authors speak about “international ecopolitics” (Le Prestre, 2005), to describe how international actors identify and impose views and solutions regarding nature management and protection. “Sustainability” can indeed be viewed as part of international politics, for it is key in most of international organisations’ agenda in developing countries, and it therefore shapes both budget support and the funding of projects.

Second, considering “sustainability” as a buzzword implies that although a sort of canonical definition does exist – mostly associated to the Millennium Development Goals, and now to the Sustainable Development Goals – potentially different and even contradictory definitions may appear (this is for example illustrated in environmental studies: local populations may very well have a sustainable approach to natural resources management, although their methods and narratives differ from the internationally legitimated version (Almeida, 2002; Pinton, 2003). Also, a canonical or hegemonic definition does not mean dependence nor a mechanical definition from developing states: “sustainability” may be an instrument used by states to strengthen their own agenda, while formally approving a standard definition of sustainability. As Guilhot (2005: 16) has shown regarding the notion of “democracy”, while the promotion of sustainability might well be the object of a new policy consensus, what this new paradigm should include is far from being consensual. It becomes the stake of struggles in which many different actors try to redefine their positions, their role and their importance.

Based on fieldwork conducted in Mozambique between 2009 and 2014, this paper explores the politics of sustainability in national parks. I will show how this very term may be synonymous with potentially highly different meanings, regarding each stakeholder’s worldview and agenda (central and local state authorities, donors and local populations). In any case, in the environmental field, the “sustainability” narrative is now part of a neoliberal conservation process, which entails the transformation of protected areas into profitable spaces, where local populations are intended to enter a modern cash economy and to be resettled outside protected areas. In that view, I argue that sustainability can be seen and used as a political tool, both by international organisations and states.

Sustainability and protected areas: an overview

The sustainability narrative can be retraced through the evolutions of conservation politics. In Africa, as far as biodiversity conservation is concerned, three ‘moments’ can be underlined (Rodary and Castellanet, 2003). The first one can be called “missed integration”. During colonial times, the preservationist approach (also called “fortress conservation” or “fences and fines approach”) prevails. What is at stake is the strict preservation of the environment, especially within protected areas – a tool that is spreading ever since the end of the nineteenth century.
The second moment is the one related to the imposition of protected areas: local populations are expulsed and repeatedly accused of poaching – traditional forms of hunting are indeed assimilated to poaching, while western practices are instituted (promoted by the colonial states) as good practices (MacKenzie, 1988; Singh and van Houtum, 2002).

The third moment is the one of “integrated conservation”. Contrary to the former period, human occupation and activities on the one hand, and durable protection of natural resources on the other, are seen as compatible. This is the time of decolonisation: new transnational actors appear, such as the IUCN in 1948 and the WWF in 1961, who lobby the newly independent states – economic arguments of growth through conservation now accompany aesthetical or ethical discourses. Tourism in protected areas is indeed presented as a financial windfall, both for the states but also for local populations.

This is also the time of the sustainable development discourse’s emergence: poverty reduction becomes a key objective, and it is institutionalised through the “new community narrative” (Hutton, Adams and Murombedzi, 2005), that highlights the local populations’ role, who have to be active participants to conservation programs (while living in buffer zones), but who also can and must economically benefit from it. This new paradigm can be read in the strengthening of the neoliberal context. As Hutton et.al. (2005: 345) put it: “(the community narrative) fitted with the renewed interest in the 1980s in the market as an alternative to the state as a means of delivering policy change. (...) communities, and rural individuals and households, should become micro-entrepreneurs, using the economic values of conservation resources (for tourism, trophy-hunting, medicines, meat or other products) to deliver both sustainable livelihoods and conservation”.

In other words, sustainability is from now on linked to protected areas management, which is supposed to convey durable and green growth to the states, permanent protection of natural resources, and sustainable living conditions. For local populations, the promotion of sustainability thus means both a physical and a political (re)integration in conservation politics. Sustainability is also linked to a state roll-back, with the emphasis put on the market. In that sense, new forms of protected areas management are promoted, such as public-private partnerships (ppp): a sustainable management is indeed also synonymous with self-financed and self-functioning protected areas.

Sustainability and neoliberal conservation: concrete implications for local populations

Ever since the dropping of Marxism-leninism at the end of the 1980s, and even more since the 1992 Peace Accords, Mozambique is generally seen as a champion for neoliberal reforms (Pitcher, 2002). This is notably illustrated by the multiplication of privatisation programs – for instance, in the environmental field, through the development of touristic concessions within national parks, which are therefore not entirely state-led anymore. As already mentioned, the model of ppp is progressively spreading, all the more that it is advocated by donors (World Bank, USAID), NGOs and philanthropic foundations (Carr Foundation).

As a matter of fact, international actors generally support a vision of conservation based on profitability and economic efficiency – associated to the banners of development and poverty reduction. In that sense, the sustainability narrative shares a common front with what is called “neoliberal conservation” (Igoe and Brockington, 2007): nature preservation (thanks to protected areas) is tied to the very notions of market and optimal allocation of resources (Goldman, 2001). Under the idea of “sustainability”, the association of conservation and development thus institutionalises the link between wildlife protection (and to a lesser extent flora protection) and fight against poverty (i.e. local populations are directly targeted, for they are neighbours – and often inhabitants – of protected areas). This association is, in most cases, a donors’ precondition, which insists that the “sustainability label” be included in the national legislation as well as in concrete projects.

But what is, concretely, in this label? Based on the case of Limpopo National Park, in the south of the country, I will show what “sustainability” is supposed to mean according to the promoters of the development/conservation project, and what kind of implications it can have for local populations.

Limpopo National Park (LNP) was created in 2001. It was born out of the creation in 2002 of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP), a “peace park” between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique – the LNP being the Mozambican part of the peace park. With a surface area of 35000 square km, GLTP is one of the biggest transfrontier parks in Africa – and it is also well known because of the controversy surrounding the resettlement project of the populations living within the Mozambican part.

Ever since the colonial period, populations living in the area have experimented resettlement policies in the name of national development. First in the 1960s, when the colonial government begins the construction of a dam in the Elephant River for irrigation purposes: 3000 persons (mainly Mozambican peasants) are to be relocated; the government also creates a hunting reserve (the Coutada 16 – future LNP), reserved to the Portuguese settlers and to European hunters, while there are access and land use restrictions for local populations. After independence in 1975, the new Frelimo government resumes the irrigation project and implements the resettlement policy – which is however challenged by the civil conflict, which eventually ends in 1992.

The resettlement scheme appears again at the beginning of the 2000s, when the LNP is created: a national park is supposed to be uninhabited, in harmony with South Africa, with the IUCN (1) categorisation and with the Mozambican legislation. The novelty is that the resettlement project is set up in the name of biodiversity conservation (humans and wildlife cannot coexist, for wildlife may fatally attack local populations and some inhabitants are poachers) and sustainability (the settlement of a buffer zone is intended to be synonymous with development and participation for local populations, who may benefit from tourism and who will have a better access to healthcare services and education infrastructures).

Concretely, 27000 inhabitants were living in the newly created national park. About 20000 were settled on the Eastern and Southern parts of the park, where the buffer zone was established (they could therefore remain there). 7000 inhabitants from 8 villages are thus affected by the resettlement project, to a large extent funded by the German development Bank (KfW) (2) and implemented by the Peace Park Foundation (PPF).

The aim of the project is to “provide community development through sustainable resettlement” (PPF, 2015). Although presented as voluntary, this policy was affected by many delays, due to a certain reluctance from parts of the families concerned (who have to abandon the land where they have lived for years and even generations), but also by a sort of vagueness maintained by the Mozambican state, which had not (at least until 2012) provided clear regulations allowing the process to be implemented. As a matter of fact, when I last went to the LNP in 2011, 20 families had been resettled: in 2015, according to the PPF, 181 were relocated – when the project intends to relocate about 1600 of them.

Sustainability as a political tool?

A series of remarks can be raised from the Limpopo case. If the sustainability narrative is rather new in Mozambique, its concrete consequences for local populations are often quite similar to past policies, synonymous with restrictions, disenfranchisement and displacement. In a sense, under new clothes, a comparable process is under way, where the state controls its territory, natural resources and population. Because of its rather weak financial means and bureaucratic apparatus, it does so by delegating some missions to international actors, who perform their own agenda – policymaking is overall oriented by the sustainability narrative.

As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, “sustainability” infuses indeed the public policy arena in Mozambique. First, because the state has ratified a series of international conventions influenced by this narrative (such as CITES (3) in 1981 and CBD (4) in 1994). Second, because “sustainability” is key in the formulation of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP), which appeared at the beginning of the 2000s, and which basically represent the five-year government strategy, in line with donors’ agenda and with the MDGs, which have been integrated into the PRSP ever since 2000. Poverty reduction and sustainable development are therefore at the forefront of both the state and the donors’ action plans.

One can thus say that the MDGs (as well as the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development) have not fundamentally changed the state’s policies in Mozambique: this trend was already under way ever since the 1980s. However, it clearly shapes Mozambican politics: because it is officially part of both donors and government agenda, and because it feeds most budget and projects’ negotiations – a national consultation was for instance carried out in 2013 in order to review the MDGs’ implementation in the country (5). This can sound like a contradiction, but it is, in fact, relatively common in development politics: narratives, discourses and even national programs and laws may at the end of the day remain mostly formal. A key point, in this view, is of course the lack of political will (and of capacity) to enforce reforms.

As far as protected areas are concerned, the analysis of their management shows how a narrative impacts the different stakeholders on the ground. In short, local populations eventually experience a sort of repetition of policies upon which they do not have much agency – although “sustainability” is supposed to be synonymous with participation and state accountability. International organisations implement conservation projects, but as long as they fit with the state regulations. The state (both central and local) benefits from development/conservation projects, for they are supposed to contribute to the national development – but they are also part of a state-building process by which the state (and, in the case of Mozambique, the party-state Frelimo) extends it controls over its territory, populations and natural resources.

Basically, because international funds are tied to the sustainability paradigm, the interest of the Mozambican state is to promote conservation politics under this very banner.  Such funding allows national parks to function, with an administration and paramilitary rangers. Moreover, socio-economic infrastructures are created, such as schools, health posts and roads – in name of the party-state, and under the close supervision of central and local party-state representatives. In that sense, the neoliberal sustainability narrative, that promotes a state roll-back, ironically achieves the opposite.

More than a focus on sustainability through the Sustainable Development Goals, the current debate in Mozambique is rather about the objective of a “Green Economy”, which has been adopted in the government strategy for 2015-2019. According to the government, it consists of “a rational and sustainable use of natural resources through the integration of three pillars of sustainable development, that is, economic, social and environmental development” (PNUD, 2013). This echoes the neoliberal trend in the environmental sector: the promotion of “conservation” on the one hand, the insistence of “economic growth” on the other hand. These are indeed the very words of the newly elected President Filipe Nyusi, when he launched the Biofund in June 2015, a multi-million dollar conservation foundation dedicated to conservation policies and funded by international organisations and private donors.

The emphasis is thus more on the economic pillar of sustainability, and less on the social one. Nevertheless, this does not mean that sustainability is loosing ground in Mozambican politics. On the contrary, it remains a narrative broadly used, both by international and government actors, and it is still a privileged way to communicate with local populations. It is somehow part of both the development and political grammars used to liaise with local populations, who therefore are not only familiar with it, but who also prove to use it, for instance through the creation of local NGOs and associations that promote the sustainable use of natural resources, as it is the case in Limpopo and Gorongosa National Parks. This is maybe where the agency of local populations is the strongest – although most of these local NGOs and associations are mostly under the tutelage of the parks’ administration, notably in terms of the funds they can actually receive.


(1) International Union for Conservation of Nature
(2) KfW funded the project from 2002; the third phase was supposed to begin in 2009 and was then postponed to late 2011, when the project faced important delays due to a lack of clarity regarding the conditions and locations the households could be resettled.
(3) Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
(4) Convention on Biological Diversity
(5) See the UNDP website: www.mz.undp.org/content/dam/mozambique/docs/Millennium_Development_Goals/UNDP_MOZ_POST2015_CONSULTATION%20REPORT%20-%20MOZAMBIQUE.pdf


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About the author

Rozenn N. Diallo is a post-doc fellow at Montreal University. She completed her PhD at the Political Institute of Bordeaux in 2013, and was a research fellow at Oxford University in 2011-2012. Her research is about environmental politics in Africa, with a focus on Mozambique. Her current work investigates governance and transnational policymaking in Africa in the context of an international aid regime. Her PhD thesis will be published at Karthala Editions at the beginning of 2016.

This paper was written as part of the project "Post 2015 - Everything Better? African Perspectives on Global Challenges!" carried out by AfricAvenir International in 2014/2015. Read more about the project results here.

With support of the Landeszentrale für Entwicklungszusammenarbeit (LEZ) and Engagement Global.




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