Recovering from war, Mozambican park again faces conflict

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Rangers stand at the Gorongosa National Park, which has been affected by conflict between Mozambique's government and the main opposition group. (Christopher Torchia, AP)
Rangers stand at the Gorongosa National Park, which has been affected by conflict between Mozambique's government and the main opposition group. (Christopher Torchia, AP)

Gorongosa National Park - A fragment of a bullet-pocked wall in this Mozambique wildlife reserve is a reminder of a civil war that ended in 1992. Today, an ambitious revival of Gorongosa National Park is underway, but trouble looms again from the conflict's old foes.

One of Africa's richest ecosystems, Gorongosa historically has been a stronghold of the country's main opposition group, whose rivalry with the ruling party has spiraled into ambushes, tit-for-tat assassinations and other attacks in the last few years.

The two sides have been negotiating, and a return to war is unlikely. But the Gorongosa Restoration Project, which is pushing ahead with a 2017 budget of more than $8m, is treading a delicate line between adversaries. Some funds go to aid for poor communities in contested areas around the park.

As in other parts of Africa, a well-funded agenda is vulnerable to political unrest beyond its control.

"We really are neutral," said Greg Carr, an American philanthropist who leads the Gorongosa non-profit group and has telephone numbers for leaders of both factions. Many of the 500 people working for the wildlife park back Renamo, the opposition, and some support Frelimo, the ruling party, though managers discourage any sensitive talk on the job.

One recent morning, as insects trilled in the heat, rangers in uniform saluted Rui Branco, the park's head of law enforcement, before departing on a patrol to thwart poachers who kill animals for their meat.

Opportunism

"We've had opportunism. You get poachers trying to pretend they're someone, or one of the sides, and they hope they'll get let go because of that," Branco said. "In the beginning, it worked for them. The scouts would be afraid. And then we realised what was going on."

Government forces and Renamo fighters stay out of most of the unfenced park. The rival groups "know who we are, and they respect what we do", Branco said.

The civil war that started in 1977 killed up to 1 million people. Frelimo was a Marxist fighter movement when it took power, and Renamo rebels were backed by white-minority rulers in what was then Rhodesia, and in apartheid South Africa.

After post-war election losses, Renamo (the Portuguese acronym for Mozambican National Resistance) now wants more regional autonomy from Frelimo (Mozambique Liberation Front), a process that could require constitutional change. European Union mediator Mario Raffaelli travelled to Gorongosa in October to try to meet Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama, who cancelled after alleging government troops launched an operation.

Undeterred, the Gorongosa Restoration Project is extending a joint management plan with Mozambique for another 25 years. It believes it can build on gains that include the partial recovery of lions, elephants and other wildlife populations that were slaughtered for food during the war.

Carr, who signed a Gorongosa management deal with Mozambique in 2008 after a government invitation, has support from the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, at $2m a year, and the Global Environment Facility, with a $7.5m grant managed by the United Nations Development Programme.

In a letter to Gorongosa warden Mateus Mutemba, USAID praised the park for progress "while surrounded by armed conflict".

A recent ceremony at Gorongosa could signal an expansion of the 4 067km² park at a time when many African wildlife habitats are shrinking because of human encroachment. Entreposto, a Portuguese business group that runs an adjacent hunting concession, said it wants Mozambique's government to add that land to the park, creating tourism opportunities and a wildlife corridor to the Zambezi River.

Antelope grazed in the distance during the signing event at dusk on a Gorongosa plain. Guests included Maria Amélia Paiva, the ambassador of Portugal, Mozambique's colonial ruler until 1975.

Political gain

"We all die ..." sang Pedro Muagura, the park's director of conservation. A chorus mostly composed of rangers and students studying in the park finished the line: "... to save our flora and fauna".

It was festive, but some park officials worried that the news might be manipulated for political gain. One theory is that Renamo could allege that plans to expand the national park are a government effort to increase influence in the area.

Another worry is Mount Gorongosa, whose incorporation into the park in 2010 was praised by conservationists and opened the way to reforestation and coffee-growing projects. However, the area has been a virtual no-go zone amid reported incursions by the military.

Scientists stopped working on Mount Gorongosa because of the "potential danger", said Piotr Naskrecki, an entomologist who is helping to develop a research laboratory in the park.

Gorongosa's development will proceed, insisted Mutemba, the warden.

"We are optimists," he said. "We're not waiting."

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