I was dubious when boarding my 22-hour flight from Washington, DC to Mozambique. Not about whether the top ten tips to coping with a long flight, which I had read about several days earlier, would work. Nor whether the vaccinations I had gotten to go on the trip would make a difference.
I was dubious about whether anybody in the two northern Mozambique provinces I was heading to would be willing or able to take time to talk to me about their connection—or lack thereof – to the rivers, lakes and forests in and near their communities. And what changes they’ve seen to those natural resources over the years. And what concerns they have about potentially living in a world without such resources.
These might be issues on their mind, even if just subconsciously. But they live in the two poorest provinces in one of the poorest countries in the world. Between their sun up to sun down chores that are tied to their survival—such as collecting water, cooking and fishing—I was skeptical anybody would be able to set aside a few hours for a conversation with me about their most important natural resources, increasingly referred to nowadays as “natural capital.”
Their stories, I had hoped, would be used by WWF and the Government of Mozambique to help inspire investors, private companies, donors and others to factor nature into their decisions on how the country should grow.
One of the first places I went to dig up these stories was Lake Amaramba, located in Niassa Province. I had heard the lake was the source of life for many people in the province. I asked my colleague from WWF-Mozambique to arrange for me to meet one or two fishermen when we got to the lake. He did so, a week before I arrived, but I had my doubts about whether they would show up to our meeting point—their small lakeside village, at the end of a four-hour potholed dirt road.
When we arrived, we were greeted by 60 fishermen, not one or two. Mostly men. Mostly middle-aged. But some children and village elders were also in the mix as we jumped into a few small motor boats to tour the lake.
All of them were eager to talk. They spoke about how fishing is the only livelihood they’ve ever had and, likely, ever will have. And how fish from the lake is one of their main sources of protein. And that the water in the lake is one of their only sources of drinking water. They use the lake water for bathing and growing vegetables, too. The colors, sounds and smells at the lake are calming, they said. But, mostly, they talked about how they and their children and their children’s children cannot survive without this natural resource.
They told stories about the changes they have seen to the lake—lower water levels and fewer fish, which they said were due to the growing population (northern Mozambique is the fastest growing area of the country) and, probably, climate change. On behalf of the group, fisheries council president Bales Tomais Matema spoke about some of the solutions they have in mind, which they want to work with WWF and the government to bring to life—such as creating fish sanctuaries and environmentally-friendly alternatives to the mosquito netting they use, because it is free, to catch fish.
I was pleasantly surprised to find just as many people willing to share their stories as we travelled by truck along the entire length of the Lugenda River, which starts at Lake Amaramba and ends 186 miles later at the Indian Ocean. Their stories had a similar message—nature is essential to the country’s economy, food supply and security. It, therefore, is essential to their lives.
Their stories, too, highlighted the visible changes they have seen to nature—particularly the Lugenda River. Less rainfall means the water levels in the river are low, making it harder to grow tobacco and macadamia nuts, two types of agriculture that are a reliable source of income for people in the provinces I visited.
The good news for the people I met is that they are not alone. Others in the country recognize these challenges and are stepping in to help. In Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, the Government of Mozambique—with support from WWF, the African Development Bank and others—is creating a new national program to protect the country’s natural capital.
In the northern Mozambique city of Palma, government officials are creating strategies to ensure that the world’s fourth largest gas reserve—discovered in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Palma, a few years ago—is not developed unsustainably. The reserve is a relative stone’s throw from a massive expanse of mangroves that act as a physical buffer, protecting people from storm surges, and provide habitat for a large variety of fish species.
In Niassa National Reserve, home to one of the largest populations of lions in Africa, Colleen Begg is educating villagers about sustainable livelihood opportunities, such as bee keeping, and providing them with jobs, like building a new ecolodge where several villages now work.
The personal stories I heard and the enthusiasm for finding solutions left me feeling hopeful when I boarded my plane home from Mozambique—far from the dubious feelings I had before arriving.