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In Mozambique, protecting nature helps people survive

Russ Feingold
By Russ Feingold

Russ Feingold served as a United States Senator from Wisconsin from 1993 to 2011 and a Wisconsin State Senator from 1983 to 1993. From 2013 to 2015, Russ served as the United States Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Posted on Wednesday, 11 March 2020 13:11

Photo by Charlie Hamilton James, National Geographic. Cradled in the southern end of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, Gorongosa’s 1,500 square miles span mountainsides, plateau forests, escarpment canyons, palm savannas, and wetlands.

Residents of Beira, Mozambique—a small coastal city at the mouth of the Pungwe River—cannot be faulted for casting a wary eye towards the sky these days.

One year ago, when Cyclone Idai slammed into Mozambique, pummeling Beira with a 20-foot storm surge, very few people were prepared for the force and fury of that superstorm.

Thousands dead or missing nationwide. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops were damaged or destroyed. Millions impacted by flooding and ruined infrastructure. Billions of dollars in economic losses.

Gorongosa National Park was an island amidst this storm.

Its floodplains absorbed tens of millions of gallons of water. The staff and infrastructure needed to manage the park were essential in helping those who survived make it through the aftermath of the natural calamity, delivering food, water, mosquito nets, even new seeds for the coming planting season.

Several months after the storm, Gorongosa was declared a “Peace Park” by Mozambique President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi for a different role it played.

Gorongosa helped the region recover from fifteen years of civil war that decimated the countryside, displacing communities, destroying entire ecosystems, decimating populations of larger animals—elephants, buffalos, lions, hippos—and leaving behind landmines scattered throughout the area.

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As the nation recovered in the years after the war, poverty became the biggest threat to Gorongosa. Surrounded by small, impoverished villages, and suffering from minimal oversight, the park’s forests were logged for timber, poachers stalked what little wildlife remained, and farmland began to encroach inside the park boundaries.

Today, Gorongosa National Park provides healthcare for more than 100,000 people each year and supports 50 local schools with its signature “Girls Club,” an after-school club that helps keep at-risk girls in school and out of early marriages. The park has plans to build 100 primary schools for over 40,000 children and is committed to gender equality with a goal of employing females as one-half of their workforce.

The success in the community mirrors biological success within the park. In just 14 years of smart and passionate effort, wildlife numbers have rebounded and, in some instances, surpassed the populations recorded the late 1960s when biologist E.O. Wilson called Gorongosa the most ecologically diverse park in the world.

Gorongosa succeeds on so many levels, throughout so many crises, because those who manage it through all of these storms understand that you cannot create a protected natural area by walling it off from the outside world. Healthy ecosystems cannot be maintained in isolation. Instead, they must integrate into the surroundings like the deep roots of the park’s hardwood trees.

The total value of what nature provides people all around the world has been estimated to be roughly $125 trillion every year in food, water purification, pollination, protection against floods, and more.

This is two-thirds more than the global GDP.

But the land and oceans that contain this biodiversity are in a state of crisis, threatened by overuse, pollution, urban sprawl, habitat loss, invasive species, climate change, and the many armed conflicts still not resolved. In 2019, a major report from 150 leading scientists showed that up to a million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades, and that the threats posed to people from the destruction of nature are just as serious as those posed by climate change.

In August 2019, President Nyusi and the leaders of the opposition chose Gorongosa National Park as the location of the “Gorongosa Accord,” which outlines a definitive cease-fire between the two groups and opens the door for several hundred fighters who live inside the park (with their families) to disarm and reintegrate into society.

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Gorongosa National Park has offered to employ the reintegrated fighters and family members with positions in construction, farming, and coffee production on Mount Gorongosa—a business venture that is helping to support the community while reforesting a section of the park. Some may be trained as park rangers, protecting the wildlife in a park that was once their battlefield. Gorongosa’s leadership team knows that to find success in the park, they need to raise the fortunes of everyone around it. To that end, the staff spends more time and money outside the park than inside its boundaries.

Embracing the lessons learned from Gorongosa in other parts of the world could be helpful as nations discuss how to increase land and marine protection globally. These protections must include management of the natural resources and integration of protected areas with the communities living outside—and often inside—these important places.

National governments are currently working through an international treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity to develop a global deal that can be approved at the Convention’s next meeting, in the fall of 2020.

To be successful, scientists and experts have said that this deal must include the goal of protecting at least 30 percent of the planet’s lands and waters by 2030—essentially twice as much land and four times as much ocean as is currently protected.

As we see in Mozambique, once these places are protected, they are not going anywhere. They remain part of the national landscape and will sustain people for generations to come. Just as people helped Gorongosa recover from Mozambique’s civil war, Gorongosa helped Mozambique recover as well—from the civil war as well as Cyclone Idai.

So while people in Beira and elsewhere in Mozambique will remain anxious throughout the current cyclone season, having Gorongosa and its resources behind them will bring some comfort. But if all of us around the world are to survive the many storms that have yet to come, we need to protect the nature that we still have left to us.

The author, Russ Feingold, was U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2013 to 2015, and was also a member and chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on African Affairs.

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