Mozambique has established Africa's largest coastal marine reserve, and there are hopes it could prove to be the key to prosperity for the coastal population.
Comprising over ten thousand square kilometres of ocean, the Primeiras and Segundas marine reserve became Africa's largest coastal marine protection zone earlier this month. The waters around these two archipelagos join the modest yet ever expanding list of protected areas established off Mozambique's coast since 2000.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) hailed this particular victory, the climax of an eight-year campaign, as "globally significant" for marine conservation in Africa.
Mozambique's 2,500 km of coastline certainly has a fine array of natural wonders worth preserving for future generations. The Primeiras and Segundas themselves boast marine turtles, beautiful coral reefs unaffected by bleaching, and vast sea-grass beds essential to the livelihoods of wildlife and local communities.
Elsewhere along the coast, sites have become world-renowned for large whale shark and manta ray populations as well as migratory routes for humpback whales. To cap it all off, the protected Bazaruto Archipelago hosts one of the last sustainable populations of dugongs (an ocean-going relative of the manatee) anywhere in the world.
However, arguably the most promising element of moves to protect its natural wonders is that over the last 12 years, Mozambican leaders have increasingly appreciated the connection between protecting its oceans and the economic viability of communities along the coastline and the country as a whole.
Although environmental campaigners have not always trusted in the government's commitment to environmental protection, the positive consequences of this growing perspective for ordinary Mozambicans could prove significant. Indeed, the Country Director for WWF-Mozambique, Florêncio Marerua, stressed that the decision to establish the marine reserve was "a great response to the appeal by local communities to help them protect their resources".
Tapping into the ecotourism phenomenon
One of the most conspicuous ways in which local communities have benefitted from marine conservation is through the ecotourism industry. Some have even proposed that the annihilation of Mozambique's tourism during the civil war years has left the country with a uniquely clean slate from which to perfectly tailor their industry towards this voguish and distinctly global brand of tourism. With tourism revenues at $231 million in 2011 (an increase of 17.1% from 2010), it is an industry the government are understandably keen to foster.
Foreign investors and local communities all along the coastline have also seized upon ecotourism. Nuarro Luxury Eco-Lodge on the Baixo Do Pinda Peninsula in northern Mozambique is recognised as one of the most luxurious eco-lodges in Africa. The lodge was built by locals using local materials and remains partly owned by the local community. Furthermore, a portion of all accommodation and activity fees go towards funding local projects, including the construction of a community centre and medical post.
Similar schemes have been instigated on the Bazaruto Archipelago - protected since 2001 and considered by many to be the most beautiful islands in the entire region. Alongside funding for local welfare projects, numerous locals are employed directly by the conservation industry and many more receive fees for reporting sightings of turtle nests.
Along the wilder southern coast, tourists are drawn in by the hope of swimming beside so-called marine "megafauna". A tiny beachside community, Tofo's surfer vibe and ubiquitous populations of whale sharks and manta rays have led to its rapid expansion - now boasting two hotels and numerous beachside guest houses and bungalows.
As far as the locally-based Foundation for the Protection of Marine Megafauna is concerned, the next step for the government is to proclaim 'protected species' status for these two marine attractions. Considering their mobile nature, however, enforcing this protection would be even more problematic than patrolling the immense reserves that already exist elsewhere along the coast. Nevertheless, an almost irrefutable argument can be made for these fish being the sole reason for Tofo's current tourist-driven prosperity.
Sustaining local resources
But ecotourism is not the only way ordinary Mozambicans benefit from government-decreed marine reserves. With the chronic overexploitation of fishing stocks already a major problem, the reserves form part of the solution safeguarding vital local food supplies. Industrial-scale fishing by colossal Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Taiwanese trawlers has driven many local fishermen ever further from prime fish stocks.
"Protecting the rich natural resources of this magnificent area will make a major contribution to the long-term food security and livelihoods of the people of the region", explained the WWF's Global Marine Programme Director John Tanzer, in reference to the Primeiras and Segundas.
The shark-finning trade conducted off Mozambique's shores is another corrosive practice that conservations wish to eradicate. All in all, the products of a whale shark carcasses resold in China can be worth up to $250,000 - the greatest prize being the huge dorsal fin. Despite only receiving a miniscule fraction of this cost, for Mozambican fishermen this seems an obvious way to make a living.
Yet a WWF report has estimated that the value in tourist dollars of a live whale shark across its entire lifespan could be as high as $2 million. And of course that whale shark will produce offspring for the future. Naturally, it is hoped that governmental protection of these creatures and their habitat will help inform the population about the economic benefits they can bring.
Too much of a good thing?
But tourism holds the potential to be as destructive as it is beneficial. Simon Pierce, marine biologist and founding member of the Marine Megafauna Foundation, has voiced concerns about Tofo's expansion. Although whale shark tourism can be extremely lucrative, he dreads a similar situation to resorts like Holbox Island in Mexico, where over 250 licensed whale shark tour operators clumsily vie for tourists' attention. "If expansion happens", Pierce explains "we need to make sure it's managed to ensure we don't love this species to death".
Similar fears have been raised about Bazaruto in the past after rumours that luxury hotels were looking to expand with additional housing, a golf course, and even a herd of impala to add to the 'African-ness' of the place! "If you build too much in Bazaruto, you destroy the reason people go to Bazaruto", the then Country Director for WWF-Mozambique, Helena Motta warned. "You kill the goose that laid the golden egg."
Equally, the presence of eager tourists does not necessarily solve the problem of unsustainable fishing. Benjamin Smith, a former research assistant at ACCM Zavora Marine Lab (some miles north of Tofo), told Think Africa Press of an incident in which a tour group were confronted by local fisherman dragging a catch of pitiful manta rays from the sea.
As their diving instructor berated the men and documented the dead rays, the tourists only became impatient to get in the ocean and see some more exciting live specimens. "So maybe some ecotourists are not very eco at all", mused Smith. "They just want to say they have swum with them in the water rather than maintained the sustainability of Mozambique's coast."
Yet in spite of this, Mozambique clearly has an excellent opportunity to refocus its troubled reputation. Generations of people in the West have associated Mozambique with tragedy and disaster. Whether it was the arduous campaign to eject the Portuguese colonial regime in the 1970s, the bloody civil war of the 1980s, determined efforts to de-mine vast swathes of wilderness in the 1990s, or the devastating floods at the turn of the millennium - Mozambique has repeatedly imprinted a bleak image on the consciousness of the West.
There are clearly many challenges left to face. But perhaps the world's next generation will see this expansive coastal nation in a different light. In the future, could Mozambique be synonymous with natural beauty, spectacular biodiversity, and rare marine wildlife? Anyone can see that this country has many treasures, and hopefully its government and people can continue to unlock their potential.
Luke Lythgoe is an intern at Think Africa Press looking to advance his career in journalism. He graduated from the University of Cambridge with a BA Hons in History.