This article is part of Global Geneva’s ongoing Focus series on the cultural and environmental impact of war. It is scheduled for publication in our Winter 2019/20 print and e-edition.
There’s a problem with Angola’s hopes of cashing in on its animal biodiversity – or more accurately hundreds of thousands or even millions of problems. Landmines. In the Angolan province of Cuando Cubango – which contains the key wildlife habitats of the Mavinga and Luengue Luiana National Parks – there are nearly 250 minefields, sown during 27 years of civil war (1975-2002) following the almost overnight departure of colonial Portugal in the wake of the April, 1974 revolution. These take human and animal life, block agricultural and conservation projects, and stop the development of a potentially lucrative safari-based tourist industry.
At the same time, there is some hope for the people and wildlife who live in this remote and often ignored region. On 17 June, 2019, it was announced at a conference at Chatham House in London that a new initiative was being launched between the HALO Trust and the government of Angola, which is investing $60 million to clear landmines in Cuando Cubango. The objective is to open up the area for conservation projects and eco-tourism leading to economic recovery. The launch was supported by the UK’s Prince Harry (who has a major conservation role as President of African Parks and whose mother, Princess Diana, helped bring world-wide attention to the Angolan landmine issue). Also there was Rory Stewart, at the time the UK’s International Development Secretary.
Harry made headlines around the world when he accompanied HALO deminers to areas where Princess Diana had also visited in January 1997. He trod the same paths through active minefields and again drew global attention to the issue.
Why so many mines in Angola ?
There has been a long-term international commitment by the United Nations, Red Cross and a myriad of other international organisations and NGOs to help Angolans deal with the problem of landmines laid during the country’s long civil war. Angola has been the focus of much effort to clear mines, which were sown across from north-central Angola around Malanje, into the Central Highlands near the towns of Huambo and Cuito, and across huge swatches of rural Angola, but most of all in the south-east. I accompanied HALO teams on demining operations around Kuito in June 1995, during a temporary ceasefire, and saw the damage done to people and the economy from decades of fighting. We also witnessed the immense difficulty of clearing mines in and around towns and in thick bush. (See video on landmine clearance)
The 1995 ceasefire did not halt the war, which dragged on until rebel UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi was killed in a government offensive in February 2002. The end of hostilities enabled a stepping-up of demining, but as in most post-conflict regions it was hampered by the remoteness of many of the minefields and a shortage of funds.
While work has been continuing on involving British demining groups, such as HALO Trust and MAG, as well as teams funded by other donors and organizations, Cuando Cubango and areas near the borders with Namibia and Zambia remain heavily mined.
This impedes the local agricultural economy from recovering. It also poses an extreme hazard to villagers but also to the hopes of enabling wildlife to recover to the large numbers that existed prior to the liberation war (1961-1975) against the Portuguese and the civil conflict that followed. Much of the fighting in the last 20 years took place in Cuando Cubango between the Angolan government forces and their Cubans allies, on one side, and the US-backed UNITA rebel movement and South African Defence Force (SADF) troops from South Africa, on the other.
The biggest tank battle in Africa since El Alamein (in WWII) took place at Cuito Cuanavale, bordering the Mavinga National Park, in 1987-88. The fighting lasted from initial skirmishes in March 1987, through the smashing of the Angolan army by SADF units at the Lomba river in September-October 1987. This was followed by the siege of Angolan forces (reinforced by the Cubans) at Cuito Cuanavale by the South Africans and UNITA from January to the end of March 1988. It all ended in a bloody military stalemate. Soon afterwards, South Africa negotiated to withdraw its troops from Angola and to cede independence to Namibia.
Angola’s wildlife: almost unparalleled in Africa
Angola is not widely known known now for its wildlife. But before and during centuries of Portuguese rule, vast herds of game (buffalo, antelope, zebras, elephants, lions and black rhino) roamed Cuando Cubango. This is according to Brian Huntley, who served as an ecologist to the Portuguese national parks administration before the end of Portuguese rule. In his book Wildlife at War in Angola, he details the wildlife found in Angola’s national parks, but with special mention of the large populations of elephant and rhino.
The presence of so much wildlife in the south-east meant that it not only had conservation areas but also extensive hunting zones, called coutadas, used by Portuguese soldiers, administrators and visiting safari hunters. Hunting continued during the liberation war as the south-east escaped relatively unscathed. But the civil war between the new Angolan government and UNITA saw the decimation of wildlife, particularly in the south.
UNITA rebels killed animals for meat but also took advantage of the rising demand for ivory. They began killing elephants and the South Africans rapidly sealed a deal with UNITA to help finance their military support. The SADF and military intelligence began trafficking ivory (as well as rhino horn) from animals killed, laundering it through legal ivory sales from culls in Kruger National Park. (Global Geneva editor Edward Girardet who reported from the UNITA side for The Christian Science Monitor during the 1980s recalls eating freshly-killed eland and giraffe while travelling with the guerrillas. He also witnessed significant herds of elephants, which – UNITA claimed – could not be shot because they were “in the parks.” However, he also saw stacks of ivory from elephants supposedly shot “outside”.)
The Kumleben Commission, set up by Nelson Mandela’s government after the end of apartheid, produced a report detailing the massive scale of killing of wildlife, but particularly elephants. One witness, Col. Jan Breytenbach of SADF 32 battalion which fought in Angola, told me in 1990 that perhaps as many as 100,000 elephants had been killed in the UNITA-SADF ivory operation. While funding UNITA, some of the revenues also went into Savimbi’s Swiss bank accounts as well as those of senior SADF officers and military intelligence agents.
Can Angola’s wildlife recover?
Since the end of the war, and until now, there has been little obvious commitment on the part of the oil-rich but corrupt Angolan government to support demining. (Eds: See Keith Somerville’s Oct. 2016 article in Global Geneva on African corruption). Despite the extreme wealth of its leaders, the Luanda administration has barely sought to rehabilitate the local economy or to invest in infrastructure, agricultural development and people’s welfare. This is partly because development outside the oil and diamond sectors and urban construction have not been priorities. It was also because this area long served as the rebel stronghold. Even if many people who supported UNITA did so often literally at gunpoint, they were nowhere on the government’s list of post-war recovery projects.
As a result, only a few landmines have been cleared. This makes farming, herding livestock or even fetching water in this fertile region difficult, even highly dangerous. Guns remain plentiful as there was no organized disarming at the end of the war. Those in rural areas in and around the national parks have little option but to hunt for meat, notably buffalo and antelope, using AK-47s as well as snares. This is not poaching through greed but poaching through dire need.
Roland Goetz, an experienced game ranger who worked for two years as a technical advisor in the Mavinga and Luengue Luiana National Parks, told me that there are still “many illegal weapons even though the Angolan Government are now doing their best to remove them, but in remote areas (hunting) bushmeat remains an important way of [people] feeding themselves”. He also told me that large numbers of elephant, buffalo and hippo are dying or being maimed by landmines.
In 2005, a campaign was launched to demine the wildlife zones of south-east Angola. This was to encourage the vast elephant populations, seeking safe haven in Botswana from poaching and landmines, to disperse back into Angola. The Peace Parks Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) supported the efforts but made little headway. For a number of reasons, including the loss of aid pledges as Angolan oil revenues fell in the 2010s sending the Angolan economy into recession, funding for mine clearance dropped from nearly $50m in 2005 to just $3.1 million in 2017. The Cuando Cubango mines stayed in the ground and continued to take their toll of people, elephants and other wildlife.
Elephants recover, then fall back again
A survey by Mike Chase and Curtice Griffin found that between January 2004 and November 2005 elephant numbers in Luengue Luiana National Park had increased from 366 to 1,827. This lent hope that despite the slow speed of demining, wildlife would begin to recover. When the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) was formally established in 2011, it was intended to encourage the creation of migration routes for wildlife (covering Angola, Botswana Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe) and to create a huge transfrontier area along the Kavango and Zambezi rivers.
But in another survey in 2015 it was found that the number of elephants in the same areas had dropped to 1,437. This was a blow to expectations that Angolan elephant herds would increase through dispersal. Many were supposed to come from Botswana with its huge elephant population (the whole KAZA region is estimated to have between 202,000-240,000, more than half of which at any time are in northern Botswana) and enable the repopulating of Angola’s prime elephant habitat.
Human activity – poaching, encroachment in to the parks by people seeking food and grazing for their cattle and the landmines is the explanation offered for this failure with poaching perhaps the worst culprit. Efforts to stop poaching, however, are significantly impeded by the mines. Game ranger Goetz told me that their presence “makes things much harder, having to stick to less known safe roads. When walking in the bush on patrol, the ever-present danger of being in such an area makes one stress more than in unmined areas”.
Will new funding help improve matters?
Speaking at the June, 2019 Chatham House, Prince Harry stressed the importance of clearing the mines and finding ways to turn previously hazardous areas into habitat for wildlife. This, he hoped, would be a way of bringing economic development and income for the local people, while protecting bio-diversity. At the same conference, Major General James Cowan, the CEO of the HALO Trust, welcomed Angola’s $60m pledge expressing the hope that “our work in the coming years will make local people safe and is the necessary first step to allow Angola to develop the kind of conservation tourism that can protect wildlife while providing sustainable future development.”
HALO, which has been operating for years in war zones such as Afghanistan, has been clearing mines in Angola since 1994 and has destroyed over 98,000 mines and 165,000 other explosive devices, such as unexploded shells, in 860 minefields. But the deminers still have mountains to climb. And with speed. Both Luana and HALO want to complete the mine clearing in Cuando Cubango by 2025. HALO estimates that it will need to clear 153 minefields inside the Mavinga and Luengue-Luiana National Parks alone. It also suggests that another $60 million will be needed to clear minefields both outside the parks and around the river systems that feed the Okavango. The aim is to completely clear the Okavango watershed.
One good sign for wildlife and the prospects for making it into a new source of income is the interest of African Parks (an international NGO that runs 15 national parks in nine countries from Benin to Malawi) in taking over the running of Iona National Park in south-western Angola. This park, which runs along the southern coast of Angola to the Namibian border, would be an important one to start with. It would create a contiguous area with Skeleton Coast National Park in Namibia, home to the famed and recovering population of desert-adapted lions as well as black rhino and elephants able to live in arid areas. This could emerge as a new transfrontier zone that would encourage migration and expansion of species. Lions from Skeleton Coast have already been tracked moving across the Cunene River into Iona.
African Parks CEO Peter Fearnhead said in September that he had accompanied Prince Harry to southern Angola where they had met Angolan President, João Lourenço, Minister of Tourism Ângela Bragança, and Minister of Environment Paula Coelho. Together they discussed “our proposed management of Iona National Park as well as other possibilities…for the benefit of the people and the country.” The NGO, of which Prince Harry is President – neatly tying together the landmine and conservation issues – has considerable experience working to rehabilitate areas for both wildlife protection and tourism development in former conflict zones, including Chad and Rwanda.
Without any pun intended, the landmine clearance and national park rehabilitation will prove to be elephantine tasks that will take sustained commitment from the Angolan government, not something for which it has been renowned in the past. Critical, too, is the need for new aid offers or funding from international bodies, NGOs and governments. But the aims – restoring the local economy, protecting the Okavango Delta water system, boosting Angola’s conservation efforts and bio-diversity – are crucial for local Angolan communities, who have had to live with the curse of mines for so long.
Professor Keith Somerville teaches at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent where he is a member of its Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, and is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is also the author of Ivory. Power and Poaching in Africa.