Battle to save Malawi's Mount Mulanje

MOUNT MULANJE, Malawi — The tea pickers are busy in the cool morning as they work in the huge shadow of the mountain. It rises steeply from the green ordered rows of tea bushes. The sun breaks over the top at about 10 a.m., burning away the wisps of clouds in the hummocks and hills.

At 9,855 feet, Mount Mulanje is one of Africa's highest peaks, with the continent's highest vertical cliff.

What makes it even more remarkable is that Mount Mulanje rises from Malawi's tea growing southern highlands. The mountain snags clouds coming in from the Mozambican coast and brings rain all through the year to the tea fields. On a plateau on the mountain grows the Mulanje Cedar, Widdringtonia whytei, a close relative of the nearly extinct cedar tree that adorns Lebanon's flag.

The remote hills, valleys and soaring peaks of the plateau are the last refuge of this disappearing species. It is not extensive illegal logging that may spell disaster for the Mulanje Cedar, but rather a danger that could affect the tea fields, the forests and the mountain itself.

Gondo Resources, a Zimbabwean firm investing heavily in Africa, wants to strip mine aluminum ore, called Bauxite, from the Lichenya Plateau, the most preserved and protected plateau on the mountain. It lies right above the town of Mulanje itself, and the effluent seepage from the mining process may threaten the town's booming tea industry, one of Malawi's biggest foreign exchange earners.

"In no respect do we even see mining as being economically feasible, much less environmentally, so why should anyone look at actually doing it?" asks Carl Bruessow, head of the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust. "This is based on information like Anglo American Mining's assessment in the 1960s. As well, the tea growers feel that their livelihood will be ruined from that dust and pollution from mining, and doubtless the tea industry, especially poor farmers, would be most affected."

The conservation trust is based in the picturesque town. Created in 2000 after 10 years of struggle, the trust aims to protect biodiversity and the natural heritage of the mountain. It is supported by the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the European Union, the Norwegian government, the KEW Royal Botanical Gardens, Earthwatch, Practical Action, the IUCN Center of Plant Diversity and the U.N. Global Biosphere Reserve Program.

The Lichenya plateau is a wonderland of green fields and deep impenetrable cedar forests. It is the only place on the 100-square-mile plateau where the trees remain in a relatively untouched state. Rocky outcrops line the edges of the valley where the shaggy trees grow in waves of unadulterated green. It is here that the bauxite ore rests and is where Gondo Resources want to dig a massive open pit mine.

The benefits to Malawi of the bauxite extraction are unclear, according to conservation groups. Mining fees and employment will give short term benefits, but they may be outweighed by the long-term costs of the mining.

"The mountain's fragile and unique ecology will be damaged beyond redemption. The mountain is a legacy for future generations of Malawians. This is a prime tourism site, and with the bauxite mining we don't get added value, we get negative value," said Rafiq Hajat, the head of the Institute for Policy Interaction in Malawi.

The global price of aluminum is currently low because of the financial crisis, despite Chinese demand for metals. But when the world's thirst for raw materials rebounds, preserving places in Africa like Mount Mulanje will become harder as cash-strapped African governments lure to elusive foreign direct investment with access to raw materials.

"Economic colonialization exists within Africa today," said Hajat."We Africans support it, we encourage it, because it is a clear short-term gain. But until we see ourselves in control of our own environment, commodities and food resources, others will seek, and succeed, to control them."