By Tony Weaver

The news that Mozambique plans to go ahead with a $520-million (about R5,2-billion) harbour and industrial free trade development zone on the pristine southern Maputaland coast has been greeted with outrage by environmentalists working in the area.

The planned harbour will scuttle ambitious plans to establish a transfrontier conservation area (TFCA) stretching from St Lucia in KwaZulu-Natal, through the Lubombo area of Swaziland and into the Maputo Elephant Reserve in Mozambique.

Not only will an area of pristine coastal and sand forest, wetlands and grasslands be threatened, but one of Africa's most important reef systems, which is almost certainly home to the prehistoric coelacanth, is also under threat.

The harbour will be between Ponta Dobela and Ponta Mamoli on the Maputo Elephant Reserve's southern border, about 100km south of the Mozambican capital, Maputo, and will involve breaching the offshore reef and coastal forest, and excavating an area of grassland.

"Preliminary assessments of the project indicate that the project is viable and it will go ahead, come what may," Transport and Communications Minister Tomaz Salomao was quoted as saying this week.

The entire area has been earmarked by Unesco as a potential World Heritage Site.

Respected environmental consultant Paul Dutton, who has worked extensively in the area, said "establishing a harbour inland of the coast would pull the plug out of this unique wetland ecosystem.

"I regard the area as being one of the finest wetland ecosystems worldwide, as it includes a diversity of biota from whales to hippo and habitats ranging from coral reefs to terrestrial vegetation types."

A Mozambican government environmental scientist, who asked not to be named, said there was "a significant body of opinion in the government which opposes this plan, but we are being sidelined.

"One of our biggest concerns is that it will destroy any hopes of establishing the TFCA, even though this has already been signed into law. This whole plan is crazy.

"Another serious concern is that we estimate that as many as 250 000 people will flock into what is a pristine area in search of work, with disastrous environmental consequences."

Durban-based reef specialist Peter Ramsay, who conducted the reef mapping in the recent successful bid to find new colonies of coelacanths, said he believed "there are almost certainly canyons there that contain coelacanths."