Arminda Momade left Palma district, Cabo Delgado province, northern Mozambique, after the March 2021 terrorist attack. In Chiure district, 400km from home, where she lives with her parents and two children, she is trying to get back on her feet by selling food. "At least we can survive in peace," she said. 

Arminda, 34, went to Palma in 2019 to "take advantage" of small business opportunities related to the gas exploration work.

"I left Chiure for Palma with entrepreneurial ideas because people said there was a lot of money associated with the gas projects there," she said. "I was aware that some areas were under attack, but people said that Palma was totally safe and that there would never be a terrorist attack."

"Today I can say that I was deceived, because when we least expected it, we were attacked," she said, noting that she had suffered losses in her business selling second-hand clothes and personal protective equipment.

In fact, the image of a promising Cabo Delgado for everyone, especially young people, was propagated by the Mozambican government, as was the idea that Palma was completely safe. In the 2021 attack, many people died and others were seriously injured. The government has never accepted responsibility, or at least given a figure for the number of victims. However, independent research puts the death toll at over 1190, including children and babies.

The attack paralysed the $20 billion gas project led by TotalEnergies. The study's author, Alex Perry, blames the government for failing to protect the population and TotalEnergies for 'promising security' but in practice only managing to protect the fenced-off area of the project. Seven survivors and relatives of those who died have taken legal action against the company, accusing it of manslaughter and failing to help people in danger.

The invisible hand of the government and TotalEnergies in the attacks

TotalEnergies denies that the gas projects have anything to do with the attacks, saying that "the conflict predates the development of gas in the region" and is linked to "many factors" that have nothing to do with the LNG projects. However, the French oil company does not say what these factors are.

TotalEnergies does not acknowledge that gas projects may indirectly contribute to the terrorist attacks. Both the government and the oil companies have created expectations in the minds of young people, especially locals, about access to employment in the construction of gas plants, which has not materialised due to various factors, including the lack of skills among local young people in various fields. Many are illiterate, including those from neighbouring provinces. As a result, vacancies have been filled by people from other parts of the country, which has always caused outrage among the locals. This is one of the factors that has facilitated the recruitment of local youth into the ranks of the terrorists.

"Many young people in the province were frustrated because they didn't know how to do carpentry, metalwork and other jobs," said Onelio Jafar, a resident of Pemba who works for a construction company contracted by TotalEnergies. "There were even initiatives to train young people, but they weren't comprehensive, and only a few took part.

Unemployed young people from neighbouring provinces such as Niassa and Nampula were often approached by police at the border with Cabo Delgado, saying they were going there to look for work. The government's fallacious argument, however, is that in other areas with mega-projects there are unemployed young people with no education, and that there have never been any terrorist attacks.

The resettlement process has also been mismanaged, angering the local population. In addition to compensation for land elsewhere, some residents were given money as compensation for fishing and farming activities in areas also closed off by the project. With no rational and long-term plan for the use of the money, the locals spent it all and found themselves in a situation where they had access to housing but no means of subsistence, leaving them poorer and more frustrated. This situation was exacerbated by the suspension of the TotalEnergies project in 2021, which affected the process of paying compensation to the families who were still receiving money.

In 2022, while the population was fleeing the attacks, the government seized 12,000 hectares of land and allocated it to an unknown company created in 2021, without any public consultation with the population, who were displaced to safe places. Despite several requests from civil society to clarify the land grab, the government has yet to respond. Part of the population continues to be housed in shelters where human rights are violated, including cases of exchanging services for sex.

Despite local discontent, the government is pressuring the oil companies to resume construction of gas exploration facilities, claiming that the ringleaders of the attacks have been eliminated and that the group is now dispersed and less effective. However, there are reports of new recruits to the terrorist ranks. New attacks are also emerging, leading Mozambican police chief Bernardino Rafael to acknowledge that as long as there are gas projects, there will be attacks. "If you want to produce, they will always attack you. So one group is defending, another is producing. Another group provides security, another group transports. It's a challenge," he said in Palma on 1 October.

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, the conflict has already left more than 4,700 people dead and at least one million displaced.

Mozambique LNG ‘carbon bomb’ must be stopped

A group of 124 civil society organisations from Mozambique and around the world have issued an urgent appeal to the 28 financial institutions supporting TotalEnergies' Mozambique LNG project. The group is calling on banks and export credit agencies to withdraw their support for the project over a range of concerns, including ongoing terrorist attacks, human rights abuses, lack of benefits for local communities, and critical impacts on local ecosystems and the global climate.

In the open letter, published in mid-November 2023, the coalition states that Palma and Cabo Delgado remain unsafe, with recent escalations in violence and attacks continuing to this day. Furthermore, this project is a 'carbon bomb' and has real impacts on the ground in Mozambique, a country already suffering from the effects of climate change. 

Despite the attacks and climate warnings, the Mozambican government is standing firm, repeating misinformation about fossil fuels, such as that gas is less polluting than other fossil fuels and that the region is safe. The government is also counting on the European Union to support the narrative that Mozambique's gas is important. Speaking in Maputo on 21 November, the European Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson, defended the resumption of the TotalEnergie gas project, saying it was necessary to minimise the European energy crisis, aggravated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the local population is cautious about the resumption of the gas projects.

"My wish is that these projects will only be restarted after full security," Onelio Jafar told Climate Justice Central. "What may happen is that the gas plant may never be attacked because of the strong security forces, but the population is unprotected and will continue to suffer."

This article is part of our current reporting project "Dismantling the Fossil Fuel Industry".