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Cuando Cubango: Marching Forward

Article - July 31, 2014
Cuando Cubango is counting on its spectacular ecosystem to spearhead economic revival
Most likely you have never heard of Cuando Cubango. Outside of Angola, few are aware that this remote, underdeveloped and sparsely populated swathe of grassy upland savannah in the southeast corner of the country even exists, and fewer still have calculated its potential for sustainable development.

Even Angolans would be more likely to associate it with their country’s tragic recent history. Cuando Cubango was a stronghold of UNITA rebel forces during the civil war and scene of some of the worst fighting in that 27-year conflict. There, in 1988, South African and Cuban forces faced off in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, the bloodiest armed clash ever to take place in sub-Saharan Africa.

Will that indifference ever change?

The answer might well be a qualified yes, if the province’s can-do, hands-on Governor, Higinio Lopes Carneiro, has any say in the matter. Ideas and enthusiasm are plentiful, and all that is needed is the investment flow to get projects off the ground. But the former Army general has no illusions about the challenge he faces.

“In the past, Cuando Cubango was the least developed province in Angola, so much so that it was known as the Land at the End of the World because there really were no roads or basic infrastructure.”

That shortfall may actually have been a blessing in disguise, having allowed nature to embellish a fascinating landscape with all manner of colorful animal and plant life. But something of an economic revolution has been underway since Mr. Carneiro took office two years ago, and his administration is hoping to have almost 2,500 miles of roads and bridges ready for traffic by 2017.


The Governor acquired his expertise and his can-do attitude in the service of his country during 1l years as Minister of Public Works. In all his posts – as General, Governor of South Kwanza province, and Chief Negotiator at the 1991 cease-fire talks – he was known for making things happen by identifying clear-cut goals and picking the right people to carry them out.

Cuando Cubango is an uncommonly fertile land irrigated by no less than nine major river systems. That means a systematic transformation from subsistence to commodity farming is a real possibility.
“Creating a local team that responded to my thinking made a big difference,” he recalls with no small satisfaction. “Our agricultural development and some other projects were at a standstill, but we decided to change our approach and methods completely. Now, the agriculture project has been completed and the others are making slow progress as well.”

“We’ve already approved and authorized implementation of some projects in the tourism domain, while other initiatives in agriculture, entrepreneurial investments and the forestry sector are still under negotiation,” says Mr. Carneiro, whose efforts have been singled out for special praise by Angola’s Secretary of State for Industry, Kiala Ngone Gabriel.

Earlier this year, after submitting to the authorities in Luanda a Strategic Development Plan for the province running through 2017, the Governor confirmed that “social issues continue to merit our greatest attention – health, education, water, electricity, assistance to the most vulnerable people and professional training.”

Each of those initiatives is accompanied by more than just good intentions. It comes with a completion date and scheduled follow-up evaluation, with education standing at the top of the list. “When we talk about education, that should be understood to include vocational training,” he is quick to add. “That is because we believe the development of human capital is essential for the nation.”

By 2016, the Governor wants to see deficiencies in the health sector eliminated through the construction and rehabilitation of cost-efficient hospitals. “By 2017, solutions must be found for problems regarding the water supply,” he adds.


Cuando Cubango is an uncommonly fertile land irrigated by no less than nine major river systems. That means a systematic transformation from subsistence to commodity farming is a real possibility, as the output would have easy access to the profitable markets in Namibia and South Africa, just across the border.

Right now local farmers are closely watching a state-of-the-art complex for growing and processing rice that was built, financed and is being operated with substantial help from China. The Fazenda Longa plantation at Cuito Cuanavale covers 1,235 acres, and has been keeping around 50 Chinese agronomists and 250 Angolans occupied since the first year’s crop was planted in 2012 to this year’s 3,700-ton harvest.

The plantation is managed by Angola’s own Gesterra corporation, which has agreed to commercialize the rice that is already beginning to pile up in warehouses. The Angolan government via a credit line from the China Development Bank funded start-up costs in the order of $77.6 million. Both the area under cultivation and its output are expected to multiply tenfold over the next few years and Mr. Carneiro is pleased enough with the results to announce that two more such installations are in the pipeline for 2017.

According to the Governor, “the trouble is that we produce almost no fertilizer, no machinery, and importing them adds to the cost of agricultural production. On the other hand, we do have a lot of water resources, lots of fertile land and manpower. To become more competitive, the government has created a series of incentives including a 10-year tax holiday for investments in Cuando Cubango.

“As for electricity, power in the capital, Menongue, is guaranteed although we intend to upgrade our equipment and increase available capacity.” he says. If all goes well, some of that energy may eventually come from the untapped hydroelectric potential of the two mighty rivers, the Cuando and the Cubango, from which the province takes its name.


Ground transportation presents a special set of challenges. The provincial capital is over 450 miles away from Luanda, so a sense of isolation and neglect existed far back into the colonial period, long before the war. While the fighting raged, it was easy for both sides to blow up roads and bridges because there were never very many of them to begin with.

Worse still were the tens of thousands of anti-personnel mines scattered along the principal highways and transportation corridors, leaving Cuando Cubango’s half million plus inhabitants cut off from the rest of the country and the world. “To deal with this,” says Mr. Carneiro, “we have over 42 demining brigades working throughout the territory. Little by little, the roads are being opened, and with them we hope will come tourism.”

The Governor’s confidence that his remote province could someday compete as a world tourist destination is not as far-fetched as it might seem, and may well happen once Cuando Cubango creates the necessary infrastructure and publicizes what it has on offer. But it will not be acting alone.


One of the most ambitious initiatives to come off the drawing board of the Southern Africa Development Area (SADA) involves the recovery, transformation and eventual administrative cessation of parts of Cuando Cubango’s territory to what is set to become the world’s largest wildlife sanctuary.

Assembled from outlying territorial contributions by Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia and Angola, the future Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA-TFCA) would be the world’s largest nature reserve, providing a secure habitat nearly the size of Italy for Africa’s plant and animal life while spinning off tourism-driven economic benefits to people from the five participating countries.

The zone will be home to rhinos, lions, leopards, and water buffalo, not to mention the largest contiguous elephant population on the continent. There are 600 bird species (14 of them endemic) and more than 3,000 varieties of plant life. Endangered mammals such as the cheetah, black rhinoceros and the African wild dog will also roam freely over the 171,000 square mile reserve.

One of the most ambitious initiatives to come off the drawing board of the Southern Africa Development Area (SADA) involves the recovery, transformation and eventual administrative cessation of parts of Cuando Cubango’s territory to what is set to become the world’s largest wildlife sanctuary.
At the heart of this unique region are scenic wonders such as the marshland waterways of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, covering 9,300 square miles and Victoria Falls, the spectacular World Mankind Heritage site located on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, close by the tourist facilities at Caprivi and Chobe.

All five countries participating in the long-term project have agreed that conservation is their primary goal and justification for undertaking it, but at the same time taking into account “the socio-economic well-being of the communities and other stakeholders in and around the eco-region.”

Development of peripheral facilities for visitors would affect the Cuando Cubango municipalities of Rivungo, Mavinga, Dirico and Cuangar, the latter being where construction is already underway on one three-star and one five-star hotel with privileged views of the Cubango River. The Luanda government has earmarked $350 million for phase-one tourism infrastructure.

Then there are the problems. Cuando Cubango’s existing nature reserves along the Okavango river gorge at Mavinga, covering 5,000m2 and Luina, with 3,100 m2 would also be incorporated into the eco-reserve but will probably have to be restocked as far too much of Angola’s wildlife has fallen victim to poachers and landmines. Another point of contention involves the plan to allow unlimited no-borders travel within the designated zone by citizens of all five participating countries.

“The free movement of people is needed to facilitate other aspects of the tourism offer,“ comments Governor Carneiro. “We understand that the issue of visas is still an obstacle to investment and tourism, but the good news is that, at political level, it was decided recently to implement some revisions to the Immigration Law.”

“I consider myself a person with vision,” the Governor concludes. “I was entrusted by the President of the Republic with the mission of transforming this area of Angola and I consider it my duty to fulfill that mission by putting my experience and abilities at the service of the nation.”