You and I will be forgiven for never having heard of Verlorenvlei, but Ms Susan Shabangu should not be. She is, after all, South Africa’s Minister of Mineral Resources and it was her department that recently issued a prospecting license for tungsten ore that could result in the destruction of this internationally significant wetland system near the West Coast town of Elands Bay. When questioned at a meeting of the Cape Town Press Club last week, Shabangu claimed ignorance of both Verlorenvlei and the prospecting licence.
Let’s enlighten the minister and ourselves. Verlorenvlei is a coastal freshwater lake – one of the largest in the country – fringed by reedswamps and connected to the ocean via a shallow estuary. It’s one of the largest natural wetlands and estuarine ecosystems in the Western Cape and is listed as a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention, the international treaty concerned with the conservation of wetlands.
Through the seasons Verlorenvlei is home to anywhere from 5 000 to 20 000 birds. Of the more than 180 bird species identified three are near-threatened globally and eight are threatened in South Africa. It supports more than a quarter of the Western Cape’s population of the rare Great White Pelican and is a critically important moulting ground and summer refuge for several duck species.
This valuable ecosystem is threatened by the development of a mineral deposit called Riviera Tungsten, which holds an estimated reserve of 10.86 million tons of tungsten oxide. The application process for the mineral rights has been protracted, controversial and hotly contested, which makes Shabangu’s claim of never having heard about it rather perplexing.
In 2005, Bongani Minerals, a company under the directorship of Phemelo Sehunelo, a former municipal manager of Kimberley and Trevor Pikwane, a diamond trader from the same town, first applied for prospecting rights, but they were refused on account of the potential pollution associated with the mining activities. In 2006 the company brought another application which was granted, but subsequently challenged on procedural grounds. The license lapsed before a judicial review of the case could go ahead.
Not perturbed Bongani Minerals lodged a third application in 2009. The acting Regional Manager of the Department of Mineral Resources presiding over this particular application was Ms Duduzile Sibongile Kunene, who also happens to be Sehunelo’s girlfriend – the couple co-own a house in Pretoria. Sehunelo is also the founder of Imperial Crown Trading, the company that mysteriously obtained prospecting rights for Kumba’s Sishen iron ore mine.
One would think that all of this intrigue would have somehow filtered through to Minister Shabangu by the time her Department granted Bongani Minerals the prospecting rights to the Riviera tungsten deposit in July. Apparently not. The proposed open cast mine will be 20 to 50 hectares in size and excavated to a depth of 200 metres. Its lifespan is estimated at less than 20 years, but it’s expected to have a potentially devastating impact on the area’s water resources.
The tungsten deposit is located in the catchment area of the Moutonshoek Valley and beneath two locally important aquifer systems. Conservationists have also expressed concerns about the mine’s effect of the Krom Antonies River which provides the main surface water flow into Verlorenvlei. This intricate hydrological system stands to suffer irreversible damage as a result of tungsten mining, both through water extraction and pollution of ground and surface waters.
The survival of Verlorenvlei isn’t the only thing at stake. Also under threat are the unique fauna and flora of the surrounding area which falls within the Greater Cederberg Biodiversity Corridor, as well as the farms of the fertile Moutonshoek Valley which are dependent on ground water for irrigation and provide much employment for the local population.
Surely all of this amounts to enough in the way of troublesome circumstances for Minister Shabangu to have at least familiarised herself with the prospecting licence that was issued in her name. Clearly she doesn’t think so. Regarding the bigger picture, Verlorenvlei seems to be part of an accelerating trend of government-approved mining- and “development”-related projects in ecologically sensitive areas like Mapungubwe or the Wild Coast. And while each case may have its own peculiar complexities, the core equation shared by all is one that pits long-term environmental sustainability against short-term financial profit.