The South African Eco Film Festival starts tomorrow. Details HERE.
The South African Eco Film Festival starts tomorrow. Details HERE.
OPINION: A desperate battle is raging across vast tracts of Mpumalanga between coal mining on the one hand and water preservation, food security and tourism on the other, writes Tracey Davies of the Centre for Environmental Rights.
For at least the last five years scientists, academics, conservation organisations, tourism authorities and NGOs have been issuing dire warnings about the largely unregulated rampant spread of coal mining in Mpumalanga, and the devastating impacts that this is having on South Africa’s food and water security. Year after year, the problem gets worse. More reports are issued. Nothing changes. Why is nobody listening?
In November 2011, WWF-SA released its Coal and Water Futures in South Africa report, detailing the rapid degradation of the critical Olifants river catchment as a result of coal mining. WWF warned that prospecting and mining rights for coal were “being issued in some of our most precious and sensitive catchments”, and that “no government department is currently assessing the predictable cumulative impacts of mining in sensitive areas”. The report listed a series of actions necessary to stem the tide of destruction, not one of which has been implemented.
In October 2012, the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy released a pilot study on the impact of coal mining on agriculture. 46% of South Africa’s total high potential arable soils are found in Mpumalanga, and the study found that “at the current rate of coal mining … approximately 12% of South Africa’s total high potential arable land will be transformed”. A further 14% of that arable land was subject to coal prospecting applications. The study assessed the impacts of this transformation, ranging from the loss of maize production and resulting price increases to the loss of employment, soil degradation, water and air pollution and health impacts. It concluded that “the effects of coal mining on agriculture are immense and some effects are irreversible.”
In August 2014 the Bench Marks Foundation released its Policy Gap 9 on South African coal mining. This report contains an exhaustive analysis of the problems created by the extraordinary concentration of coal mines in Mpumalanga: the awful living conditions of mine-affected communities and the lamentable failure of mining companies to meaningfully or positively engage with them; the devastating impact of coal mining on previously arable land; the impact of air, water and soil pollution on farming activities and human health; mining companies’ poor compliance with legal and regulatory requirements for environmental protection; the almost total lack of compliance monitoring and enforcement by the Department of Mineral Resources; and the “extremely cavalier attitude [of the South African mining industry] towards the closure of mines and the rehabilitation of the environment.”
These reports contain terrifying statistics and dire warnings about the consequences of doing nothing to stop this impending crisis. But very few people seem to be listening, and even fewer seem to care. But what happens in Mpumalanga will have consequences far beyond the boundaries of just this province. And the same patterns are being repeated elsewhere, in particular at the moment across vast areas of Limpopo. Unless we want the dominant South African landscape to resemble the coal-blackened environs of Emalahleni in decades to come, something needs to change.
Recently I was privileged to be taken on a flyover of central Mpumalanga by Bateleurs pilot Karl Jensen. The two-hour flight covered the area boundaried by Kriel, Hendrina and Carolina to the south, and Belfast, Middelburg and Emalahleni to the North. As a mining-focussed environmental lawyer I thought I had a fairly good grasp of the situation in Mpumalanga. But I was flabbergasted at the extent to which coal mining has transformed vast swathes of the landscape.
The scale of the devastation is staggering. For almost the entire duration of the flight, we flew over a coal mine every couple of minutes, each a vast acreage of mutilation: enormous pits gouged out of the earth, acre upon acre of topsoil and overburden piled into lifeless mounds, streams and rivers diverted, and poisonous water pooling at the bottom of abandoned pits.
All coal mining licences contain conditions requiring so-called “concurrent rehabilitation” – it is crystal clear from the air that this is not happening. Also evident from the air is the army of coal trucks that crawl across the province, kicking clouds of black dust into the air. Another impact of coal mining here is the huge number of road accidents involving coal transportation trucks, leading Eskom in October last year to ban the trucking of coal in Mpumalanga over weekends.
Coal mining will never be clean. Nor will coal-fired power stations (there are 12 of them within an hour’s drive or less of Emalahleni). Both are a necessary evil in South Africa for the time being. But there are ways to regulate coal mining to prevent it from causing such extensive, widespread and irreversible damage to our fresh water resources, most precious arable land and critical biodiversity areas. At the moment, the kind of coordinated government action that is needed to achieve this is completely absent.
Despite a constitutionally mandated principle of cooperative governance, the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) reigns supreme in Mpumalanga, granting prospecting and mining rights even in the face of vehement opposition from other organs of state like conservation and tourism authorities. In South Africa’s bizarre mining-environment regulatory regime, the DMR is also responsible for policing the environmental impacts of mining. It is failing dismally at this task. The Departments of Environmental and Water Affairs, and local and district municipalities, which all have an integral role to play in regulation that effectively balances the province’s different priorities, are either unwilling or incapable of making a dent in this onslaught.
The Minister of Mineral Resources has the power to declare “no go” areas for mining, but has so far refused to do so. Countless organisations have called on government, time and again, to undertake an assessment of the cumulative impacts of mining on water resources, arable farmland and tourism potential, and that relevant government departments agree to restrict mining in areas which contain critical water sources and biodiversity, or which are important for South Africa’s future food security. Nothing happens.
The rapid spread of coal mining and its associated environmental and social impacts is dramatically altering the economy of the province. Those who object to a prospecting or mining right application in this region are often accused by the DMR of wanting to “sterilise” minerals, with the associated implication that those who care about protecting our environment do not care about jobs or growth. The silliness of this aside, there is a different kind of sterilisation going on in Mpumalanga. Huge areas of land which have for generations created stable, long-term jobs in farming are being permanently sterilised. Even with the best post-coal mining rehabilitation (a rare occurrence in South Africa), land that has supported coal mining operations cannot ever again be used to grow crops.
Tourism potential is also being “sterilised” by the onslaught of coal mining. The Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks agency (an organ of state) spends a ridiculous chunk of its time and (our) resources objecting to mining and prospecting rights in areas important for their biodiversity, water resource and tourism value – objections which the Department of Mineral Resources inevitably ignores. Private tourism projects are a risky business; anyone can apply to prospect or mine on your property, and if the spectre of coal mining on your land or that of your neighbour looms ever large, why invest in the future?
Coal mining companies predictably argue that they are better job creators than agriculture and tourism, but even the biggest mines employ surprisingly few people full-time. Many of the new coal mining projects are short-term, with life-of-mine projections of between three and five years, and maximum employee numbers of less than 100 people.
South Africans have been browbeaten into an unquestioning acceptance of the untouchability of the mining industry. Those who attempt to challenge or raise questions about any aspect of the way that mining takes place in this country are either ignored or accused of being “anti-growth”, “anti-jobs” or just generally not smart enough to understand the economics. Until more of us start to question this dominance, and the sacrifices we are making because of it, and to insist on better planning of mining, better protection of the scarce resources that mining permanently destroys, and better compliance monitoring and enforcement by the Department of Mineral Resources, mining companies will continue to ride roughshod over our future, and mining will continue to trump our rights to clean water, food and an environment not harmful to our health and well-being.
William John Burchell, the famous explorer and naturalist, encamped in the shadows of George Peak during his travels through the Cape Colony in the months of September and October of 1814. Four local historical and heritage societies of the Southern Cape will be hosting a very special event to celebrate the bicentenary of Burchell’s visit.
There will be presentations by two erudite speakers, both authorities after many years of enthusiastic research, on the life and works of Burchell. A memorial, sculptured by Francois de Wet, will be unveiled after the talks. We hope that you will be able to join us on this special occasion on 19 September 2014. See HERE for the full programme.
I recently did the Otter Trail with friends and it was amazing! It is hiking trail along the Garden Route coast of South Africa, named after the Cape Clawless Otter, which inhabits this region. The trail is widely regarded as one of the finest in the world and stretches from Storms River Mouth in the east to Nature’s Valley in the west, is 26 km long as the crow flies and 41 km as the hiker walks. Walking the trail takes five days, and we spent four nights in basic yet comfortable huts in incredible locations. The route is located entirely within the Tsitsikamma National Park, which protects an 80 km long strip of coastal mountains, forest and beaches.The trail traverses very scenic landscape, never straying far from the shoreline, but often climbing steeply and then descending to the beach or river crossings. Vegetation along the way is either fynbos, dense gallery forest or open, rocky sections near the sea with an abundance of wildflowers. Check out the pics and do it!
The 2014 Cape Town Eco Film Festival will take place at the Labia Theatre on Orange Street in Cape Town, South Africa from Thursday the 27th of March to Monday the 31st of March. The event brings the best local and international documentary films focusing on environmental issues to Cape Town. See details of the films HERE. Check out Sustainable.co.za’s competition HERE in the run up to the festival.