The fight to save Bela Bela

2012-03-17 09:35

South Africa’s state mining company and environmentalist groups are headed for a showdown after the company announced it had applied for a licence to mine around the tourism mecca of Bela Bela in Limpopo.

The African Exploration Mining and Finance Corporation (AEMFC), owned by the South African government, has applied to prospect in renowned private ecotourism developments such as Mabula, Mabalingwe, Zebula, Mokaikai, Zwartkloof, Elements, Thaba Moriri and Innibos.

In addition, the AEFMC has also applied to mine 400m from the international Ramsar classified wetland, Nylsvlei.
The AEMFC was formed in 2007 as a fully owned subsidiary of the government-owned Central Energy Fund and split from the department last year to become the government’s fully owned mining company.

It hit the headlines two years ago when it applied to mine in the Cape winelands, but later abandoned its plans.

The AEFMC defended its prospecting application, saying it was only investigating whether the area was suitable for mining and would make a decision once it had finished with its environmental management plan.

“We are the government. We have to set an example. If this is an environmentally sensitive area as being claimed, we will not touch it,” said Sicelo Sikakane, executive manager of funding and portfolio manager at the AEFMC.

But he added that if the areas were not meant to be mined, the department of mineral resources should have said so upfront.

The department didn’t respond to questions this week, but has continually insisted that each permit is handled on merit, no matter who the applicant is.

According to parliamentary answers given last year, the AEMFC has coal rights in the Waterberg, limestone rights near Bela Bela and two uranium rights in Mookgopong in the Bela Bela area.

The Nylsvlei application has been slammed before by environmental groups such as Birdlife SA. Nylsvlei, well known for its rich bird life, was given protected Ramsar status in 1998 and is the biggest flood plain in South Africa.

PL Raath, chairperson of the private estate forum in Bela Bela, said the area eyed by the AEFMC had been designated by the Bela Bela Municipality as a green belt for nature conservation and ecotourism.

He was very concerned about the “devastating effect” that mining activities could have on the sensitive ecological system.

Water was also an issue, according to Raath.

The area had limited water resources and any mass extraction of water and/or pollution of water resources would endanger residents’ access to water, he said.

“Several of our private developments are situated in this area,” he said. “These properties have been rezoned as residential, and many houses and recreational facilities have been developed there.

“The indirect effect on all other tourism-orientated developments in the area is, however, also devastating as our property owners and their customers are visiting the area to escape from the buzz of the city,” Raath said.

“The traffic, noise and pollution that go with mining activities are non-compatible with this.”

Chris Wagner, chairperson of the Bela Bela Waterberg Ecotourism Action Group, said people in Bela Bela were gearing up for the fight of their lives to stop the mining.

“The area in which the application has been made is, and has been for many years, focused on conservation of fauna and flora,” he said.

“Prospecting and future potential mining would result in irreparable harm to these conservation efforts, which is unacceptable.

“We refuse to allow any actions that have even the slightest potential to result in irreparable harm to long-standing conservation efforts in the region.”

He added that the area (and some of the farms) on which the mines wish to prospect had been earmarked for extensive tourism growth and development.

The action group was also concerned about the ecotourism jobs that would be lost if the mining was allowed to go ahead.


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