Andreas Späth

De Beers’s dirty Namaqualand legacy

2011-10-19 07:27

Andreas Späth

Is De Beers attempting to shirk its legal obligations to rehabilitate the land and foster sustainable communities at its West Coast diamond mining operations? In May, the company announced the sale of its Namaqualand Mines to Trans Hex for R225m, but local activists and environmental organisations warn that the deal is likely to leave a legacy of poverty and ecological degradation.

South African law requires companies to develop social and environmental development plans for the time when their mining activities in an area come to an end. Crucially, these plans have to be backed by financial provisions to ensure that they become a reality.

While De Beers is generally acknowledged to have a good social and environmental corporate responsibility track record in Namaqualand, critics believe that the same can’t be said for Trans Hex, a much smaller company which, they argue, does not have the financial capacity to fulfil the legal responsibilities that come with its new diamond mines.

According to mine rehabilitation specialist, Dr Peter Carrick, Trans Hex hasn’t made any real attempts at ecological restoration at its existing operations in the region. Sarah Frazee, the director of Conservation South Africa (CSA), says that their fear is “that profit motives will outweigh social and environmental concerns and that poor processes in the sale will initiate a cycle of sales that lead to less and less responsible companies coming” to the area.

De Beers’s Namaqualand Mines started operating in 1928 and now extend over a 157km long stretch of coastal land. The open-cast excavation of diamonds, in places to a depth of 40 metres, has left an area the size of approximately 2000 football fields disturbed and in need of restoration. In 2004, the government approved a closure cost estimate of just over R500m to accomplish this task, but conservationists argue that the real sum is probably nearer R800m.

This year, De Beers submitted an amended Environmental Management Programme Report (EMPR) to the Department of Mineral Resources for approval. This is the legal document that binds mining companies to their social and environmental obligations once their operations have been terminated.

CSA and the Bench Marks Foundation believe that, if approved, this amended EMPR will substantially reduce De Beers’s obligations “to restore huge tracts of degraded lands and support sustainable development for communities in the region beyond the life of the mine”. They “worry that the financial provisions may be insufficient to clean up nearly a century of mining operations by De Beers”. The company made the amended EMPR available for public inspection only reluctantly, but specifically excluded any revised financial provisions.

In a clear effort at cutting costs, the proposed changes to the EMPR mean, among other things, that De Beers’s current ecologically-based land restoration method, which has been lauded by environmentalists, would only be applied to “every second hectare”, and that areas of fine sediment produced during the mining activities would no longer be covered. In the windy West Coast climate, dust plumes blown from such fine residue deposits pose a major threat to any undisturbed land as well as the respiratory health of the human population. According to Frazee, the amended EMPR would “almost certainly leave large tracts of degraded lands”.

What’s at stake isn’t just a dry bit of unremarkable Northern Cape landscape, but a very special and fragile natural habitat. The area falls within the internationally recognised Succulent Karoo biodiversity hotspot and is home to a large number of endemic plant species, 45 of which are threatened with extinction.

The human communities in this region, who have lodged a land claim on the area covered by De Beers’s mines, have little to show for their long history of involvement with the company. They remain marginalised, impoverished and plagued by chronic unemployment. As Dawid Markus, a community leader from Hondeklipbaai, observes in this short video clip from Green Renaissance, a diamond may be forever for De Beers, but for his people, it’s the suffering that’s forever.

After extracting more than 30 million carats of gem-quality diamonds during more than 80 years of mining, is it too much to expect De Beers to leave a brighter and more just legacy in Namaqualand?

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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