Andreas Späth

Oil and coal vs gorillas and rhinos

2014-06-02 12:00

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Two of Africa’s oldest and most important conservation areas, the DRC’s Virunga National Park and KZN’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, are under threat from the fossil fuel industry.

Coal against rhinos

A South African company called Ibutho Coal has plans to establish an anthracite coal mine on a 14 000 ha farm bordering the protected iMfolozi Wilderness Area, which is a part of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in Zululand.

Founded in 1895, the park, which is located in traditional Zulu royal hunting grounds, is Africa’s oldest proclaimed nature reserve. In the 1960s, conservation efforts in the area effectively prevented the extinction of the white rhino and today, the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park has the densest population of both black and white rhino on the continent.

The Department of Mineral Resources has granted Ibutho rights to exploit an estimated reserve of between 37 and 318 million tones of anthracite subject to an environmental impact assessment. The proposed underground and opencast mine with its associated processing plant and infrastructure promises some 200 job opportunities over an expected lifespan of 32 years.

But a rapidly increasing number of local and international critics believe that the mine, which would be located less than a hundred metres from the park boundary in some places, will cause irreparable damage to the environmental integrity of the conservation area while offering poachers easier access to a large rhino population.

The mine would also threaten water quality in the catchment area of the Imfolozi River and interfere with plans to expand the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. And that’s all in addition to the climate damage that will be caused when the coal produced by the mine is burned.

According to legendary conservationist Ian Player, “A coal mine here would have devastating consequences for the reserve”.

Help raise awareness about this issue and join the campaign against the mine by putting your name on an online petition that already has over 28 000 signatories.

Oil against mountain gorillas

Around 85% of the DRC’s Virunga National Park is covered by oil concessions and a British company called SOCO International has been conducting seismic oil exploration tests there with permission from the government.

In existence since 1925, the park is Africa’s oldest national park. It includes the fabled “Mountains of the Moon” (the Rwenzori Mountains), two of the continent’s most active volcanoes in Mount Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira, as well as Lake Edward, and it’s home to between a third and a quarter of the planet’s remaining mountain gorillas.

The 790 000 ha national park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site noted for its exceptional biodiversity. It hosts some 20 000 hippos along with numerous threatened species, including the vulnerable owl-faced monkey and the endangered okapi.

The park has a tragic past – the indigenous pygmy population that used to live here was brutally expelled when it was established under Belgian colonial rule – and an uncertain future.

While the mountain gorillas are not directly threatened by the current oil exploration activities, an escalation to full-scale oil production would surely lead to a devastating degradation of their home range and the park as a whole. Anti-drilling activists, who have come under verbal and physical attack (the park’s chief warden was shot and injured in April), warn of the damaging effects of potential air, soil and water pollution from leaks, spills and flares.

In the 21st century’s manic final dash for fossil fuels, how much of our common natural and cultural heritage are we willing to sacrifice? Are we happy to hand over large swaths of land deliberately set aside to conserve nature to those who would ruthlessly exploit them in the short-lived pursuit of profits? In the words of Ian Player, “Our children will never forgive us”!

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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