Andreas Späth

Should coal mining trump the environment in Mpumalanga?

2015-09-28 09:28

Andreas Wilson-Späth

What’s more important, exporting coal or having clean water? It might sound a bit flippant, but that, in essences, is at the centre of an ongoing tug of war that is playing itself out in Mpumalanga.

In early 2014, there was widespread jubilation when the province’s MEC for Economic Development, Environment and Tourism, Pinky Phosa formally declared over 73 000 hectares of ecologically sensitive land in five separate localities as protected areas.

Hailed as a major conservation milestone and the outcome of years of campaigning by environmental organisations, this was meant to contribute to the legal protection of valuable biodiversity while encouraging local farmers and other landowners to institute eco-friendly land-use practices under the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act.

One of the five newly-proclaimed protected areas is the Mabola Protected Environment, covering 8 772 hectares of wetlands, pans and grasslands near Wakkerstroom. It has also been classified as a Strategic Water Source Area, a National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Area, and an Aquatic Critical Biodiversity Area.

Among the stated reasons for protecting this parcel of land were “to enable the owners of the land to take collective action to conserve biodiversity on their land and to seek legal recognition therefore” and “to ensure that the use of natural resources in the area is sustainable”.

While the Wakkerstroom region is significant for its threatened and endemic animal and plant species as well as being an important catchment for the Tugela, Pongola and Vaal rivers, it is also unusually well-endowed with coal deposits.

In September 2014, a mere eight months after the declaration of the Mabola Protected Environment, the national Minister of Mineral Resources, Ngoako Ramatlhodi granted a well-connected Indian mining company called Atha Africa Ventures rights to mine inside the proclaimed area.

Apparently the company has plans to drain wetlands and establish an underground mine to extract export-quality coal from two seams. The amount of coal present is estimated at somewhere between 100 and 200 million tonnes – enough for 30 to 40 years of mining at a rate of 2.26 million tonnes a year.

What’s of major concern is that these activities are acknowledged to go hand in hand with a very significant risk of polluting the streams in the area, a process that is unlikely to be reversible or amenable to mitigation.

All is not lost, however. Mining can only start once permission has been given by both the Minister of Mineral Resources and the Minister of Environmental Affairs, and that has not happened yet.

Earlier this month, a coalition of civil society and community organisations represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights instituted legal action against Ramatlhodi, asking the Pretoria High Court to set aside his decision to grant mining rights to Atha Africa.

While it remains to be seen how this particular case plays out in the end, it’s clear that it represents part of a worrying trend of granting mining rights in or near environmentally sensitive or protected areas.

The official discourse may be steeped in the language of ‘sustainable development’, but it would appear that more often than not government favours the mining of lucrative mineral resources and the profits of private corporations over the protection of the natural environment and the interests of local communities. Climate-changing coal over clean water and biodiversity.

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

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