Mpumalanga Agriculture and Environment MEC Vusi Shongwe has vowed to make sure that mining on a protected area will go ahead despite vehement protests from environmentalists.
Shongwe told City Press this week that he was committed to the opening of the Yzermyn Colliery Mine in Mabola near Wakkerstroom because it would boost the economy of the poverty-stricken Pixley ka Isaka Seme Local Municipality area in Volksrust.
Unemployment in the area is a staggering 33.7%, according to a Stats SA’s 2016 community survey. The local economy largely depends on agriculture.
Yzermyn is expected to create about 600 permanent and 2 000 indirect jobs during its 15-year lifespan. But the plan has been derailed by litigation launched by environmental organisations represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER).
The centre argued successfully in court that the mine would be harmful to an environmentally sensitive and protected area.
The mine is within the 70 000ha Mabola Protected Environment, a strategic fresh water resource. The green organisations say it is a source of four rivers – Usuthu, Tugela, Vaal and Pongola – and if it was polluted by mine acid water drainage the results would be disastrous for communities’ access to clean water.
Indian company, Atha-Africa Ventures, failed over the past four years to continue with the project until the CER applied to the Constitutional Court for its mining permit and environmental authorisations to be revoked.
Shongwe is using his powers under the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act of 2003 to exclude 2 750.343ha of the Mabola area which is targeted for coal mining. Public consultations are ongoing.
He said he wanted to ensure that there was a balance between the use of natural resources for the socio-economic benefits and the protection of the environment.
“The people in the area are eager to see the mine opened because of the economic opportunities it will create. But outsiders, who do not understand the extent of the poverty here, are opposing it. “People are hungry there and I am in support of the mine,” he said.
“An empty stomach does not understand a lot of these environmental arguments. All we know is that the area where the Yzermyn site is was mined before Mabola was declared a protected area.
“There is also a mine owned by a farmer in the same area, which no one has opposed. Our people are not benefiting economically from the eco tourism that they argue about,” said Shongwe.
The MEC has the support of the Pixley ka Isaka Seme community organisations, which petitioned him to ensure the mine was established.
Atha-Africa’s South African partners are former president Jacob Zuma’s nephews, Sizwe Christopher Zuma and Vincent Gezinhliziyo Zuma. They have shares in Atha-Africa through the Bashubile Trust.
Shongwe said who owned the mine was immaterial.
“As long as they bring some relief to the community, I am happy. People cannot eat wetlands. There can be a way to mine responsibly in that area without causing environmental damage,” he added.
Environmentalists are worried that Mpumalanga’s Highveld region is at risk of losing arable farming land and of water contamination because of unbridled coal mining activities.
About 40% of the region’s surface is either under mining activities or has applications for permits and prospecting rights on it. The region generates 80% of the country’s electricity from coal-powered stations.