Can Mpumalanga’s mining and agriculture co-exist?

Mpumalanga is in a dilemma: it needs both agriculture and mining to realise exponential economic growth to meet its 2020 job targets, but the two sectors simply cannot co-exist.

The newly released Mpumalanga Economic Growth and Development Path identifies agriculture and mining among key job drivers that need to be used to secure strong and sustainable growth in the next decade.

According to the growth and development path, the provincial economy has to grow at between 5% and 7% a year to create nearly 719 000 jobs, reduce the unemployment rate from the current 28% to 15% and increase the income level of 620 000 individuals to above the poverty line.

The report, however, concedes what agriculture experts and environmentalists have been complaining about – that unbridled mining activities pose a serious threat to arable land, water resources and food security.

It does not offer a solution, except to say that mining activities were associated with pollution and loss of soil fertility, which could be a threat to food security if not properly managed.

“The other major challenge is water contamination due to mining activities. There are no rehabilitation programmes to cater for post-mining.

"Mining, if not properly monitored, has the potential to compromise future tourism opportunities as it degrades the heritage of the province,” said the report.

Mohau Ramodibe, spokesperson for the Mpumalanga department of economic development, tourism and environment, could not clarify how the province planned to harmonise the two sectors to gain more for the 2020 goals.

Environmentalist Koos Pretorius said: “We can either allow mining on these soils and pay far higher food prices for staple food, or we can say that mining will not be allowed within areas of high-potential soils and wetlands, and then the two land uses can co-exist.

"We have very few high-potential agricultural areas and they are being mined at a tremendous rate.”

“Simply stated, if you mine wetlands and high-potential soils for a few more jobs, expect much higher food prices and a water crisis. Select the areas for mining and the two can co-exist. This is, however, not happening.”

Agri SA’s director of natural resources, Nic Opperman, said the problem was in environmental legislation.

“Mining and agriculture can be reconciled if the shortcomings in legislation, monitoring and auditing could be adjusted. Normally, in South Africa, all new developments have to undergo some form of environmental impact assessment prior to them taking place.

“The one exception to this has been the mining industry, which to date has been exempted from environmental authorisations issued by the department of environmental affairs,” Opperman said.

He said South Africa needed both mining and agriculture for economic development, job creation and food security.

“Opencast mining is often the preferred method. Usually it destroys high-potential land. When and if rehabilitated, the land could be perhaps suitable for doubtful grazing livestock. However, strict enforcement of environmental legislation will ensure that the ‘polluter pays’ principle is affected,” added Opperman.

Although Mpumalanga is endowed with various minerals such as gold and platinum, it is the country’s major coal producer and accounts for 80% of the coal that generates power and gets exported.

Coal is mined in the province’s Highveld region, which is the leading producer of soya beans (51%), maize (24%) and dry beans (23%).

Sixty mines are currently operating on 13% of river catchments and productive farms in the region, and if pending mining permits and prospecting licences were to be granted, 80% of the region’s surface would be taken up by mines.

This will significantly decrease farming land and food production.

Studies have already indicated that coal mining was causing acid water drainage, which has affected Carolina, and the problem was likely to spread to more towns as acidity was found to be increasing in most rivers and dams.

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July 2020

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