The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) has refused to take down its statement and response to the Mpumalanga provincial government’s decision to exclude certain farms from a protected area to pave the way for a coal mine.
The CER expressed its displeasure on its website after former Mpumalanga agriculture and environmental affairs MEC, Vusi Shongwe, announced two weeks ago that he had excluded 27.503ha of land from the Mabola Protected Area in Wakkerstroom where an Indian company, Atha Africa Ventures, planned to open the Yzermyn Coal Mine.
A coalition of eight environmental organisation, which the CER represents, had put up a strong fight to stop the mining project because the Mabola Protected Area is a fresh water source within the Enkangala-Drakensberg Water Source Area (WSA). It is part of only 22 WSAs in South Africa which produce 50% of the country’s fresh water.
Most of the water in the province comes from these areas, situated in the highest parts of catchments, that receive the highest rainfall. These areas supply surface run-off water in wetlands, rivers and streams.
The CER had so far won every court case – from the high court right up to the Constitutional Court – to stop the mining project in this area, and the Mpumalanga government’s last resort was to exclude the mine site from the protected area.
A civil society organisation, the Voice Community Representative Council (The Voice), felt that the CER’s statement was “offensive, false, vicious and anti-development”. The Voice demanded that the CER should take the statement down from their website.
Its chairperson Thabiso Nene said the community has had enough of the CER’s “unholy alliance’s false propaganda”.
“The CER thinks it can publish rubbish on its website and the historically disadvantaged community will do nothing. That perception changes today,” Nene said.
He said the The Voice would obtain a court order for the CER to take the statements down. This seems to be the only was as the CER has also put its foot down.
Part of the CER’s statement read: “Four attempts by the mining company to challenge the high court decision failed, with a full bench of the high court, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), the president of the SCA, and ultimately the Constitutional Court, leaving the coalition’s judgment intact.
“Now, in an apparent attempt to circumvent those judgments and the Protected Areas Act itself, the MEC has revoked protection for a large portion of the protected environment to push through a new coal mine inside Mabola.”
Through the CER, the coalition members advised The Voice that there was no basis in law for its demand, or for the threatened litigation, and that the demand infringed on their constitutional rights.
“Those rights include the right to freedom of speech protected by the Bill of Rights – the same protection that also applies to The Voice,” the coalition said.
“The rights of individual activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to speak on these matters were expressly acknowledged in the recent high court judgment in the case of MSR v Reddell and others, in which Western Cape Deputy Judge President [Patricia] Goliath held that individuals or NGOs must have the freedom to respond to issues affecting society, such as those related to the environment and sustainable development.”
The coalition added: “In instances where corporates could be the main cause of damaging and destructive behaviour of the environment and biodiversity, civil society should be allowed to confront and restrain such behaviour.”
Atha-Africa Ventures has been trying to establish the mine in Mabola over the past seven years, but its plans were scuppered by the coalition.
The Mpumalanga government cushioned the 8 772ha area under the Protected Areas Act on January 22 2014 because of its biodiversity and being a water source. Shongwe said he had consulted all the stakeholders in taking the decision to exclude portions of the Kromhoek, Goedgevonden and Yzermyn farms.
He said these areas were excluded to push the country and the community’s economic growth while promoting the co-existence of mining and conservation.