Furore erupts over mining at Sudwala Caves
Environmentalists are furious about the reopening of a gold mine next to the Sudwala Caves, regarded as the oldest known caves in the world and a popular tourist draw card in Mpumalanga.
Omaruru Minerals, a local mining company with Dutch investors, plans to mine the Mankele mountain that houses the caves and extract 1.2-million tons of ore over the next 10 years. It has already started processing old mine dumps on the site.
Members of the local community-based Houtbosloop Environmental Action Link (Heal) said this week that mining could destroy the caves, formed over a period of about 3000-million years in an ancient inland seabed.
“Blasting in the mine may lead to accidents within the cave system, compromising the lives of tourists and affecting the viability of local tourism operations,” said Niky Watt, the managing agent of Sudwala Lodge. She said the caves and associated tourist outlets drew about 40 000 visitors a year from around the world. “We provide more sustainable jobs than those that could be generated by the mine in its short 12-year lifespan.”
Heal member Philip Owen said mining could pollute the Houtbosloop River, which flowed through the site and fed into the Crocodile River, which eventually flowed into Mozambique. “The river is already exposed to polluting run-off from the unrehabilitated site, dumps and shaft,” he said. “Additional mining will compound this problem and, in the light of potential future water stress, any further industrial exploitation should be disqualified.”
Owen said that mining was also a threat to several endangered species in the area, including rare bats found in the caves. The Mpumalanga government’s biodiversity management plan had rated the Sudwala area as “highly significant” and “irreplaceable”, he said.
Wilf Nussey, an author and a former newspaper editor who used to live in the valley, last week brought “the impending rape of this extremely important natural, historical and tourist site” to the attention of the Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson on water and environment, Gareth Morgan. Morgan said this week he had raised the issue during parliamentary question time.
Heal said its members had not been adequately consulted about the mine’s plans, which they believed were illegal. As far as they knew, the mine did not have a valid mining licence, a water licence or environmental authorisation.
Watt said: “We have objected to the departments of minerals and water affairs, but it is all done back to front. They give us morsels of information after the fact.”
Adriaan van Wyngaard, the manager of Omaruru’s Elandshoogte gold mine, said the mining licence was granted in 2007 and expired in 2009. The company had applied for a renewal, submitted an environmental impact assessment and was waiting for approval from the department of mineral resources.
“According to the law, an approved mining right can remain intact for 20 years or until the renewal application is granted or denied,” he said.
Omaruru was not deliberately excluding interested parties and was following prescribed procedures, particularly with the Mankele Trust, which owned the farm on which the mine was situated. He said it would provide about 200 local jobs.
“We also care about the environment and will do whatever we can to prevent pollution,” Van Wyngaard said. “We aren’t here to do any damage. In fact, we want to clean up the mess left by the previous owners of the mine.”