Farmers despair as Cullinan mine digs in
Farmers along the Olifants River, the artery of Mpumalanga agriculture, are facing the fallout of poor mining practices that are taking away their water, bringing acid rain and reducing crop output and export potential.
Along the border between Gauteng and Mpumalanga, the farmers of Brandbach near Cullinan are worried that they will be next. A new sand mine is threatening to pollute their air and water and the community has mobilised to try stop it.
A range of hills dominates one side of the farmland. Water springs out of them and trickles down into a large plateau, filling the many streams that flow east into the Olifants. Maize and livestock farms bring dashes of green to the grey bushveld. The only other streak of colour comes from clay-red gravel roads and sand mines.
Hannes Jordaan and his brothers own one of the mines. But he says it is small in scale and has little impact on the environment and water.
His farmhouse reverberates with the sound of bleating sheep, and his fields are filled with animals. The mine has not affected his produce but he says a big new mine up the road will.
A handy guide to the local mines is stopping his battered bicycle at the side of the corrugated road and taking off his baseball cap, which has the words "cool dude" on it. The 68-year-old points out where the mines are. The new one is a problem because of its size, he says.
Farting against thunder
As a bakkie hammers past, the whole road is covered in dust. Further along, a big sand truck blots out the horizon, leaving everyone with a red coating to cough off.
Gerhard Steenkamp escapes from the dust and heat in his lounge, a converted milking hall. For now he is fine because he uses a borehole to water his vegetables. "The rest of our water comes from the spring on that farm [where the mine is], so this is going to affect all of us," he says.
He is part of a local group of farmers trying to stop it, but "you fart against thunder when you fight this because mines always get the go-ahead".
The wetland where the mine is digging is home to reedbuck and secretary birds. "These show that the environment here is healthy." But the mine could destroy their habitat, he says, before returning to work.
In the local settlement of Onverwacht, with its one street, a community leader, Patricia Petronella, wrings her hands as she talks about the mine. "Our place is busy dying. We still get water straight from the ground and it feeds the veins of our community," she says.
A few mealies grow in her yard and grassy fields stretch towards the nearby stream. "If the mine takes the water then where will the community be?" she asks.
Productive community fields
Hers is one of the original 36 families who bought the land from Paul Kruger – she has the yellowed and much-folded title deed to prove this, complete with his signature.
With few jobs for locals, the community relies on tourists who come from nearby Cullinan to see the flowers and birds. These will go if the water goes, and the stream is already down to a trickle. "We will have to feed the animals water with buckets when we should be using our God-given water from the stream," she says.
Leaving is not an option, even if the once productive community fields stand empty because crops do not grow properly. "We have been here for over 150 years. This is our home so I will not leave," she says.
Henri Combrink, head of the Cullinan Farmers' Association, says water pollution will put the farmers in the same state as others along the Olifants River who are in danger of losing the quality of produce they need to export to the European Union. Mpumalanga farmers produce a quarter of the country's maize and dry beans, and a third of its soya beans.
"These farmers sell their produce locally so that is less of a problem. But the local market has high standards and all goods are tagged so things can be traced to the farm that made them."
Between the polluted water and the silica dust, he thinks local farmers will struggle.
The mine and its washing plant will need 250 000 litres of water a day and will probably release dirty water from its slimes dam. This will inevitably pollute the local water and lower the water table, making boreholes necessary but deeper and more expensive, he says.
The community held a large meeting last week to formalise their complaints, which they will be forward to the department of water affairs and their local councillor.
Koos Pretorius, a founder of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, says on the phone that Mpumalanga has perhaps two years to stop the problem. After that so many mining licences will have been granted that it will not be possible to stop the process.
"It's very bad and, if we continue this way, the price of maize will go up by 50% as crops fail," he says.
Pollution levels in the Loskop Dam are so high that the EU has said the water does not comply with regulations and it recently issued a warning to local farmers to correct this. But they cannot because of mines polluting upstream.
Anthony Turton, a professor at the centre of environmental management at the University of the Free State, says the whole Olifants system is in serious trouble because of mining. "What we have done is externalise the costs of energy production and we have, in effect, written off future food security," he says.
This started in the 1980s when the apartheid government gave free rein to anything that was required to generate energy and keep the economy afloat. The mining has led to direct water pollution and acid rainfall.
"The problem here is the soil in Mpumalanga has traces of aluminium in it and, when you get acid rainfall, it reacts and damages crops, especially maize."
The only solution is for farmers to put lime on their fields, which is prohibitively expensive, he says.
Linda Page, spokesperson for the department, says that the Brandbach mine, owned by Infrasors, was investigated after her department "received further complaints about the same mine conducting further alleged unlawful activities". A report is being drawn up with a recommendation to take legal action.
Regarding the Olifants system, she says, "there are indeed parts of the system that are experiencing challenges. However, the department, together with stakeholders, is undertaking measures to address these." Some of the pollution dates back to the 1800s, she adds.
Infrasors would not comment because the company is in a "closed period" and is not allowed to disclose information because of JSE requirements, it says.