'I can't stop mining' -- Marthinus

The new Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, is powerless to stop controversial mining in one of South Africa’s most pristine and ecologically sensitive areas.

It is the Department of Minerals and Energy that has the power to grant a licence to the consortium that is currently prospecting in the Eastern Cape’s Pondoland area, Van Schalkwyk told the Mail & Guardian last week.

But a major environmental organisation argues that Van Schalkwyk is passing the buck.

The Pondoland area has been the focus of intense concern for more than two years, since it became known that the Australian consortium, Mineral Resource Commodities, planned to mine the coastal dunes at Xolobeni for ilmenite. The consortium had its prospecting rights converted into a preferential lease last month, allowing it to apply for a mining licence from the minerals and energy department.

Van Schalkwyk questioned whether it is right that the minerals department rule on such an important environmental issue. “That is something that I think needs debate,” he told the M&G.

Some critics have linked the mining with a contentious tollroad that will cut through Pondoland and link Umtata with KwaZulu-Natal’s South Coast. The tollroad has also been heavily opposed, and Van Schalkwyk still has to rule on whether it will go ahead.

He said the final decision on whether mining will go ahead in Pondoland does not lie with his department. “Historically, mining is the one area where the minister of environmental affairs is not the final judge on the environmental impact assessment.

“I am opposed to the mining of the dunes in Pondoland,” he said, adding that ecotourism was his preferred vision for the area. “But I have been at pains, as was my predecessor, to say that it is not the decision of the minister of environmental affairs to approve the mining.”

But the minister is simply passing the buck on to the Department of Minerals and Energy, said Cathy Kay, conservation director of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, which is campaigning against the tollroad and the mining.

He will not be able to do so for much longer, however. “With the new Minerals and Petroleum Bill that will be signed into law later this year, new mining operations are required to do a full environmental impact assessment, overseen by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism,” Kay said. “It will be the responsibility of Van Schalkwyk’s department.”

Speculation in the environmental sector linked the departure of Van Schalkwyk’s predecessor, Valli Moosa, to the Pondoland controversy and his opposition to the mining of the dunes. Moosa’s plans for protecting the Pondoland coastline ran into stiff opposition from members of the Eastern Cape provincial government.

After Van Schalkwyk’s appointment, environmentalists expressed scepticism about the new minister’s political clout in opposing African National Congress heavyweights, including Minister of Minerals and Energy Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, on issues such as the mining.

But Van Schalkwyk is confident that the Cabinet will hear him out on all arguments that deal with environmentally sensitive issues. “Cabinet decisions are made on the strength of argument, and in the end we decide on the merit of the case,” he said.

Van Schalkwyk plans to go down to Pondoland in two or three weeks, where he will create a framework that will help him deal with the issue, something, he said, that has been severely lacking. He will meet local government and traditional structures, as well as visit the site where the mining will take place. Up to now, he said, there had not been a meeting between an environmental minister and the traditional authorities.

“We need to get all relevant role- players to agree on a vision of what we would like to achieve in that part of our country. If, for instance, we agree that the vision is ecotourism, then our decision will also reflect that vision.”

The other minefield the new minister has inherited is nuclear energy. Environmentalists have also been unhappy about a proposed pebble bed nuclear reactor planned for Koeberg in Cape Town and an associated fuel plant at Pelindaba near Pretoria.

Critics say the government is gambling with the environmental future of South Africa in its desire to supply power to the masses.

Van Schalkwyk said in principle he had never been against nuclear power. “I believe it can be a source of energy, but it is very important that it be regulated very well. International safety standards must be adhered to,” he said. “But I am also a very strong believer in developing additional sources of energy.

“What is always strange to me is that people criticise us for investigating other sources of energy such as nuclear. But the critics do not realise the immense damage that our reliance on fossil fuels is causing this country.”

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