Down in the bogs

Industry-driven policing through a proposed Peat Users’ Association is being mooted to ensure responsible peat mining and use in South Africa.

Peat is a type of wetland soil that is high in organic content —this is the stuff that eventually becomes coal. Significantly, the vast mires (peat-forming wetlands) of the northern hemisphere hold about a third of the world’s soil carbon.

Peat is mined mainly to supply the mushroom and horticultural industries as a growing medium. It is easy to manipulate its pH and nutrient levels, and it is free of weeds and seeds.

Because less than 1% of the world’s mires are found in the southern hemisphere, peat could be considered a small and insignificant resource in South Africa — until you consider that every cubic metre of peat holds just under a cubic metre of water.
It forms a giant natural sponge in wetlands that is necessary for water purification and flood attenuation.

Despite campaigning by wetlands specialists and agricultural experts, there is no national policy on peat mining and only one province — Gauteng — has taken a firm stand against the activity.

Peat mining is listed as a scheduled activity under proposed amendments to the National Environmental Management Act. Most decisions relating to it are referred to the Peat Working Group, which includes representatives from the industry and national and provincial governments but has no legal power.

South Africa’s four legal peat mines are in North West province, but even with these regulation has been lax and rehabilitation requirements are often disrespected. There is a large amount of peat entering the market that cannot be accounted for, suggesting it is coming from illegal mining operations.

Keen to ensure sound environmental and labour practices in the industry, and frustrated with bad publicity because of irresponsible mines, peat miner Rene Potgieter is working with producers and users to develop certification guidelines.

Her family set up a peat-mining company in the Gerhard Minnebronne Wetland near Carltonville in the North West province in April 2004. Potgieter says she and her father immediately realised the importance of ecologically sound practices that go beyond standard compliance with environmental management requirements.

‘On Earth we’ve got natural resources that we can use for the benefit of mankind,” she says. ‘Lots of these are limited, but we can exploit them in a wise manner so that over a period of time they can be sustainable and still play their role in the ecology.”

Her company complies with an environmental management plan that stipulates leaving a 30cm layer of peat on the bottom of the wetland and a 25m buffer section of unmined peat to aid with revegetation and hydrological functioning. According to Potgieter, their mining methods don’t disrupt the wetland hydrology.

Provincial authorities don’t always have time for monthly inspections and aren’t able to enforce compliance with environmental management plans in all the provinces’ peat mines, often resulting in substandard rehabilitation.

Potgieter says the Peat Users’ Association she has set up is developing certification guidelines in consultation with other players in the industry. These will regulate the entire production chain, from mining to transport to use of the peat.

‘There will be an organised body and when someone hears about illegal operations or bad staff treatment in this industry, they have somewhere to lodge complaints,” she says.

There are an estimated 70-million cubic metres of peat on the Highveld, and one would assume that the removal of 1% of the resource every year would have minor long-term impacts. However, Piet-Louis Grundling of Working for Wetlands points out, ‘Those 70-million cubic metres are already reduced through degradation by water abstraction and changing rainfall patterns.

‘With climate change, you’re seeing the desiccation of peat on the edges of some mires — they’re actually burning. In a country that is drying out, peat mining is impacting heavily on the water resource.”

Grundling is a member of the Peat Working Group and says he will be an observer member of the Peat Users’ Association. But he is quick to point out that he does not support the mining of peat at all: ‘It destroys a rare and unique wetland type, but at the same time we cannot allow rampant, uncontrolled extraction of peat.”

The Peat Users’ Association has attracted strong interest from retailers, nurseries, horticultural companies and mushroom growers, but few wetlands specialists have bought into the idea. Whatever mitigation measures are taken, peat has a growth rate of at most 1mm/year. It is not a renewable resource and rehabilitation back to a healthy mire is impossible.

When Potgieter introduced the PUA at the annual meeting of the South African Wetlands Action Group in October 2004, she met strong opposition, not least from Umesh Bahadur of the Gauteng Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Environment.

Early last year the department was forced to take a stand on peat mining when a horticultural company applied for a permit to extend its existing mining operations in Randfontein. Initially the company had been permitted to mine a section of the mire because it was degraded and burning, but the extension of the mining would have affected an ecologically healthy section. After debate within the department and consultation with the Peat Working Group, the department decided not to allow the extended operation.

Explains Bahadur: ‘This is such a scarce resource and it is shortsighted of the landowners to claim it for profits when they are destroying a water resource that belongs to our children.”

This debate led to a firm provincial position on peat mining, and the department’s draft wetlands policy gives mires and peat mining a special mention. ‘We have a philosophy that there will be no more loss of wetlands in Gauteng and there will not be any new peat mining in the province,” says Bahadur.

But Grundling points out that currently operating mines cannot be shut down, so responsible mining needs to be encouraged to increase the lifespan of the mines, reduce long-term impacts on the resource and allow more time for research into alternatives. Correct rehabilitation techniques need to be explored and the industry could help ensure the future conservation of mires through actively supporting research, inventories and restoration initiatives. Although still in the early stages, the Peat Users’ Association could be the best hope for achieving these goals.

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