Heritage versus mining

A battle royal looms over the awarding of coal-mining rights adjacent to world heritage site and national park Mapungubwe, with the Department of Environmental Affairs smack in the middle.

The mineral resources department has confirmed that a permit was issued to Australian-owned Coal of Africa for the Vele Colliery project in the buffer zone next to Mapungubwe. Phase two of the transfrontier park will include the mine. Green and community groups are gearing up to fight the decision in court.
At the same time, Environmental Minister Buyelwa Sonjica has thrown her weight behind opposition to the mine, while the environment department, which oversees South African National Parks and the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area—a joint project with Botswana and Zimbabwe—appears to be furious.

Environment Department spokesperson Albi Modise said his director general has requested a copy of the mining licence, but has not yet received it. The department had learned of the awarding of the licence from media reports.

“We are still opposed to any mining in the area—our position when our views on this matter were sought,” Modise said. “This area has been identified as a priority area for conservation, not only because of its unique biodiversity, but also because of its cultural value.”

Minerals Department spokesperson Jeremy Michaels confirmed his department had issued mining rights. This had been done “after careful consideration of all relevant factors, including the environment and the substantial economic impact of the Vele Colliery”, he said.

He added that there had been close consultation with other government departments.

“The department is not blind to the fact that the Mapungubwe National Park is an international treasure,” he said. “However, mining and the environment can coexist if managed in a manner that promotes sustainable development.”

Mapungubwe is the site where the famous gold rhino statuette was unearthed. The colliery would be sited 7km away from the park’s boundaries, whereas coal-processing infrastructure would be 27km from Mapungubwe Hill, a world heritage site. Modise said the blasting operations could lead to a total collapse of archaeological sites.

“Tourism development in the Mapungubwe cultural landscape will be negatively affected by the round-the-clock lighting, blasting and noise and will destroy the sense of place permanently, and with it the sustainable job opportunities from tourism and tourism growth,” he said. “It is totally incompatible with tourism activities.”

Botswana and Zimbabwe were deeply concerned, he said. The presidents of the three countries are to sign an agreement over the transfrontier park after the 2010 Fifa World Cup. “The IUCN [world conservation union] is also concerned about the future status of Mapungubwe as a world heritage site,” Modise said.

Coal for Africa has said that it wants to begin mining at the end of the month, but Modise said his department has not approved the environmental impact assessments on roads and fuel storage sites. The company has signed a letter of intent to supply up to five million tonnes of coal annually from Vele and its sister project, Makhado, to steel giant ArcelorMittal. Opponents of the mining suspect the coal will be used to power a coal power station, Mulilo, planned for the region.

The Mapungubwe Action Group, an umbrella organisation, is planning to fight back. Johan Verhoef, international coordinator of the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area, said the first step would be to secure a copy of the proclamation. He suspects that the mining rights were pushed through over Christmas, when public oversight is at a low ebb. It was unclear whether Coal of Africa had also been awarded a water licence, as the water affairs department had not answered a question on this.

Yolan Friedman, chief executive of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, said after receiving official confirmation of the proclamation that the trust will appeal and take the decision on review.

Coal of Africa did not respond to questions, but in its impact study the mine estimates that about 600 job opportunities will be created, mostly for skilled workers. Its chief operations officer, Riaan van der Merwe, said his company had received the granting letter and engagement with the landowners had begun.

“We believe that mining can coexist sustainably with the environment and surrounding communities. We understand the uniqueness of the area and intend managing the mine in an environmentally sensitive way. The company has also initiated a number of programmes that will balance out the effects of the Vele Colliery,” he said. He also committed in excess of R18-million a year towards minimising the environmental impact.

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