Unesco team to probe mining at Mapungubwe

Environmental activists are up in arms due to coal-mining operations set to take place near the Mapungubwe National Park in Limpopo, saying mining operations will pollute the area’s water and disturb its biodiversity.

“The area is a low rainfall area with less than 400mm of rainfall a year and the river ceases to flow during the dry season,” Hayley Komen, communications manager from Endangered Wildlife told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday.

This week a team of experts from Unesco will arrive at the Mapungubwe World Heritage Site — where the world-famous 800-year-old gold rhino statuette was unearthed in 1933 — to assess the possible impact of mining operations

An Australian coal mining company is planning to establish the Vele Colliery project.

Mapungubwe contains some of the oldest examples of the beginnings of the Iron Age and rock paintings more than 10 000 years old.


Environmental groups argue that coal mining at Vele will significantly damage “a primal site of African and world history”.

According to a statement released by environmental activists on Wednesday, “this heritage site is now severely threatened by the prospect of mining at Vele and other future mines.The whole area sits on a coal seam and, if mining goes ahead, it will create a precedent for other applications to be granted; this would spell the end of the transfrontier conservation area, the cultural history and the magnificent beauty of the area.”

Environmental bodies, such as Peace Parks Foundation — which has encouraged the establishment of trans-border regional conservation parks in Southern Africa — object to industrial activity beginning in the Mapungubwe area without an approved integrated regional development plan.

Coal of Africa
Coal of Africa (CoAL), 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 Arcelor Mittal.

CoAL was gearing up to begin mining coal at Vele, less than 6km from the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape and National Park at the northern border of South Africa, when ordered to cease operations in August this year after it was found to be in breach of South African environmental law at this and another coal mining site.

We quiz CoAL about their plans. Read our Q&A.

Differences between South Africa’s Department of Water and Environmental Affairs and the Department of Mineral Resources, which initially granted permission to CoAL to build the mine at Mapungubwe, resulted in the company being forced by environmental affairs to stop building access roads and other infrastructure at Vele last August. CoAL was also instructed to empty fuel from a storage tank on the site, stop further pipeline installations and not to use a dam for storing water or waste.

The government has accused the company of carrying out illegal activities and with not complying with environmental laws

The area is also part of the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area, a major regional wildlife conservation area of great importance for future tourism situated at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers, at the meeting point of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Concerns over mining operations
The chief executive of Peace Parks Foundation, Werner Myburgh, said: “We are all deeply concerned about the lack of vision, guidance and leadership in managing the whole mining issue in South Africa. Coal mining at Vele would lead to other developments which would further encroach on the national park, a world heritage site, and the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. If 300 60-tonne trucks are right on the edge of the national park, there’s no doubt in anybody’s mind it will significantly impact on future tourism development.”

A coal-fired power station was also planned, and heavy industrial activity would put future tourism at risk. Myburgh said the park would make a much more significant contribution to the South African economy than a short-term capital injection with a lifespan of 29 years.

The Save Mapungubwe Coalition Group has argued that mining at Vele would also flout an agreement signed by the South African government in 2006 with the governments of Zimbabwe and Botswana to link the adjacent territories and form the Greater Mapungubwe Transfontier Conservation Area. Botswana and Zimbabwe, which border this region, would also be affected by this mine, said the group.

Minister of Mineral Resources Susan Shabangu told the annual general meeting of the Chamber of Mines earlier this month that there was “increasing tension globally” between growth and socioeconomic development on the one hand and the environment on the other. “We in South Africa grapple with the same challenge”, she said, noting that the closure at Vele had resulted in the “loss of jobs for more than 500 people in one of our poverty nodes”. What is missing from this assessment is the very real loss of long-term jobs in other more sustainable sectors such as agriculture and tourism due to mining in inappropriate areas. Shabangu is expected to deliver a decision on CoAL’s mining right at Vele within the next month.

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