Mapungubwe mining go-ahead

The government has reversed its tough stance and agreed that Australian-listed miner Coal of Africa can proceed with the Vele coal mine, seven kilometres from the Mapungubwe world heritage site.

The company, the department of environmental affairs and South African National Parks (SANParks) signed an agreement this week stating that the integrity of the heritage site would be maintained by “comprehensive biodiversity offset programmes, thereby optimising benefits to local communities”. The market responded positively to the announcement, with the company’s share price rising by 9%.

Last year the Green Scorpions launched several raids on Vele for environmental transgressions and SANParks criticised the development. Former minister of environment Buyelwa Sonjica was also opposed to the mine.

At the signing, John Wallington, the company’s chief executive, said Coal of Africa had undergone fundamental changes in the past year.
“We got new leadership. We went from a junior prospecting company to a full-blown mining company that now has the know-ledge and skills to mine Vele in a sustainable way,” he said. “For us, conservation is a natural resource to be used.”

Wallington said the agreement ensured that Mapungubwe would be better protected and communities near the mine were excited about the opportunities the operation presented.
Hector Magome, director of SANParks, said for his organisation conservation meant the holistic and wise use of natural resources. “Some see conservation as a holy cow, that it should not be touched,” he said.

Fundisile Mketeni, deputy director general of biodiversity and conservation, said the agreement was the first of its kind and an example of how mining in sensitive areas would be treated from now on.

He confirmed that there had been a flood of applications to mine the area around Mapungubwe and the department would have to engage other applicants about an environmental strategy.

“We need to bite a bullet and make a decision in terms of this area.”

The agreement meant the heritage site would no longer be threatened by mining and the signatories to the agreement would work together to ensure that Mapungubwe was conserved, he said.

Mketeni said that the buffer zone required to protect Mapungubwe had been contentious. Some said it was too close to Mapungubwe for it to maintain its status. “But in Europe there are mines two metres from a heritage spot,” he said. “We’ll defend our sovereignty.”

The Mapungubwe Act­ion Group, comprising the Endangered Wildlife Trust, the Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists, Peace Parks Foundation, WWF, Birdlife South Africa and the Wilderness Foundation of South Africa, is not expected to take the latest development lying down, particularly as the group was excluded from the negotiations leading to the agreement.

Spokesperson Nick Hilterman said the group would study the agreement before commenting. But it is understood that court action to stop mining is likely.

Ishaam Abader, an official of the environmental affairs department, said the department had received no notice of a legal challenge.

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