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Life’s a beach: restoring arid ecosystems in the wake of mining

It involves developing eco­logical methods for restoring bio­diverse ecosystems to previously mined and other degraded landscapes. The practices are then­ ­integrated into the mining business and closure costing, while promoting business development and work opportunities for surrounding ­communities. NRI-1 focuses on the rehabilitation of the Namaqualand coastline.

"The public perception is that there is no Namaqualand coastline," says Carrick, currently a research fellow at UCT's Institute for Plant Conservation. "This is partly due to the area [having been] off limits to the public because of mining."

However, there has been a mass exodus of the mining companies. Carrick says that, at the time, it was believed that highly arid land couldn't be rehabilitated but no research had been done. This ­motivated the creation of NRI-1, as well as the desire to assist the ­surrounding impoverished communities. (Later research showed wind to be the biggest obstacle.)

NRI-1 was run through UCT, with catalyst funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and further funding from De Beers mining­ company. It began with the exploration of the ecological and restoration dynamics in the region.  

In 2007, a locally owned restoration team business was incubated by NRI-1 and ecological restoration began running in parallel to research. To develop free-market competition, a second business was then developed.

Regional protocol
In the same year, Carrick started Nurture, Restore, Innovate (NRI-2). It's a social enterprise that provides long-term ecological advice, support and tools to projects or practices that affect landscapes at larger scales. NRI-2 also built a support system that includes payment and assurance models for businesses and mines.

Further to this, a number of ­practical research-based training programmes for potential business owner-managers and workers have been run. Carrick says training only occurs if a mining operation has committed to developing and ­contracting the restoration business.

Other NRI outputs include research papers and information dissemination to stakeholders (including government), as well as developing best-practice guidelines and operational documentation.

Of note is the monitoring and evaluation system that was created. This regional protocol is not aimed at specialists but can be used by anybody who can distinguish one plant from another. It provides scoring that indicates whether the section has been restored and, if not restored, indicates the problem so that a solution can be found.

"We have been able to restore the structure and resilience of the ecosystem through translating science into action," says Carrick.

There have been challenges with uptake from the mines and Carrick says that further education and motivation are needed within the mining industry to see a real change within the area.

"While South Africa's mine rehabilitation legislation is very pro­gressive, it needs to be properly monitored to ensure action. We now have an ecological and business development model that can provide, on any one large mine, enough work for about 200 people to do ecological restoration over 10 years."

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