Words by Steve Pike.
A little more than a week after the out-of-court victory for Protect the West Coast (PTWC) last month to stop Trans Hex from mining at the Olifants River mouth, the state refused a mining company the right to prospect in the same municipal district.
The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) has refused an Environmental Authorisation (EA) for the company Nekwana Trading to prospect north of the Olifants River near Groenrivier in the Matzikama Local Municipality. The DMRE decision stops Nekwana from prospecting for sillimanite, monazite, manganese, leucoxene, kaolin, and diamonds on the farm Karoetjieskop. Read more here: https://www.protectthewestcoast.org/post/nekwana-trading-enterprises-targets-last-pristine-wilderness
Three reasons were given for the denial, predicated on a lack of specialist studies of the site to identify high sensitivity and no-go areas in order to properly understand the impact of mining; the Terrestrial Ecology Report failed to present a fine scale picture of the faunal and ecologically sensitive areas (and had not spatially represented sensitive and no go areas); and the omission of a proper Heritage Impact Assessment report.
Head of PTWC legal Patrick Forbes said: “The Karoetjieskop decision suggests that the DMRE has begun to realise that specific environmental information and detail of the areas under consideration must be provided if mining companies are to comply with Environmental Impact Assessment regulations, as demanded by the National Environmental Management Act of 1998 (NEMA).
The proposed area that the Nekwana prospecting application was for.
“The Olifants was one such biodiversity hotspot that needed special consideration, but the West Coast is incredibly diverse and as such, detailed expert input on sensitive and no-go areas is a non-negotiable.
“PTWC hopes that this signals a shift by the DMRE to place extra emphasis on mining applications, knowing that they themselves are being closely watched by civil society as the body granting authorisations, and tasked with the regulation thereof. Matters like the one recently concluded with Transhex are just one example of a warning to the DMRE that we are watching, and that unless rigorous and legally defensible decisions are made, they will be challenged,” Forbes said.
The ,settlement with Trans Hex came after PTWC and stakeholders applied for an interdict to stop a mining renewal granted to Trans Hex for a further 30 years, which was based on an outdated Environmental Management Programme (EMPr) from 2002. The EMPr ignored up-to-date scientific information and detailed mapping, socioeconomic developments, the cumulative impact of the avalanche of mining applications being made, and the value of the Olifants Estuary as a mainstay for livelihoods.
“The Nekwana decision vindicates our work in holding mining companies to account,” said PTWC MD Mike Schlebach: “What is key for us is that the Nekwana refusal comes after the decision against Trans Hex, a sure sign that the DMRE is sitting up and taking stock of its mandate to ensure mining is done in compliance with appropriate regulations, and that mining permits can’t just be handed out to any company that applies for one.”
Schlebach added that the Olifants River Estuary and Karoetjieskop decisions represented a turning point that suggest a gradual mindset change from fossil fuel-based, single use mining to Nature-based Solutions (NbS) that promote tourism, aquaculture, small scale fisheries, and the management of key water and agricultural resources.
“Illegal mining and the wellbeing of communities and the environment are just not compatible,” he said.
For now, the future of the Olifants River Estuary is secure, as are the fortunes of fishers and a diverse proliferation of indigenous and migratory birds, as well as tourism prospects, but formal conservation status is yet to be achieved for the estuary, with stakeholders lobbying for it to be declared a nature reserve, or equivalent, as a critically important biodiversity hotspot.
Fisherman returning home after a full day on the Olifants River, which is finally protected against mining. Image sourced from – Ground Up.
While the Karoetjieskop decision is not as big as saving the second most important estuary in South Africa, it sounds a warning bell of more civil lawsuits against entities who try to circumvent regulatory boundaries.
The Trans Hex agreement enforces no-go zones; forces Trans Hex to apply for a new EMPr; forces them to consider cumulative impacts of mining; forces a study that considers small-scale fishers; forces engagement with communities; and allows up to four on-site inspections by specialists representing PTWC and co-applicants.
Importantly, the Karoetjieskop and Olifants River decisions put a spotlight on all future applications – a first step to stem the deluge of prospecting and mining applications along the West Coast.
In the Matzikama district alone, reports Monika de Jager, manager of tourism authority Namaqua West Coast, 20 to 30 new mining and prospecting applications come across her desk monthly, a massive increase from two or three per year five years ago. De Jager says that the wild spaces on the West Coast are dwindling so fast, soon there will be no destinations to promote for tourism.
Historically, an archaic mining and extractive mindset has fed off a political atmosphere ripe for corruption and a lack of accountability. Promises of environmental rehabilitation or jobs have been cynically disregarded in rural areas that are out of sight and out of mind. The broken legacy left by mining companies shows that mining had its chance, but has failed, dismally.
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