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05 Jul 2022
UNESCO to assess impact of Vele mine
A team of experts from UNESCO arrives at Mapungubwe this week to assess the impact that the Vele mine might have on the famous Mapungubwe World Heritage Site. The site is now the setting of a conflict that has launched an international environmental campaign against an Australia-based coal mining company. South Africa’s former president and Nobel Peace Prizewinner, Nelson Mandela, was the first recipient of South Africa’s highest honour, the Order of Mapungubwe, which is named after the treasured site.
Coal of Africa (CoAL) was gearing up to begin mining coal at Vele, less than six kilometres from the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape and National Park at the northern border of South Africa, when ordered to cease operations in August.
Mapungubwe contains some of the oldest examples in the world of the beginnings of the Iron Age, as well as the remains of complex societies dating back a thousand years 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.
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, right at the centre point of the meeting of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
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.
CoAL has already been found in breach of South African environmental law at this and another coal mining site. Earlier this month, it was served with a pre-compliance notice for environmental transgressions at its coal mining operations at Mooiplaats in Mpumalanga Province, which has just recently been withdrawn. Over the course of this year, these conflicts have led to CoAL’s share price falling by half and have delayed the transfer of its primary listing in Australia to London.
Environmental bodies, such as Peace Parks Foundation – which has encouraged the establishment of trans-border regional conservation parks in southern Africa – object that industrial activity has begun in the Mapungubwe area without an approved integrated regional development plan.
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-ton 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 will also be affected by this mine.
The Minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu, told the annual general meeting of the country’s Chamber of Mines earlier this month that there was “increasing tension globally” between growth and socio-economic development on 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. Minister Shabangu is expected to deliver a decision on CoAL’s mining right at Vele in the next month.
The Mapungubwe coalition argues that the principle at stake here is that mining is simply not a suitable land use in all areas and that some areas are far more important to long term job creation, sustainable development and environmental health than they are useful to short-term wealth creation for a few.
ISSUED on behalf of:
Save Mapungubwe coalition group
CEO, Peace Parks Foundation
021 880 5100
CEO, Endangered Wildlife Trust
011 486 1102
ABOUT THE SAVE MAPUNGUBWE COALITION GROUP
The Save Mapungubwe Coalition Group (Coalition Group) aims to prevent any further development of the intended opencast and underground coal mine that is to be located less than 6km from Mapungubwe, a World Heritage site.
In campaigning against the development of the intended coal mine, the Coalition Group believes that mining should be conducted in a responsible manner and not within an area where there are better sustainable options for land use, as is believed to be the case at Mapungubwe. The Coalition Group, which consists of experts within the conservation field, further believe that certain areas should not be considered for mining where such activities threaten the integrity of any South African natural and cultural heritage.
The Coalition Group consists of a number of civil organisations, namely:
the Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists (ASAPA),
BirdLife South Africa (BLSA),
the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT),
the Mapungubwe Action Group (MAG),
the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF),
the Wilderness Foundation South Africa (WFSA), and
the World Wide Fund for Nature (South Africa) (WWF).
MAPUNGUBWE FACT SHEET
In addition to Nelson Mandela, three other recipients of the Nobel Prize are also recipients of the Order of Mapungubwe. They are former South African President FW de Klerk, who won the Nobel Peace Prize together with Mandela in recognition of their services in the ending of apartheid; the South African novelist JM Coetzee (now an Australian citizen), who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003; and the novelist Doris Lessing, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007 and who as a young woman lived in neighbouring Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), the site of her first novel, The Grass is Singing.
The Order of Mapungubwe depicts a golden rhinoceros with the sun rising above Mapungubwe hill in the background. A golden rhino and sceptre were discovered at a former fortress hill site at Mapungubwe, the capital of an ancient African monarchy described as South Africa’s “cultural capital”, indicating significant trade with the Far East.
The Save Mapungubwe Coalition Group delivered a notice of appeal earlier this year to the Department of Mineral Resources calling for the withdrawal of mining rights to CoAL, arguing that mining at Vele would also permanently change the unique sense of place and transform the entire area from a green ecotourism destination to an industrial development area.
There was no guarantee that coal mining at Vele would not “irreparably alter” the river flow dynamics of the Limpopo, since the area is one of very low average rainfall (below 400 mm) and the river “ceases to flow during most dry seasons”. Once mining activity had taken place, it would be extremely difficult for water filtration and recycling to make the rivers and underground water sources safe for human and animal consumption.
Information provided by South Africa’s parliament this year disclosed that 125 mines across the country were committing a criminal offence under the National Water Act by extracting water from boreholes, dams and rivers and emptying waste water into rivers without authorisation.
Differences between South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs and Department of Mineral Resources, which initially granted permission to CoAL to build the coal mine at Mapungubwe, resulted last August in the company being forced by Environmental Affairs to stop building access roads and other infrastructure at Vele. CoAL was instructed to empty fuel from a storage tank on the site, stop further pipeline installations and not to use a dam on site for storing water or waste.
The World Heritage Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Protocol of Shared Watercourse Systems of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and customary international law on transfrontier pollution had not been taken into consideration in the award of the mining rights.
CoAL has acknowledged that it began activities at Vele without the necessary environmental permission, risking possible criminal offences under the National Environmental Management Act. It conceded it did not have a licence to use water, and consequently could not begin mining.