In South Africa there is a mining industry that is estimated to be worth about R4 billion annually and is rapidly expanding with little thought to the environmental consequences. The department of minerals and energy estimates that a quarter of this mining industry is illegal, but some of the miners actually involved believe that at least half of the mines are operating illegally, and frustrated conservationists around the country are crying out for government departments to take action against the environmental damage that is resulting.
The industry does not involve precious metals or gemstones, but common, ordinary sand and stone which feeds the needs of a growing nation, building structures across the land. Formal sand and stone producers are required to declare their production volumes to the department of minerals and energy, and 44.8 million tonnes of sand and stone were officially mined in 2004, but industry experts looking at cement consumption believe this to be only half of the true state of the industry.
If the revenue derived from the sale of sand and stone is coupled with that of cement-producing activities, it ranks as the fifth most important mining sector in South Africa in terms of revenue generation behind gold, platinum, diamonds and coal.
Unfortunately, the industry does not seem to be getting the attention it deserves, and across the country illegal operators are driving their earthmoving equipment into riverbeds and loading up thousands of tonnes of sand before moving on to the next spot, causing untold environmental damage. In a country where more than 80 percent of the country's 120 main rivers are threatened, and 44 percent of the river ecosystems are considered to be critically endangered, this seems incredible.
But environmental co-ordinator for the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (Wessa) in KwaZulu-Natal, Di Dold says, "Nobody knows how much sand is being taken" out of KwaZulu-Natal's rivers, and unable to get realistic answers out of the department of minerals and energy (DME), Wessa has commissioned a study to try and find out before the health of the province's rivers, estuaries and beaches is threatened beyond repair.
"As an NGO, it's ridiculous that we have to do this." The situation is not restricted to KZN. The We s t e r n Cape's provincial spatial development framework states that, "Due to the high demand for sand, illegal sand mining is a major problem."
This is despite the fact that of the 458 licensed mining activities in the province as at January 2004, more than 80 percent were for sand, stone and other aggregates. The Aggregate and Sand Producers Association of South Africa (Aspasa) records in the minutes of their February meeting for Limpopo and Mpumalanga that when it comes to operators mining sand in the area, "People were bragging that it was nice to do business in the lowveld as there were no rules." There are rules governing sand and stone mining, the main act being the minerals and petroleum resources development act (MPRDA) of 2002.
However, there are three other powerful legislative tools that consider the environmental consequences of sand mining – the national environmental management act (Nema) of 1998, the national water act of 1998, and the conservation of agricultural resources act (Cara) of 1983.
The mineral act states that the principles of Nema apply to all prospecting and mining operations, and an entire chapter of the act is devoted to the environmental management of mining, including sand mining. By the provisions of these acts, at least four government departments should have some say in controlling the illegal mining of sand.
Any sand mining in river beds not only requires a mining permit, but also a water use licence from the department of water affairs. To Wessa's Di Dold, this is one of the main problems. "The biggest problem in the country is so-called cooperative governance, because departments do not cooperate and one department will not take action against another - even though they are not fulfilling their mandate - and the environment is the loser."
Her statements appear to be borne out by the department of environmental affairs and tourism. According to Melissa Fourie, environmental affairs' director of enforcement, "Powers of enforcement in relation to illegal mining lie with the department of minerals and energy.
However, where Environmental Management Inspectors [‘green scorpions'] reasonably suspect that illegal sand mining is going on, they will and do report this to the department of minerals and energy for further investigation and enforcement action, if justified."
From this the implication seems to be that illegal sand mining operations that gouge huge holes in river banks, cause massive soil erosion and siltation in the rivers, pollute the water with petrols and oils, crush riverine vegetation as heavy vehicles load up sand and turn around to deliver it, and disturb the aquatic ecosystem in general can be reported to the green scorpions, but that it is up to the department of minerals and energy to safeguard this mining environment.
However, what the department of minerals and energy do in the case of illegal sand mining is unknown, as at the time of going to press, the Kruger Park Times had yet to receive any response to queries sent to the department on September 7, 2006. Slow response time from the department of minerals and energy is a familiar refrain. The Association for Water and Rural Development (Award) has been trying to fight illegal sand mining in communal areas in Mpumalanga's Sabie River catchment for several years, and is still struggling with the problem.
Having reported illegal activities to the department of minerals and energy, they finally got a DME deputy director to visit a site in December 2002. Award writes in their 2003/2004 annual report that DME "noted that the company, which is well known to them, is mining illegally and undertook to halt the activities.
The tardiness of the department however, meant that mining continued until April  when the Save the Sand Project reinitiated contact… In the case of private sand mining, the DME has reported uncontrolled sand mining in communal lands as a common problem, an issue supported by the Kruger National Park."
At the February 2006 Aspasa meeting for Limpopo and Mpumalanga, the issue "was also raised that the DME officials were not doing their work as operations were visited that were illegal but not being closed down." The department of environmental affairs asserts that at this time no environmental impact assessment is required to mine sand, but that they are collaborating with the department of minerals and energy to get environmental impact assessment regulations in place to authorise mining activities.
In the meanwhile, with the government declaring its plans to increase the country's economic growth rate by 4.5 percent or more, with a heavy focus on infrastructure development, the question arises as to whether the infrastructure will be built of illegally mined sand and stone at the expense of the environment.