When announcing the expected proclamation of the Blyde River Canyon National Park, environmental affairs minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said that "the canyon and its surrounds contain amongst the richest combination of plants and animals in southern Africa."
This rich biodiversity is now threatened in some areas by applications made to prospect for gold and silver on farms adjoining the park, and possibly also one farm inside the park's boundaries. An application to prospect on the farm London, which immediately borders the Blyde River Canyon park, has been lodged with the department of minerals and energy by Tamarron Trading 157 (Pty) Ltd.
In the environmental management plan that accompanies the application, the intention is announced to prospect for gold and silver using a JCB/backactor, three types of drilling equipment and a high density concentrator, with about 40 prospecting boreholes or trenches being created. The plan also indicates that roads will need to be constructed in order to prospect.
Since the prospecting application came to the attention of the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA), they have opposed this application and others that have been lodged in the past, as any mining activities are likely to negatively impact on several red data species, as well as potentially damage sensitive wetlands of extremely high conservation importance.
MTPA spokesperson Jimmy Masombuka indicated that the wetlands are regarded as "irreplaceable" in the province's Strategic Environmental Assessment plan. Not only are the wetlands in the immediate vicinity thought to be under threat, but a tributary of the Treur river runs through the proposed prospecting area. If pollution or contamination from any prospecting activities passed along this tributary into the Treur itself, the once extinct and now re-introduced critically endangered Treur river barb is likely to be harmed.
The pollution could also potentially pass into the Blyde River, one of the cleanest rivers in the country and the saving grace of the health of the lower Olifants River. Mercury, a dangerous environmental toxin, is often used in smallscale gold mining operations.
Cyanide salts are also commonly used to purify gold. Further, in an assessment carried out by Sanbi (South African National Biodiversity Institute), the farm London was earmarked as having a high biodiversity value and was intended to be put forward for gazetting as a protected environment in terms of the Protected Areas Act early next year.
The area has also been registered as a Natural Heritage Site. Despite the sensitivity of the area, the environmental management plan submitted in support of the prospecting application is merely a standard 19-page document supplied by the department of minerals and energy in which details have been filled in by hand.
Although one section of the MTPA was informed by the department of minerals and energy (DME) of the prospecting application as is routine, it seems that the MTPA in its role as custodians of the Blyde River Canyon park was not considered to be an interested and affected party.
They are not identified as such in the environmental management plan submitted to DME, despite the fact that they are named as an adjacent farm in the same document. The only interested and affected party named is Global Forest Products, who own the land where the prospecting is planned. Global Forest Products has declined to comment on the issue as they say they have instigated legal proceedings regarding the matter and they do not wish to jeopardise these proceedings.
However, sources indicate that Global Forest Products and the MTPA have been in consultation about the possibility of creating a small sustainable boutique hotel on the farm London, away from the sensitive wetland, which the potential prospecting or mining activities could jeopardise.
Sources also indicate that a previous application made to prospect on the farm London has been approved despite vehement objections from Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency. The Department of Minerals and Energy spokesperson said that confirmation of the status of the application could only be released through recourse to the Public Access to Information Act.
The Kruger Park Times telephoned Philipp Betz, who is listed as the contact person in the Tamarron Trading application. Betz declined to comment on the matter over the telephone, and a mutually convenient location and time for discussion could not be made before going to press. Sources have linked Betz's name to other prospecting applications on other farms in and around the Blyde River Canyon park, namely Berlyn and The Peak, which have also been opposed by the MTPA.
MTPA spokesperson Jimmy Masombuka said that the department "will consider the relevant channels to challenge the issue." The matter of the opposed prospecting applications has apparently been taken from a regional to a national level, and the department of environmental affairs and tourism and the department of minerals and energy should be engaged in cooperative governance discussions to decide whether the search for new gold and silver mines may go ahead in what Marthinus van Schalkwyk has described as an area that "has the potential to become one of the fastest growing malaria-free tourism destinations in Africa"
By Melissa Wray
Blyde River Canyon