NGOs Against Mining at Mapungubwe World Heritage Site

The fight to protect the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape from coal mining heated up this month (May 2010) with the submission of an appeal against the mine by some of the leading non-governmental organisations in South Africa.

Australian company Coal of Africa Limited (CoAL) was recently given the go ahead to begin construction of an opencast and underground coal mine within less than six kilometers from the borders of the Mapungubwe National Park and adjacent to the World Heritage Site, with the approval of the Environmental Management Plan for the proposed Vele Colliery.

The appeal was lodged by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF), the Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists (ASAPA), the Mapungubwe Action Group (MAG), the Wilderness Foundation South Africa (the WFSA), the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (the WWF) and BirdLife South Africa (BLSA).

The appellants are being represented by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and include organisations whose objects and purposes involve the protection and maintenance of the environmental integrity of the area in and around Mapungubwe for current and future generations as it relates to the natural habitat, ecosystems, cultural heritage and related aspects of the environment.

In addition, the appellants believe it to be in the greater public interest to have submitted this appeal in order to address the serious shortcomings of the Environmental Management Programme (EMP) and to attempt to prevent further damage to this environmentally sensitive and culturally important environment for all South Africans.

In addition to the appeal lodged, the appellants further appealed to the Minister of Mineral Resources to exercise her powers in terms of section 103(4)(b) of the Mining and Petroleum Resources Development Act to suspend the right to mine pending the outcome of this appeal.

The appeal was brought on the grounds that the EMP submitted by CoAL is deficient and that the approval of the EMP is unlawful and invalid because it purports to authorise conduct which is prohibited and unlawful in terms of the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, 57 of 2003.

Specifically, the EMP omits to consider certain consequences of mining in the area; misrepresents the true consequences of mining in the area; misrepresents the true impact of the consequences of mining in the area it identifies; and is premised on fundamentally erroneous assumptions regarding the nature of the mining to be done, the appropriate methods of evaluating its impact and the possibility of effectively managing or mitigating such impacts.

Areas Of Major Concern

Areas of major concern to the appellants include concerns for the sensitive landscapes in and around of the mining area; the statutory prohibition against mining on those portions of the mining area that have been proclaimed nature reserves; the archaeological and other heritage resources affected by the mining; the impact on biodiversity and specifically on habitat, ecosystems and various species in the mining area; the impact on the quantity and quality of water resources; the noise and dust pollution that will be caused by mining; and the impact on the socio-economic conditions of persons affected by the mining operations, including such persons' rights, under section 24(a) of the Constitution, to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being.

Furthermore, concern has been raised for the failure of the EMP approval process to comply with the public consultation required in terms of the Act in that relevant persons and communities, including affected parties in Zimbabwe and Botswana (which border this mine) were either ignored or their specific concerns ignored, or they were not consulted at all when they should have been.

The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape (MCL) was recognised in 2003 as a World Heritage Site under the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by the General Conference of United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on 16 November 1972 (the World Heritage Convention) as it is considered to have "outstanding universal value".

The MCL was the original location of far-reaching cultural and social changes in southern Africa between AD 900 and 1300 and its remains are a remarkably complete testimony ... of the ... largest kingdom in the African sub-continent. Further, Mapungubwe represents "a significant stage in the history of the African sub-continent", and therefore, the significance of preserving the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, both to South Africa and the world at large cannot be overstated.

The Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area (originally known as the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area) was established by means of a Memorandum of Understanding between the governments of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe on 22 June 2006.

In terms of this agreement, the three governments commit to attempting to establish a Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA) that includes Mapungubwe National Park and the core area properties.

It was renamed the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area on 19 June 2009 and although the proposed mining area is not within the proposed Greater Mapungubwe TFCA, it is almost surrounded by the TFCA.

The entire northern border of the mining area along the Limpopo River is directly adjacent to the Zimbabwean portion of the TFCA and falls within the proposed phase 2 of the TFCA. The impact of the mining activities on this sensitive landscape is best described in terms of the impact on its "sense of place", derived from this unique natural environment, and enhanced by the distinctive mix of natural and cultural features in the landscape.

The appellants firmly believe that this mine is not only an inappropriate landuse for the MCL and a region that it already thriving on a sustainable ecotourism industry, but that it makes a mockery of our regulatory framework if the inadequacies of the EMP can be overlooked for the sake of expediting its approval.

The losses incurred to South Africa, and the world at large, if this mine proceeds, will be great. At a time when South Africa is being showcased to the rest of the world and is trying to project a positive future, it would be sad if we were to bury our past in a heap of coal and rubble.

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