OUR BURNING PLANET

The sorry tale of a coal mine in paradise — and the Japanese hands behind it

By Elana Greyling 3 July 2019
Caption
The Bushveld community of Lephalale is pushing back against plans by South African and Japanese companies to develop a new coal-fired power station in its area.(Photo: Elmond Jiyane / GCIS / Flickr)

The people of the Bushveld around Waterberg used to live peaceful lives in a beautiful area — until Medupi destroyed its ecological and social fabric. The government — with a Japanese firm — plans to build another coal-fired power station in the area, but the community is fighting back.

Last week, leaders of the 20 biggest economies in the world, including South Africa, met in Japan for the G20 summit which focused on key economic issues, including the group’s commitments to climate action. While the G20 has, in the past, played a critical role in driving action on climate change, host Japan has diluted its climate ambitions in an attempt to win over Donald Trump for a potential trade deal, as the US stymies G20 efforts to scale up on the political leadership required to act on the Paris Climate Agreement.

As Japan continues to invest more money in the coal sector, and stalls on its commitments to decarbonise, the community of Lephalale is pushing back against plans by South African and Japanese companies to develop a new coal-fired power station in their area. They are calling for an unequivocal ban on new finance for coal development.

The people of the Waterberg and Lephalale, in the Bushveld of Limpopo, live in a beautiful part of the world, peaceful and largely untouched, with natural vegetation and wild animals roaming free. This area has been paradise for its people until very recently, when the Medupi coal-fired power plant, owned by Eskom, was built and became operational.

Beneath the Bushveld lies a coal reserve of 50 billion tons which, if burnt, could consume as much as 25% of the entire remaining carbon budget for the global 1.5°C temperature target. Yet even as climate scientists warn us of this, the coal industry and the government want a licence to dig up this coal, and burn it through the development of Thabametsi, an additional coal-fired power station that has been proposed in the same beautiful area.

We were shocked to find out that in 2016 Marubeni, a Japanese multinational, was in talks to develop Thabametsi.

Despite committing 10 years ago to completely phase out coal, G20 economies have instead kept a failing industry afloat by tripling coal power subsidies over the past three years. Worryingly, South Africa’s destructive reliance on coal makes it the fourth-biggest provider of coal subsidies within the G20, right after Japan. SA and Japan are propping up and exporting coal developments which hit the poorest in our communities the hardest.

Japan and Marubeni, one of its largest corporations, are well known for renewable energy projects and it remains incomprehensible that they would want to build a new coal power station in clear contravention of the spirit of the Paris Agreement.

People who live in and around Lephalale have fiercely resisted the trashing of the Bushveld by the coal industry and have experienced the impacts of coal in its most extreme forms since 2007. Communities first began protesting against plans to develop Medupi soon after the plans were announced by the government.

Objections levelled at the power project stressed the ecological limits and financial constraints of developing a mega coal-fired power project in the 21st Century. Despite the community’s appeals and protests, the government went ahead and built the power plant, claiming this represented “economic development” and boasting of the merits of large industrial projects and centralised power.

The coal industry is breaking apart the social and ecological fibre that has kept this area relatively stable. Development of Medupi, which is touted as the world’s fourth-largest coal-fired power plant, took more than 10 years, and its impact on local communities was hefty. There was a huge spike in crime, violence, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, teenage pregnancies, school dropouts, STDs, lung disease, and other health problems. It has not reduced unemployment, but it has reduced water access for the local population.

Local communities have not been consulted about plans to develop Thabametsi, and their resistance efforts have been supported and amplified by national and regional groups.

While Marubeni and the Thabametsi Power Company claim that the power station uses new technology, with lower sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions, their own team of specialists admitted the station will have a significant impact on climate change due to the huge amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Even more damning is that in September 2018 Marubeni committed to no longer enter into any new coal-fired power generation business, but created a special loophole just for Thabametsi.

Despite this, we are taking the matter to court — South African law clearly states that the minister cannot give environmental authorisation if a project is proven to significantly contribute to climate change and pollution. Still, the then minister of environment, Edna Molewa, gave consent twice. Earthlife Africa and the Centre for Environmental Rights have already won one case and we believe the law is on their side and that the court will protect the community of this beautiful Bushveld.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government need to actualise the SONA rhetoric on the climate crisis, and have the courage to take more meaningful action to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate breakdown.

Our people are poor and desperate for jobs. This does not give big companies or big countries like Japan the right to come and build their polluting mega-projects in our communities just for their profit. We may be poor, but we are not voiceless. We speak for our people and for our environment, the trees, plants, animals and insects that cannot speak for themselves. We say: keep coal in the ground! DM

Elana Greyling is a freelance journalist, writer and environmental activist based in Lephalale, South Africa. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and a Master’s degree in languages from North-West University and is an associate at Earthlife Africa Johannesburg.

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