Fishers and civic organisations take legal action against West Coast seismic surveying
Last month, Shell was ordered to halt its seismic survey programme on the Wild Coast. Now, another case involving an Australian exploration company is due to be heard in court as communities along the coast fight for their livelihoods.
The Shell case was said to set a precedent for future exploration and extractivism cases. It seems, however, that the inevitable has come sooner than expected as a group representing various civic organisations has filed an urgent interdict against Australian geoscience company Searcher Geodata, which has been conducting a seismic survey programme along South Africa’s West Coast.
The applicants had written to Searcher Geodata, pleading with the company to put an end to its project currently under way. But the lack of response from the company has prompted the organisations to take the matter to court, in the hope that the law will put an end to the potential environmental harm posed to the lives of coastal communities by seismic surveying.
Wilmien Wilcomb, an attorney representing 13 of the 14 applicants, told Daily Maverick, “The communities say that the survey will not only cause irreparable harm to the ocean and birdlife on the West Coast, but stand to further erode their rights to fish for their livelihoods and as an expression of their identity.”
Other respondents in the case include Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe; Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Minister Barbara Creecy; Petroleum Agency South Africa; and BGP Pioneer, the Panama-registered seismic research ship.
Gilbert Martin, founder of We are South Africans (the 14th applicant), told Daily Maverick that they are hoping that an interdict will stop not only Searcher Geodata’s seismic survey, but also all other mining or seismic activities through a public oversight committee to oversee improperly conducted processes.
He said they were filing the interdict based on the fact that the research to formulate the environmental management programme (EMPr) was outdated, that there was no meaningful public participation, and that the survey will damage the environment, tourism and fishing industries.
Daily Maverick previously reported that the Coastal Justice Network has raised the fact that small-scale fishing communities along the West Coast had not been consulted during assessments to grant Searcher Geodata permits to conduct the surveys.
Christian Adams, the first applicant, said in his affidavit that he wanted Mantashe and Creecy to comprehend what is happening to the fishing community and what the issuing of permits has done to the industry, without its input.
Searcher Geodata told Daily Maverick in an email that the company had completed a comprehensive Environmental Management Plan, fulfilling the requirements of a Basic Assessment Report as per the Environmental Impact Assessment regulations. The company said that the assessment had been developed with broad consultation from local communities in order to protect the environment.
“Community awareness and consultation have been exhaustive and in full compliance with Pasa [Petroleum Agency SA] requirements,” the company said. “Searcher wishes to note that we have a history of effectively conducting marine seismic surveys internationally with successful environmental outcomes. This is achieved by rigorous environmental risk assessment combined with robust operating principles, planning and management.”
Pasa granted Searcher Geodata its permit in early November 2021. The permit grants Searcher a reconnaissance permit for petroleum, which allows it to conduct the seismic surveys across various blocks offshore, the Orange Basin off the West Coast, and in the south coast of the Western and Northern Cape provinces of the country.
The permit granted to Searcher by the DMRE showed that it has been effective since 6 December 2021 on the basis of environmental approvals that assess the potential impacts on marine fauna and flora.
This, according to the permit, included some of the ways in which the company can identify measures to mitigate potential impacts, including a 30-day public review and comment period.
“Where will we end up? Are we going to be murals for people to look at and to say there was once a thriving small-scale fishing sector, but due to the OEMP, due to the Marine Spatial Planning Bill, due to Operation Phakisa, it no longer exists?” Adams said.
Wicomb will be representing the 13 parties, while Richard Spoor Attorneys will represent We are South Africans when the case is heard in the Western Cape High Court. DM/OBP