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Dear Barbara Creecy, our women’s and environmental ri...

Our Burning Planet

OPEN LETTER

Dear Barbara Creecy, how can we celebrate Women’s Day when our women’s and environmental rights are violated?

Members of the Elwandle Women’s Cooperative, Hondeklipbaai. (Photo: Supplied)

Many of our husbands, fathers and brothers have died on this ocean. Every breath we take relies on oxygen from this ocean. We see the ocean as sacred. It is part of us. Please stop forcing us to work as zama zamas down dusty, abandoned diamond mines.

Dear Minister Creecy,

We are the Elwandle Association, a cooperative of 24 women who have lived and worked in the tiny coastal mining town of Hondeklipbaai, Namaqualand.

Due to the cumulative effect of the failure of your Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) to recognise our rights, restitute our rights, protect our rights and ensure effective cooperative governance of our ocean and coast, we are being squeezed towards the death of our culture and our community.

It is deeply tragic that we, together with our sisters, mothers, daughters and other family members are forced to go and do zama zama mining and risk our lives in the abandoned diamond mines around Hondeklipbaai in order to survive – at the same time in other parts of South Africa our sisters are raped in these mines.

Now we hear the government is cracking down on zama zamas – but will you reach out and provide us with access to the sea or alternative livelihoods? We want to describe to you the effect of the government’s decisions on us and how your failure to keep your promises and your careless dismissal of our pleas is impacting us.

First, let us provide you with some background information to remind you who we are. Our ancestors were indigenous peoples of Namaqualand and surrounds who worked in the copper mines established by the colonial regime. Our mothers and fathers worked in the Oceana fish factory here or in the De Beers Namaqualand diamond mines that surround our town.

For those of us whose mothers worked in the fish factory when we were growing up, we got used to the sound of the siren calling our mothers to come to work when the boats came in, day and night. We witnessed our mothers coming home, fingers bleeding and cut to the bone from working with the crayfish – we recall how often our mothers cried for us to go and get the salve to put on their painful fingers and hands.

Our fathers worked small fishing boats for the factory, risking their lives on our notoriously dangerous sea, prone to misty conditions, several of them losing their lives. We as young women learnt to harvest “perdevoet” (limpets), mussels and alikreukel from the rocks to help to feed our families out of season or when the snoek season was short and food was scarce.

Some of us joined our mothers working seasonally in the factory. We have evidence of the racially based, low wages that our parents and later most of us were paid by Oceana, until in 1994, Oceana decided that the factory was no longer viable and gave us notice. We as women were offered a one-off R3,500 retrenchment package – R3,500 per person in total, R3,500 to last the rest of our lives!

Several of the women went on strike to protest against this unacceptable package and were then let go with not even a cent. There is no other work for women in Hondeklipbaai. So, while the country celebrated the coming of democracy, we mourned the loss of our livelihoods but held hope high that a new democratic government would ensure that we received what we were owed.

Nothing changed in Hondeklipbaai.

Our fathers and brothers continued to eke out a small-scale fishery living, but at that time it was illegal to sell your fish so there was little income. De Beers diamond mining continued until, in 2008, De Beers left, leaving a legacy of dust and dumps.

The company that bought their mining licence, West Coast Resources, also bought the responsibility to rehabilitate the surrounding biodiversity after more than 30 years of De Beers destruction, and they promised us an internet café and 500 jobs.

When they went under in 2018 and filed for insolvency, all they had done was create 200 jobs and we still did not have an internet café and nothing was rehabilitated.

To this day your department has failed to ensure that the surrounding mining areas are rehabilitated. Furthermore, in 2016, when this company applied to expand the diamond mining to include the building of cofferdam mines along our coast where our crayfish and fish breed, we informed the consultants that they had already started mining the beaches even before they were granted the environmental authorisation. Our comments were submitted for your department to read.

Even the Specialist Biodiversity Report commented that cofferdam mining had already destroyed coastal biodiversity, but this company was still granted approval. It was around this time that many of us started going into the abandoned mines and sieving through the hard gravel in the hope of finding a diamond.

To this day most of our families have members, including women, who go regularly into the veld and risk our lives in unsafe abandoned mines to survive.

In 2012, when the Fisheries Branch of the then Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ (DAFF) Small-scale Fisheries Policy was gazetted, we became excited that our right to fish or harvest intertidal resources and make a modest livelihood would be recognised. In 2016, we all applied for small-scale fishing rights.

Yet your Department of Fisheries said that we women were not small-scale fishers, despite the definition of small-scale fishing including the often-invisible work that women do up and down the value chain. Only two women who had political connections were successful, yet these two women have identical histories to all of ours.

We tried desperately to complain and appeal, but our voices have fallen on deaf ears. We now still harvest limpets and mussels, some of us illegally, to feed our families when fishing is poor and food is scarce.

In January 2020 you came to Port Nolloth harbour. We travelled to Port Nolloth (over two hours) to meet with you. We explained to you that we had been excluded from the small-scale fishing cooperatives. You said that we should form an organisation and apply for commercial fishing rights, under the policy known as Frap, the Fishing Rights Allocation Policy.

We waited two years for this Frap, which was delayed, but in the meantime, registered our cooperative.

The DFFE Fisheries Branch invited applications for all the commercial fisheries species. We applied for various species, spending collectively R11,000 on our applications, only to be told by your DFFE Fisheries Branch that we do not meet the criteria and in most instances, the authority you delegated decided not to take new entrants to these fisheries sectors anyway.

Why did you fob us off on Frap when it was clearly not going to be possible for a group of inexperienced women like ourselves with no infrastructure and no capital to be successful? What were you thinking that day on the harbour in Port Nolloth when you suggested this? We listened to you!

In the past two years since you last met with us we have been assaulted by four oil and gas offshore exploration applications – Tosaco, Searcher, Azinam and now Searcher again. The Azinam oil and gas company’s owners were here the other day – they promised us an internet café and to paint the school. We hear that they have been bought by a Canadian company called Eco-Atlantic and an oil rig is on its way to start drilling 20km off our coastline in four weeks’ time.

Searcher failed to consider the impact of its proposed seismic surveys on us, the small-scale fisher communities, and on the species that we now depend on for basic food security, but despite a high court order we hear that it’s now back again with another exploration application.

In addition to these offshore oil and gas exploration applications, there is a gas production right already authorised and a planned undersea gas pipeline in the pipeline from Ibhubesi Gas Fields in our waters.

And then, of course, there is the offshore drilling right that De Beers has secured for diamonds, in addition to the coastal and surf zone and beach mining that has also been approved right along the entire strip of coast, even on either side of the Namaqua Marine Protected Area (MPA).

Did you know that recreational fishers are allowed to fish in the MPA but our small-scale fishers are not? Yes, that’s your department’s regulations! Please see this map below with all the current mining exploration and production activities surrounding our town completely.

Together with many non-governmental organisations, researchers and academics, we have begged you to provide oversight on what is happening along our coast and in our waters by doing proper strategic environmental assessments and by taking your responsibility to protect the marine ecosystem (Marine Living Resources Act of 1998 places this in your hands).

Instead we find that the proposed ocean legislation was dropped, and you have failed to implement the Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) Act of 2018 timeously. In fact, not at all.

We note that the MSP document that your department released in April of this year contained completely outdated and inadequate information about the small-scale sector. There is currently no overarching governance framework for our oceans. There is no oversight on what is happening.

One application after another is just hitting us like a tsunami. If we are lucky, the consultants drive the dusty, very badly maintained dirt road to reach us here in Hondeklipbaai, but normally they now use Covid as a good excuse to just have an online meeting.

We still don’t have an internet café and connectivity is so poor we cannot join these meetings even if we are occasionally invited. A consultant here for an oil and gas mining company recently commented to us that he agreed that the land around Hondeklipbaai has been raped and left in a terrible state. Who is the perpetrator?

He told us not to worry, drilling in the ocean is quite safe, it’s just like drilling a borehole for water – the drill goes in and comes out and the hole gets sealed up. Does he not know that the mines have polluted our underground waters as well?

In June 2021, your department launched the Operation Phakisa Oceans Economy Master Plan through online MS Teams meetings. No data was provided to the small-scale sector to access this online platform, nor were we informed about it.

The Operation Phakisa Oceans Economy Secretariat, which is housed in your department, planned to rush through an Oceans Economy Master Plan with the oil and gas sector, marine transport and shipping, aquaculture and fisheries literally in four months without including us.

To this day we are still waiting to be properly consulted on this. In the meantime, we hear but have not seen the Third Draft Master Plan (OP Secretariat March 2022) which we hear you have approved, yet this does not include our voices at all. Nor does it include the environmental and social justice components required by law for sustainable development of our oceans and coasts.

It’s an economic plan aimed to facilitate the extraction of natural resources from our oceans, with no protection of the environment integrated into it. Nor has the potential cost of climate change been included in this master plan. We are not surprised it’s called a “Master” plan, but surely you feel uncomfortable?

Perhaps this issue of climate change and climate adaptation has been the biggest slap in the face for us. You participate in the international panel on climate change. You are tasked as the lead for climate change policies and your department is working on various climate change policies and plans. They are also part of the Benguela Current Commission (BCC) and over the past four years the BCC has implemented various projects aimed at helping us as coastal communities understand our “vulnerability” and how to “adapt and mitigate” climate change.

A lot of money has been spent on these plans. You expect us to find “healthy” alternative livelihoods under these programmes in Hondeklipbaai while your government approves one oil and gas and mineral mining application after another despite the climate change adaptation plan for Namaqualand stating clearly that mining activities must be halted to mitigate climate change, and despite our spatial development plan along this coast in 2014 declaring our coast a “fisheries and mariculture corridor”?

Minister Creecy, when did your predecessors give this government the mandate to go ahead and sell off 98% of our ocean to foreign companies to explore for oil and gas, and 100% of the ocean and coastline off Hondeklipbaai to mining of some sort?

When President Jacob Zuma introduced Operation Phakisa Oceans Economy he told the nation that the Oceans Economy would be developed but environmental protection of the ocean would be ensured. The minister of environment is tasked in legislation with the protection of the ocean environment. You are now that minister. You are tasked with this.

Small-scale fishers and researchers have written to you three times, pleading with you to investigate the impact of cofferdam mining on our West Coast rock lobster and fish, but we still await a response from you. But we anticipate that you will again cut the allocation of rock lobster to the small-scale sector as you will say it’s under threat.

Yes, it’s under threat from all the mining and activities in the ocean that you have failed to stop!

Minister Creecy, you have failed us.

You have not protected our livelihoods as rural women who depend on the environment and natural resources for our lives and livelihoods. You have not protected our rights as women living in remote rural coastal areas as vulnerable, marginalised groups.

Imagine if you encouraged the large fishing companies like Oceana to address the past injustices that they perpetrated on us as women workers? Or ensured that your fisheries department investigated how we came to be excluded from the small-scale sector cooperatives by your fisheries department?

Imagine if you could return the R11,000 we spent on Frap applications and apologised to us for inadvertently encouraging us to apply for industrial fishing rights that we were never going to be able to get?

Imagine if you ensured coordinated, cooperative governance of the ocean and coastal space, and instead of contradictory climate change policies you provided governance oversight that ensured our right to a healthy, safe environment, to clean air and water, instead of that polluted water from mining run-off and threatened ecosystems.

Minister Creecy, we as women from coastal, small-scale fishing communities have lived closely next to our ocean all our lives. Many of our husbands, fathers and brothers have died on this ocean. We know that every breath we take relies on oxygen from this ocean. We see the ocean as sacred. It is part of us.

Please stop forcing us to seek alternative livelihoods down dusty, abandoned diamond mines. Please start overseeing the marine spatial planning of the ocean and coastal areas so that they are not destroyed by mining and that our livelihoods as small-scale fishing communities can flourish and contribute food to our region.

We plead with you to meet with us at your earliest convenience; we would like to show you Hondeklipbaai and host you here.

Elwandle Women’s Cooperative, Hondeklipbaai

Carisa Soudens, Fiona Saul, Corrie Adams, Hendrieka Cloete, Leonora Fortuin, Daniswa Nyondo, Geraldine Fortuin, Rina Badenhorst, Meriam Danster, Katrina Witbooi, Ann Young, Valencia Roelf, Sarah Koordon, Katia Lewis, Katrina Adams and Sarah Cloete. DM

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