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Alert sounded over mining prospectors eyeing treasures of last unspoilt strip along Western Cape’s west coast

Alert sounded over mining prospectors eyeing treasures of last unspoilt strip along Western Cape’s west coast
The Karoetjies Kop 150 coastal area where prospecting applications have been submitted. Environmentalists says it should be left 'untouched and raw', 'beautiful and pristine'. (Photo: Sacha Specker)

Concerns mount over cumulative impact of new prospecting along the last unspoilt strip of the Western Cape’s west coast.

The last, relatively pristine section of Western Cape coastline between the Olifants River and the Northern Cape border is threatened by two new mining-related applications.

The applications to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) are for prospecting rights on the farm Karoetjies Kop 150, which extends six kilometres inland and 15km along the coast north of the Soutriver.

SRK Mining (Pty) Ltd wants to prospect for diamonds along the coastline, targeting places where diamond giant De Beers had excavated huge exploration trenches during the 1970s.

Nekwana Trading Enterprise (Pty) Ltd ­wants the inland prospecting rights as it eyes the possibility of extracting heavy minerals, kaolin and gemstones.

Environmentalists and residents have raised the alarm over a “tyranny of small decisions”, where numerous prospecting and mining applications and other development activities are individually approved by the government, without a proper assessment of their cumulative impact on the environment.

In its acceptance letter to Nekwana, DMRE says the company is required to “consult” with the department’s regional office or the diamond prospector about operations on the same property. Yet there is no requirement for a combined impact assessment of the two operations.

Professor emeritus Merle Sowman, former head of Department of Environmental and Geographical Science at the University of Cape Town, has repeatedly called for a strategic environmental assessment of the cumulative impacts of the expanding mining footprint along the entire West Coast.

She has warned that applications are being assessed on an individual basis without the government understanding the overall impact and net effect of all its various approvals.

Sowman says an overall, long-term and strategic decision-making process to guide where and when human activities can occur in South Africa’s ocean areas is underway, as required by the Marine Spatial Planning Act, which came into effect in 2021.

Yet because so many approvals have already been given for prospecting and mining applications, as well as other coastal developments, she says, an overarching strategic environmental planning process to facilitate sustainable development in the west coast will be undermined.

“It’s very worrying. There is massive pressure to allow more mining because the government sees this as economic growth potential, but no one is seeing the big picture,” she says.

Nekwana’s application

Nekwana Trading Enterprise (a company with a Polokwane, Limpopo postal address) wants to prospect for sillimanite, monazite, manganese ore, leucoxene, kaolin (clay) and garnets.

In its documentation, the company states that part of the prospecting work will involve drilling operations with boreholes limited to a depth of 20 metres. Twelve boreholes will be drilled initially to test target areas with up to ten or so more boreholes, depending on initial results.

The company says mining already contributes to the economies of surrounding towns, such as Nuwerus, Bitterfontein, Lepelsfontein and Rietpoort, and it will attract foreign investment through transportation and beneficiation. It says it will improve social cohesion for local communities.

The company says mining operations will boost local business and SMMEs and reduce youth and general unemployment.

It says a one-kilometre “buffer zone”, where no drilling or activity will take place, will be placed around the river estuary and coastline.

Its final Basic Assessment Report and Environmental Management Programme documentation, including public comment, was submitted to DMRE on 19 May.

West Coast prospecting

Proposed select target areas for new diamond prospecting, marked in red, at Karoetjies Kop 150. The yellow lines show old De Beers exploration trenches dating from the 1970s. Source: SRK Mining (Pty) Ltd, Draft Basic Assessment Report and Environmental Management Programme.

SRK’s application

SRK Mining (Pty) Ltd, based in Koekenaap, wants to prospect for “general” and “alluvial” diamonds on 296 hectares and the adjacent surf zone.

Its application was accepted in April. A draft Basic Assessment Report and Environmental Management Programme was released in June to interested and affected parties for comment, closing 15 July.

SRK says it is applying for the area where De Beers/West Coast Resources held diamond prospecting rights in the surf zone — up to about 32 metres out to sea from the low water mark, and an average 800m wide coastal strip.

In December 2022, De Beers/West Coast Resources rights lapsed, and SRK Mining took the opportunity to apply for a new prospecting right over a small portion of the historic right.

“The only land use [in the area] is uncontrolled recreational activities with ad hoc campsites during the crayfish season … The environmental impact will be the same as for the informal campsites,” argues SRK.

It says there will be no prospecting during the summer and Easter holidays and all excavations will be made safe to allow for open access during these periods.

“The presence of an authorised and environmentally responsible company on site will also help to mitigate the problem of illegal diggers, crayfish poaching, littering, illegal hunting, and plant (firewood) collection, a common occurrence along the west coast,” SRK states.

According to the company, the preliminary evaluation will involve 20 sample pits with a footprint of 11 by eight metres and 6.5-metres deep. The pits will be filled and rehabilitated after the assessment.

If the results are promising, bulk sampling will be done from much bigger trenches, but this will involve additional authorisation, including a different environmental impact assessment and specialist studies.

Environmentalists voice concerns

Mike Schlebach, managing director of not-for-profit organisation Protect the West Coast (established in 2020) writes on its website that the entire West Coast is in “danger of becoming one massive mining site, all the way from Lambert’s Bay to the Namibian border” — more than 500km of coast.

Environmentalists say that where prospecting is approved, mining permits are inevitable if the value of deposits is deemed profitable.

Communications specialist Miles Masterson wrote on the website: “While not quite as disruptive as full-scale mining operations, the prospecting activities, such as collecting sediment samples and conducting heavy mineral separation, may involve the digging up and disturbance of coastal ecosystems and habitats. Moreover, given the mineral-rich quality of the area, the likelihood of these prospecting activities leading to actual mining is extremely high … in this pristine, untouched coastal zone.”

Schlebach describes coastal zone mining as “an outdated and destructive form of mining, which rips up beaches to extract minerals for everyday use such as cosmetics with little to no rehabilitation”.

“It means the loss of heritage sites, the degradation of biodiverse areas and fragile ecosystems, the pollution of the surrounding marine environments, the loss of livelihood to local fishers and a general decline in nearby communities.”

Allen Lyons, a retired geologist and former chair of the Strandfontein Ratepayers Association, says, “It’s a bit like a feeding frenzy, and we are not winning any battles. It’s also a very expensive process, and by the time any of our appeals reach the minister’s desk, the fight is usually already lost.”

West Coast prospecting

Old rustic huts are still scattered over the Karoetjies Kop 150 farm’ coastal area. They are used by surfers and other travellers to the West Coast for shelter. (Photo: Ant Fox)

First published by GroundUp.

To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    About 15y ago I had to do a Basic Assessment because we might have had to change a stormwater course within 6 meters of a river bank on a century old industrial site.

    How does new exploration and mining a km out to sea also only necessitate a Basic Asessment????? If it is the same crowd, SRK used to be an environmental impact assessment consultancy.

    The old trick to shortcut EIA for a farmer wanting to put up townhouses was : first you plow the fynbos, then you do nothing with the land for two years, then you apply to convert Agri to Res because the land is not viable as Agri. Much easier an md after than applying to go from fynbos to residential…

  • Shafiq Morton says:

    Side effects are permanent ecological damage and disfigurement. Also permanent destruction of Khoekhoe historical burial sites. And the disempowerment of local communities because these mining companies have no social conscience. This is extractive rape. Period.

  • Add to this the application to mine tungsten inland of Verlorenvlei in a protected area. An overarching environmental impact assessment for the whole region is urgently needed.

  • Libby De Villiers says:

    Any decent thinking person would need only one look at the total devastation left by previous mining activities along that coastline to know what the consequences of mining permits would be.
    Although these might create jobs, mines do nothing for the communities, they pay minimal wages, they destroy the environment and there is always bribery and corruption involved.
    Check the relevant officials’ bank statements – the reason behind all these hasty decisions.

  • Change is good sa says:

    The ANC cadre deployment in all its glory. The modus operandi of ‘the tyranny of small decisions’ is being done with purpose by those companies involved. Millions are to be made and they care not about anything else but their own feeding at the trough. There are so many amazing ways that this Province could create a strong eco tourist revenue that would benefit all the West and Northern Cape communities. I have wondered why the DA have not pursued winning the vote in the Northern Cape Province, it would surely have been an easy win. In this way, SA would at least have a transparent process and local communities could fight their cause on equal ground. Western Cape Province, step up to the plate here and inform the local communities.

  • James Harrison says:

    Anyone not aware of how badly the west coast has been affected by mining should take a few minutes to view it with Google Earth. It is truely horrific. This pristine area MUST be left intact!

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