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Rape of a conservation area: iMfolozi Wilderness versus Ibutho Coal

Braam Malherbe is an extreme adventurer, extreme conservationist, youth developer, TV Presenter and author of the best selling book, The Great Run Braam Malherbe has achieved two world-firsts by running the entire length of the Great Wall of China, a distance of 4218kms, at a pace of a marathon a day for 98 days, as well running as the entire coastline of South Africa, a distance of over 3,200kms. (The expeditions raised over R2.5 million for Operation Smile) Braam subsequently competed in the 768km unassisted Scott/Amundsen Centenary race ski-race to the South Pole with his friend Peter van Kets in December 2011. As a dedicated conservationist, Braam co-founded the Table Mountain National Parks Volunteer Firefighting Unit, and he is an Honorary Ranger for SANParks. As an Ambassador for MyPlanet he was instrumental in starting the EWT Rhino fund which raises an average of over R100,000 every month towards conservation. He is also a director of The Institute for Accountability in Southern Africa (IFAISA), working on conservation and environmental issues.

The iMfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal is fighting battles on many fronts. Human settlements, agriculture, poaching and mining are all challenging the existence of this important wilderness area. We must consider the impact of coal mining on the boundary of iMfolozi, specifically regarding the proposed Fuleni mine, and question the integrity of the process.

This year, 2014, is a pivotal time in the life of the iMfolozi Game Reserve, situated 270km north of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, as human settlements, farming, poaching and three coal mines challenge its existence. Another open-cast coal mine currently being proposed by Ibutho Coal poses a direct threat to the pristine wilderness area of the park.

The proposed Fuleni mine poses a severe environmental threat to a fragile conservation area situated in the south of the reserve. The iMfolozi Wilderness section of the park is part of the last 1% of true wilderness left in South Africa, and Ibutho Coal is preparing to establish an open–cast coal mine only 40 metres from its boundary fence.

Questions are already being raised about the integrity and thoroughness of the scoping process, which has just been completed, and the planned environmental impact assessment (EIA) process is already showing signs of being rushed to completion.

One has to ask why such an endeavour should be permitted when we consider our international counterparts, such as Australia, who are closing down coal mines in favor of renewables. Another bone of contention is that there is no shortage of coal on the mass, international market, and the Fuleni mine is targeting an overseas market with aims to export coal to China, India and other areas.

iMfolozi game reserve, part of the Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park, is the oldest proclaimed nature reserve in Africa. It is home to a vast array of wildlife, including the Big Five. A substantial portion of the park is designated as a wilderness area and the park is known for its rich wildlife and conservation efforts. In 1958, Dr Ian Player, an avid conservationist with an inbuilt love of nature, fought to set aside the iMfolozi region as a natural area where people could come to escape the stresses of modern life. Player invested years into iMfolozi with his plans to save the white rhino from extinction. In 1953 there were 437 white rhino left and in 2013 alone 1004 rhinos were poached. Operation Rhino was launched in 1962 where rhinos were darted and removed from parks, game reserves and farms in South Africa and were shipped to a safer home in zoos and parks overseas to ensure their future.

The proposed mine is a direct threat to the dedicated conservation efforts of Player, as it will open up the area providing a safe passage for poaching syndicates.

iMfolozi is already bordered by Somkhele mine a few kilometers from its eastern border as well as Anthracite Colliery’s coal mine on the western side. With Ibutho Coal’s application for a mine on iMfolozi’s southern boundary, iMfolozi will literally be hemmed in by mining operations. The iMfolozi area has a strong cultural heritage, dating back to Stone Age times with a strong connection to Zulu people, including King Shaka. The area remains sacred to Zulu people today. The wilderness area is well known for its wilderness trails, which have impacted on many lives.

Player is emphatic that people emerge from the wilderness transformed. “Indeed, [the] wilderness is the original cathedral, the original temple, the original church of life in which they have been converted and healed and from which they have emerged transformed in a positive manner,” he is quoted as saying.

What is the extent of the mining threat?

As the global demand for resources intensifies, mining applications are encroaching on reserves and wilderness areas rich in mineral deposits. Open cast coal mining requires a substantial amount of water, and inevitably causes widespread air, noise and water pollution, resulting in irreparable environmental damage. To place this threat on the boundary of a “protected” conservation area is criminal.

The immediate threat is that the application process is being rushed without consulting the public as is required by law and that the mine is actioned on the grounds of greed and short-term employment. In the wake of the licenses of other mines in the area (Somkhele and Anthracite Colliery) having been granted, Ibutho Coal is in a better position to obtain its license for Fuleni.

Yet, there are serious environmental issues at stake.

Water scarcity is a serious concern, yet in scoping out appropriate sites for the other two mines, the Mfolozi River was used as a water base. In this way they could use river water to run the coal mining itself without having to source water from elsewhere. According to Roger Porter, previous head of conservation planning for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, “If the government agrees to permit the first mine it would have few legal grounds to prevent or refuse further open-cast mining that will affect many other people.”

The water situation at iMfolozi remains dire. There is a water shortage stretching as far as iSimangaliso World Heritage Site, some 73km away. The Somkhele mine, which is not far from the proposed Fuleni mine site, was granted approval before the water reserve in the area was tested. This is a serious environmental concern, because the miners are siphoning water from the nearby river and the water carrying capacity for the area has been neglected. The proposed Fuleni mine faces issues here, as the water they need for the coal mining process will also need to be piped or taken from the Mfolozi River. So the water reserve must be tested and water pollutant levels predicted and incorporated into the environmental management plan (EMP).

Porter tells of the startling impacts the new mine is likely to impose on the community and environment alike. “The new mine is likely to destabilise a cohesive community because of the potential for crime, prostitution, health problems, blasting noise, dust, water pollution, the loss of grazing land, crop land and sacred sites. No one seems to have informed the Fuleni community of the full implications,” he says.

The mine, which will sit right on the fence of the iMfolozi Wilderness, will not only be unsightly, but the noise, water and air pollution will threaten the existence of the wildlife. The Fuleni mine stockpiles will be 70m high. The blasting from the opencast mining, will create vast amounts of dust. The noise pollution will directly affect the wildlife and birdlife and destroy the serenity of the area. The vibrations sent through the area from blasting may well affect the local elephant herds and water pollution could kill off crocodiles inhabiting the Mfolozi River. The light pollution at night will affect the skyline and bright star formations that attract many tourists. This may impact tourism to iMfolozi in a negative way, turning essential revenue away from the area.

Another threat is that the wool is pulled over the eyes of those needed to take a stance. The public must be vociferous and actively protest against this travesty. According to Mark Tran, quoted in The Guardian, “A World Bank study showed that African countries whose economies were based on mining failed to reduce poverty significantly and that the ‘benefits’ from mining do not reach the poor”. We must not be convinced that mining is the answer to employing locals. Although some may be offered a job, many more are not even skilled enough to take up necessary positions in the mines anyway. On the Somkhele mine, locals complain that many of the miners have been recruited from Gauteng and Mpumalanga.

Many local people will be forced or convinced by mine owners to leave their homes and security, where they rely heavily on fertile grazing lands for their cattle. It is not guaranteed that their new homes will provide lands suitable for their cattle. This may cause suffering, as they rely on this as a source of income.

Locals living around the Somkhele mine complain bitterly about the clouds of coal dust that pollute their homes and water tanks, and the chest ailments that are common in the community.

Spokeswoman for Ibutho Coal, Megan Hunter, said recently that Ibutho Coal would not comment on the Fuleni mine proposal until they felt they had meaningful commentary to add. Hunter said in a response to an e-mail sent to her by Tony Carnie, environmental journalist for The Mercury: “Positive and negative impacts will be addressed in the specialist studies currently being conducted and will be communicated and discussed with the community as part of the EIA process. Please rest assured that direct consultation with all the relevant stakeholders and affected parties is ongoing.”

What are the processes? In coal mining an EMP must be drawn up before mining is actioned; a water use license is crucial to the passing of a mine application proposal. These procedures are in place so as to ensure the preservation of the environment around the area of a mine.

The usual set-up for such a mining proposal follows strict guidelines and lengthy timeframes. This is to ensure that all the necessary research can be gathered and the impact assessment of the potential mine is done thoroughly and fairly.

It is significant to note that if the EIA process is rushed, one must immediately question why it is being rushed and why those in charge are letting it happen. Putting in place an EIA and EMP usually takes between 18 and 24 months.

A proposal for a coal mine begins with a scoping phase of the EIA and EMP. This takes approximately six months. Public participation meetings must be advertised and the public has the right to attend. The EIA and EMP scoping phase aims to understand the project and project environment and identify impacts. This is followed by an EIA Phase, which also takes approximately six months. This goes into more depth assessing the potential environmental and social impacts, proposed, legal and management plans and recommendations relating to this all in an effort to counter the negative impacts and boost the positive impacts. The EIA/EMP is then submitted in a report and the decisions on behalf of governing bodies are recorded. This takes approximately four to six months.

After the governing body is happy with EMP/EIA for Fuleni mine and grants approval for the mine to be actioned then there is no going back and iMfolozi will not be the same for us or generations to come. Even though the Fuleni mine proposal has been met with the head butting public and distraught conservationists, Ibutho Coal seems set to continue steamrolling ahead with the mine. Jacana Consultants said it will finish the final scoping report by the end of June 2014 and the EIA by the end of September 2014. If Ibutho Coal keeps to this unrealistic timeline then the decision to grant the mining license will be made on 27 January 2015.

How do we fight this?

The public are meant to be involved in the scoping process and are entitled to voice their concerns in public participation meetings. When the Fuleni Mine proposal process was initiated, members of the community were not included in the list of registered interested and affected parties. The scoping phase also neglected to consider and detail the effects the mine will have on their livelihoods.

The Avaaz online petition anti-Fuleni mine has spread the word. In signing you are saying that you are in favour of saving the iMfolozi Wilderness and protecting the largest concentration of rhino in the world by saying “No!” to Fuleni mine to date. The signatures tally over 50,000. On top of this more than 100 people have registered as ‘Interested and Affected Parties’ (IAPs). A large portion of the IAPs are part of the Community and Wilderness Alliance (CAWA) that comprises over 60 national and international organisations (including the likes of the Wilderness Specialist Group of the IUCN, Switzerland, and Mining Affected Communities United in Action (MACUA).

The IAPs have called for specialist reports on water, wildlife, wilderness, dust and air pollution. “They also want a full analysis of the current value of the iMfolozi Wilderness Area and the land south of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP), including the eco-tourism value of a proposal to declare the area a nature reserve and incorporate areas of high biodiversity into the park,” says Sheila Berry, clinical and wilderness psychologist and spokesperson for the Wilderness Alliance.

I urge the public to be aware of what is really happening. Ways of voicing concern is through letters to the press and to the people in charge, to join us in fighting a cause, signing the Avaaz petition, to protest against the mine. Also important is to acknowledge their personal ties to iMfolozi and to put their foot down to stop Ibutho Coal. We must unify as one entity. The more of us that know the true story, the bigger difference we can make. DM


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