The cold currents swirling along the West Coast of South Africa lend blankets of mist to the coastal dunes and vygies, and send a shiver to the fisherwoman making her way down to her boat.
“We have been forgotten.”
When the mist lifts, it becomes clear that the West Coast is awash in mining applications. Some of these are for offshore oil and gas exploration, some are for minerals in the beach sands, and some of them are new applications on top of previously mined areas.
Some are perched precariously close to this dry region’s most precious resource — the rivers. Note to the reader: diamonds and moonstones are not our most precious resource. Diamonds are not drinkable. Garnets are not easily digested. Oil is not the answer.
We are forgetting what we need to survive: healthy ecosystems and clear waters; pollution-free seas with fish.
The lonely, wild beaches of our western shoreline are beautiful and treasured for their wildness, but by the same token, that very wildness has meant they lie in isolation and are at the mercy of the greed of humanity. Who will protect these ecosystems and communities? Who will be the voices of our Earth?
Perhaps you are triggered by the word “greed”. But I am admitting that greed is our common ground.
“The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; – Little we see in Nature that is ours.” Wordsworth got it right. Getting and spending.
Destructive, self-serving choices
Most of us have a cell phone containing little bits of mined minerals. We paid for these phones with paper and “debt” and with the death of little plants and animals. How have we become so disconnected from the consequences of our choices?
I use gas, I use electricity, I use petrol. I am as much to blame for the mines on the coast as the mining companies are.
We are spending too much of our “Earth-money”, the natural resources that underpin the health and resilience of our ecosystems. The West Coast is a case in point.
When (some) mining companies aren’t watched, they push boundaries — the Earth’s boundaries. Rehabilitation is not done properly, checks and balances are overlooked, swathes of damage build up and the Earth’s damaged skin is left torn, in strips and tatters. Her vulnerable underbelly lies exposed.
When regulation is not enforced, rehabilitation plans slip-slide away, and then there is no band-aid to help Earth to recover. Who is going to bandage her wounds now? The next lot of miners? No. Civil society? No, they do not have the resources to heal the deep wounds of mining. Government? They do not have the funds either. So how do we solve this impasse?
People who have never had to appeal against a mining application will tell you that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is the solution. Bitter experience has shown me that it is not. It has its place, but it is severely constrained by its lack of a power punch behind the Public Participatory Process.
This process, which should in essence be the voice of the people, has become a tick-box exercise.
A farmer who needs clean water for his crops can object to a proposed mining application because it will impact the hydrology of the landscape. His comment will be “noted”. And that’s where the objection then resides — in the land of the “noted”.
We note that you have a legitimate concern. If you have enough money to put up a legal fight, we will consider you seriously. If not, your concern is not worth our attention. Particularly if we are exploring for oil, because we know that your country has rolling blackouts and we have desperate politicians who are over our barrel of oil.
EIAs are also limited to localised contexts. If you look at one little spot on the Earth, it might look like there won’t be any major impacts (particularly when a mining company plays little games, such as in a scoping assessment playing up the benefits of the anticipated full-scale mining operation whilst minimising the environmental impacts, by referring to only those caused by the exploratory stage).
Little impacts, big problems
When we pop all those “little impacts” into a necklace of impacts all down our West Coast, we begin to see the cumulative impacts, piling up the damage and strangling our ecosystems.
Take for example all the “little impacts” of each fossil fuel extraction.
We have over-polluted our atmosphere so much, using mined fossil fuels, that climate change has caused water temperature changes along the West Coast.
Warming temperatures and changes in saltiness and fisheries pressure have resulted in sardines and anchovies shifting eastwards and around Cape Agulhas.
This has had impacts on a bird species that has just as much right to exist on this planet as we have. The swimming tuxedo — aka the penguin — relies on sardines and their oily sustenance, but it no longer can find its favourite food. Its population is declining fast.
We still have to unravel what “downstream” impacts the loss of penguins has caused in marine ecosystems; some of these are not going to be kind to humankind. The loss of more “Earth-money”.’ We are all connected. When are we going to realise that?
What is the solution? Very simple. We need to hear the voices of those who are still in touch with Earth. On the West Coast, there are communities left behind, high and dry, when mines leave the area and take all their jobs and benefits with them.
There are fishermen and fisherwomen who have nothing but the seas to sustain them, and yet foreign oil and gas companies blaze in on the wings of a mission to “save SA from load shedding” to extract more climate change-causing fossil fuels from our seas (some of these countries do not allow offshore oil and gas in their own seas).
Offshore seismic exploration, which involves using airguns to generate intense sound waves for mapping the ocean floor in order to find oil, has been associated with various negative impacts on marine life.
As I write this, there are voices calling from the West Coast. Let us hear them.
The fishers of the West Coast are asking for what we all need — an updated Integrated Energy Plan for the country, a path for a just transition — just for the Earth, just for us.
For if we continue to spend all our “Earth-money”, we are going to go into debt — and who will be left to bail us out?
If we continue to mine our entire West Coast, we are undermining our own well-being. If we don’t keep a protective wing over the penguins, we will lose them and the role they play in our ecosystem. If we turn a blind eye to environmental rights infringements, we lose our “Earth-money”.
Hear the voices, South Africa. We seem to be in a war.
The Warm War of Man against Nature. Nature seems to be losing the battles, but we would be wise to consider that she has the staying power to win the war.
It’s us humans who are at risk of extinction, at our own hands. DM
To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.