Defend Truth


As greed grips the West Coast, consequences of our choices are becoming ever more urgent


Christy Bragg works as a freelance writer. She has an MSc in Conservation Biology and has been acknowledged as a Mail & Guardian Climate Change leader. She has worked for more than 15 years in the sustainable development sector, conservation, climate change adaptation and environmental management, and knows a lot about porcupines.

Human greed is our common ground. We are spending too much of our ‘Earth-money’ – the natural resources that underpin the health and resilience of our ecosystems. If we ignore the consequences, it will be us humans who are at risk of extinction, at our own hands.

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.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    What a beautiful truthful piece of writing,should be a prescribed read in every class from grade 8

  • Gordon Laing says:

    A very powerful piece indeed. Should be spread and supported far and wide. EIAs are a form of death by a thousand cuts as they do not consider the broader context. It is not only the West Coast that is severely impacted by their limitations – just look at Urban Sprawl where an EIA will give support at the localised level but not consider the broader issues being compounded that would be considered under a strategic assessment approach.

  • Richard Bryant says:

    Take a drive from Honderklip Bay north to Alexander Bay along the coast. That vast area is a maze of deep gully’s and mountains of silt, rusting machinery, abandoned buildings, monster tyres, barbed wire etc all left behind after decades of exploitation. In their place are teams of bandits from all the worlds desperate places sifting through the mountains of silt in the hope of finding a microscopic glittering stone.

    Now they are busy south of Honderklip Bay. All the same promises of responsible mining and restoration. But as the mines reach saturation, they are sold on to small scale operators who couldn’t care less about restoration and the original owners long gone floating around the Caribbean Sea in their super yachts.

  • Brian Cotter says:

    Just above this comment block is the Anneli Kamfer remake of the Eve of Destruction. Play it for effect.

  • Michele Rivarola says:

    There is no honour amongst thieves. Far too many EIAs are compiled by guns for hire who would justify anything for a buck. A case in point are all the applications for seismic surveys and drilling permits for oil and gas. There will always be a so called scientist for hire. The problem is the endemic selective ignorance in the DMRE and DEAFF when they approve these ludicrous applications leaving joe/joanne public no other option but to fight them in court. What the DMRE and DEAFF and fossil fuel sycophant staff conveniently forget is that they are entrusted with the custodianship of our natural wealth for the benefit of or future generations and not for the benefit of their friends, family, political supporters and political sponsors.

  • Deon Botha-Richards says:

    Seismic surveys have been associated with impacts on marine life but not actually proven to be destructive. Everyone who ever objects always says they have been associated with. That not enough reason to stop development.

    There’s more than enough proof through surveying existing hydrocarbon extraction sites to show what the impact is. And except for very rare extreme leaks these are positive.

  • Willem Boshoff says:

    The great battle of the next generation isn’t east vs west or communism vs capitalism; it is sustainability vs oblivion. All strength to those who fight for nature and a healthy planet.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Individuals will never be able to achieve anything. Governments on the other hand are entrusted by the people to empower dedicated teams of experts to craft strategies geared to protecting us all, both now and into the future; which by necessity includes biodiversity and ecosystem preservation, both locally and globally in conjunction with experts from other countries. The government is then expected to turn these strategies into legal frameworks which they enforce for our common good.

    Our government is failing us in this regard utterly and completely, as it is in so many other regards.

    So I will say again, the biggest power we all have as individuals to effect change is through our vote. So wake up, drop the colour crap and vote for a party that cares for all our people and our country, a party that has ethical responsibility and an understanding of what makes good governance. Vote DA damnitall. We’re out of time South Africa.

  • Welma Odendaal says:

    A further point is that the West Coast has become the target of runaway development. Huge housing estates are in planning stages in towns such as Yzerfontein, which has no water-borne sewerage system, no water, one access road, and no job opportunities. What it does have is areas of pristine coastal fynbos with high numbers of species, several rare plants, and many West Coast endemics which need protection.

  • David Le Page says:

    An important and sensitive call for us to take responsibility, but I must strongly disagree with you in saying that ‘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.’ The mines and fossil fuel companies love this narrative – we’re just meeting demand, they say – while behind the scenes they often scrabble to rig the playing field in their favour, lying, buying, corrupting, stealing and exploiting.

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