What’s more important, a new coal mine or a national park and World Heritage Site? This issue is currently being resolved at a place called Mapungubwe on South Africa’s northern border.
In the sooty black corner: the Australian-owned mining company Coal of Africa Limited (CoAL) that is proposing to open its Vele Colliery in South Africa’s Limpopo Province as soon as possible.
In the green corner: a coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) deeply concerned about the impact the mine will have on the Mapungubwe National Park, an ecologically, culturally and historically significant area just a few kilometers down the road.
Wildlife, the environment and history are at stake
The Mapungubwe National Park is located at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers on South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe and Botswana in a biodiverse area of open savannah, indigenous woodlands and baobab trees. The park is home to a wide variety of animal and plant species, including some 400 kinds of birds. It’s also part of the planned Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Park, which will one day straddle the borders of the three adjoining countries.
What makes Mapungubwe unique is that it’s a site of major archaeological and cultural importance that carries evidence for over 50,000 years of human settlement dating back to the Stone Age and before. In 1932, researchers discovered the hilltop palace and royal graves of a sophisticated pre-colonial civilization which is now considered to have been the capital of southern Africa’s oldest kingdom.
The people who settled the Limpopo Valley between around 900 and 1300 AD established Mapungubwe as a centre of regional and international trade some 800 years ago. While the king and his entourage inhabited the top of Mapungubwe hill, as many as 5,000 of his subjects lived in the surrounding plains. They cultivated grains and cotton and domesticated cows, cattle, dogs and goats. They manufactured attractive pottery and mined and worked gold, copper and iron. They also traded gold and ivory with Arab, Chinese and Indian caravans.
The most famous artifact discovered at Mapungubwe is an exquisite sculpture of a rhinoceros covered in gold foil.
In 2003, Unesco recognized the “Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape” as a World Heritage Site.
Enter King Coal
At the beginning of 2010, CoAL, a company that owns several coal mines in South Africa, was awarded a mining license for the Vele site right next to the Mapungubwe National Park by the South African Department of Minerals. They wasted little time in starting construction work on the infrastructure of the mine despite the fact that the environmental impact assessment for the project was still under way and they had not received an official water use license — a criminal offense under the National Water Act. Soon they had flattened hectares of indigenous forest and giant baobab trees.
Alarmed by these developments, a coalition of NGOs brought legal action against the project. The coalition fears that coal mining activities will have detrimental socio-economic impacts, cause water, air, noise and light pollution, threaten important wildlife habitats, undermine eco-tourism and agriculture and destroy part of the area’s important cultural and historical heritage.
In August 2010, the Department of Environmental Affairs ordered a stop to all activities at Vele because of non-compliance with the National Environmental Management Act. While this was a positive development, things have taken a worrying turn lately. In April of this year, the Department of Water Affairs granted CoAL an integrated water-use license and this month, the company paid R9.25 million (about US$ 1.3 million) to the Department of Environmental Affairs as part of a “rectification application” for their earlier transgressions.
We’re now waiting for the Minister of Environmental Affairs to either order CoAL to close down and rehabilitate the site permanently or to grant the environmental application to proceed with mining. At this stage, there is no activity at Vele, but CoAL’s CEO John Wallington is on record as stating that the company is “very close to a resolution at Vele.” In addition to the colliery, there are plans to build a coal-fired power station next to the mine.
The coalition of NGOs has vowed to continue the fight by appealing the Department of Water Affairs’ decision to issue a water-use license and will take the matter to the High Court if necessary.
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——Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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