Last month, South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources issued a local mining company called Bongani Minerals with a license to prospect for tungsten ore in the headwaters of Verlorenvlei, a wetland system of international significance on the country’s West Coast.
Local residents are understandably shocked at the Department’s decision. If Bongani Minerals end up exploiting the Riviera Tungsten deposit, which contains an estimated 10.86 million tons of low-grade ore and is believed to be the world’s sixth biggest tungsten deposit, they are expected to establish a 20- to 50-hectare open-cast mine that will be excavated to a depth of 200 meters. This mine would threaten a unique ecosystem as well as the livelihood of many local inhabitants.
What’s at stake?
The proposed mine is located in the Moutonshoek Valley, which is upstream of the Verlorenvlei wetland and provides some 60% of its water. The wetland is comprised of a 1.500 hectare lake connected to the Atlantic Ocean by a small estuary. One of few coastal freshwater lakes in South Africa, Verlorenvlei is one of the country’s largest natural wetlands and one of its most important estuarine ecosystems.
During the summer months, the lake and estuary are home to as many as 20.000 birds, including several threatened species. Of the more than 180 bird species identified, many are migrant visitors from the northern hemisphere and 75 are water birds including herons, spoonbills, flamingos and the rare Great White Pelican.
Verlorenvlei is a critically important summer refuge and molting ground for a number of duck species, including the South African Shelduck and the Yellowbilled Duck. In 1991, it was designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, the international treaty that deals with the conservation of wetlands.
Part of the Greater Cederberg Biodiversity Corridor and located in a transition zone between two distinct regional vegetation types, the area hosts a great variety of plant species and the fertile Moutonshoek Valley is occupied by long-established, export-oriented fruit farms that are largely dependent on ground water for irrigation.
On top of all this, archaeologists have emphasised the scientific importance of the region, which has been occupied by humans more or less continuously for over 100,000 years.
What are the concerns?
Conservationists have expressed grave concerns over the potentially destructive environmental impacts of the proposed mine. The tungsten deposit is located beneath two aquifers that feed the valley and which would have to be intersected to gain access to the ore. Besides the risk of ground and surface water pollution, the de-watering of the mining area risks reducing the natural flow and recharge into the wetland, threatening the long-term survival of this complex, but fragile ecosystem.
The mine and its associated infrastructure would present a serious threat to local biodiversity, tourism and agriculture, which is the major source of employment for the local population.
These disastrous and irreversible long-term impacts have to be weighed up against the fact that the mine would have an estimated lifetime of less than 20 years.
Members of the Verlorenvlei Coalition, which includes local residents, landowners, farm workers, environmental organizations and civil society groups, have been calling for a moratorium on mining activities which they argue are entirely inappropriate for the area. They have announced that they will be lodging an appeal against the prospecting license issued by the Department of Mineral Resources. Let’s hope they are successful in their efforts.
I really wish I didn’t have to keep writing stories about beautiful, culturally significant and ecologically fragile places that are being threatened by mining and so-called development. But I guess until the powers that be realize that they can’t simply sell off our heritage – our environment and our history – to the highest bidder just to satisfy the never-ending hunger for profit, “growth” and “progress,” I guess I’ll just have to continue doing just that. If enough of us shout loud enough, we might just get them to stop making stupid and short-sighted decisions.
Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
Photo from: Stock.Xchng