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Culture or coal? Iron Age site under threat

 The Big Issue South Africa 20 September 2019

With the granting of mining rights, an environmental and political storm is brewing over one of South Africa’s most cherished national parks, reports Albert Buhr. (1286 Words) - By Albert Buhr

The Big Issue South Africa_culture or coal

Mapungubwe National Park. Photo: The Big Issue SA

The recent granting of mining rights to Australian-owned company Coal of Africa (CoAL) by South Africa's Department of Mineral Resources is causing consternation among conservation NGOs, and is creating nationwide concern.

Mapungubwe National Park in the extreme north of South Africa was originally settled by Iron Age inhabitants roughly 1000 years ago, and was named after the ancient Kingdom of Mapungubwe, but now the proposed construction of an opencast and underground coal mine within 5km of the borders of the park, and within about 25km from the sensitive Mapungubwe Hill, has environmentalists, park operators and some game lodge owners up in arms.

Mapungubwe Hill is a cherished archaeological site that gives the area its Unesco World Heritage status. Despite CoAL's assurances to the contrary, many fear that the area's natural and cultural offerings will be compromised.

"We believe that the mine's environmental management programme is fatally flawed in a number of areas," says Nick Hilterman, president of the Mapungubwe Action Group, an umbrella organisation which represents land claimants and local farmers. "The department [of mineral resources] didn't apply their minds, they just rubber-stamped this and awarded the mining licence illegally," he alleges.

Riaan van der Merwe, CoAL's chief operations officer, responds: "We believe that this activity can coexist in harmony with the other activities in that area. Because, in terms of our designs, we will apply responsible mining technology and mining methods.

The company has pledged US$44 m (R320m) to be spent on environmental and social projects, including measures to reduce noise and dust, as well as a nursery to plant indigenous trees. However, South African National Parks, an agency that reports to the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs, is deeply concerned.

"The bottom line is we're opposing it," says spokesman Reynold Thakhuli.

Fears of a second 'gold rush

Hilterman is also far from convinced, and foresees further consequences: "Anglo Coal is prospecting very heavily on farms right opposite Mapungubwe. We fear the approval [for CoAL] will lead Anglo to proceed." Moketsi Mofokeng, a spokesperson for Anglo Coal, has confirmed that the company has been conducting initial explorations in the area. Hilterman fears what he calls a "second gold rush".

"We need to be mindful this develop-ment will open the door, as it were, for further similar types of development in the region," agrees Werner Myburgh, chief executive officer of the Peace Parks Foundation.

An appeal against the mine has been lodged by several leading NGOs and environmental groups in South Africa, including the Endangered Wildlife Trust, the Peace Parks Foundation, the Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists, the Mapungubwe Action Group, the Wilderness Foundation South Africa, the World Wide Fund for Nature, and BirdLife South Africa. The appellants are being represented by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Mapungubwe boasts a history of some significance for South Africa. Mary Leslie, an archaeologist at the South Africa Heritage Resources Agency, explains: "The history that was uncovered by the excavations at Mapungubwe, combined with the oral history, tells us that this was one of the first stratified, complex    societies in southern Africa, and it changed the history books."

The area around Mapungubwe Hill was inhabited starting around 1030 AD. A century later, Mapungubwe's royal family moved to the top of the sandstone hill while about 5 000 commoners continued to live on the plain below. The graves of dignitaries from this time have also been uncovered around the hilltop. These surprisingly contained elaborate gold artefacts and glass beads from India, indicating that the people of Mapungubwe were skilful craftsmen and successful traders.

The site was abandoned around 1290 AD, and rediscovered in the 1930s. However, the discovery was repeatedly hushed up through the decades that followed, as it contradicted the apartheid regime's ideology that ancient blacks were uncivilised.

Now Mapungubwe Hill has become a major attraction for both local and foreign tourists since the national park was established in 2004. The park also hosts an abundance of wildlife, including elephants and lions.

Jobs vs heritage

High level negotiations are taking place within the government over the future of the site and the possible consequences of the proposed coal mine. These deliberations are thanks to the appeal lodged by numerous concerned parties. The appeal was brought on the grounds that CoAL's environmental management programme is in breach of South Africa's Protected Areas Act of 2003. Specifically, the appeal states, it misrepresents the true consequences of mining in the area, and is premised on fundamentally erroneous assumptions regarding the nature of the mining to be done. The appropriate methods of evaluating its impact and the possibility of effectively managing or mitigating such impacts has also been brought into question.

Concern has also been raised over the failure of the approval process to comply with the public consultation required in terms of the Act. It says that relevant persons and communities, including affected parties in Zimbabwe and Botswana, which border this mine, were either ignored, their specific concerns were ignored, or they were not consulted at all when they should have been.

"We believe it's going to be a senior government decision as to whether the country is committed to its heritage, nature and its national parks, or whether it's actually hell-bent on industrialisation of every piece of land that we've got," said a visibly emotional Paul Hatty, owner of a game lodge next to the national park. Hatty says he is aware of CoAL's proposed environmental measures, but he doesn't believe they'll prevent the area from being spoiled.

"My little operation, obviously it's very important. It's my life," Hatty says. But what is more important, he continued, is "this whole heritage area. Are we willing to just throw it away and just disregard it and let it be covered in a whole pile of coal dust?"

Indeed, the final decision now places President Jacob Zuma's administration in a very difficult position, due to the tough economic climate. Most of the country's environmental organisations will be watching with bated breath to see where the government's priorities lie. One of the biggest arguments in favour of the development is the huge employment it will create. The Limpopo province, where Mapungubwe is located, is one of the poorest in the country. CoAL claims its mine will employ up to 2 600 permanent and temporary workers at any one time. What's more, they estimate the mine will end up creating a total of 28 000 direct and indirect jobs.

"In the past we have refused to grant rights when the environmental management measures were not deemed satisfactory," says Bheki Khumalo, spokesperson for the Department of Mineral Resources. However, he added, job creation is also one of the factors taken into account when deciding whether to grant mining rights.

Tourism contributes a sizeable portion to South Africa's gross domestic product, but at an unemployment rate of 23.5%, Africa's largest economy is in desperate need of jobs

"Opening the door will be allowing an avalanche of similar developments," warns Myburgh. "It's not only mines, it's the associated infrastructure. We've got tourism here; it's a success. The mine has a 30-year lifespan, but permanently changes the landscape. If you have this industrial land use change taking place, what is the impact on the most important cultural heritage of southern Africa?"

For more information on the campaign to prevent mining in the Mapungubwe National Park, visit:

Originally published by The Big Issue South Africa ©

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