Mines target the Free State and the North West

Reports of two prospecting licences being granted for 354 locations in the Free State and the North West have sent shockwaves through the agricultural community.
Issue date : 05 November 2010

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One of the licences was issued to the ANC-linked Imperial Crown Trading (ICT) for coal prospecting along the Vaal River in the northern Free State and adjacent areas of the North West.  

According to Gareth Morgan, the DA’s shadow minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, this poses a significant threat to the high-potential agricultural and ecologically-sensitive area adjacent to the Vaal. “We’ve seen the assault on high-potential lands in other provinces, notably Mpumalanga. South Africa can ill afford to lose more agricultural land to mining,” he said.

A department out of control

When it comes to prospecting and mining licences, the coordination between mineral resources and the departments of agriculture, water and environmental affairs is at best poor, said Morgan. “The Department of Mineral Resources is out of control. Not enough consideration is being given to the protection of food security in this country,” he added.And the Vaal River is already under considerable strain from pollution due to failing wastewater treatment works.

If water affairs was efficient and well-led, it might be able to manage the competing water users along this river, but the department is struggling to perform even the most basic of its compliance and enforcement functions, said Morgan.

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Mines are required by law to rehabilitate the land to its original state when mining comes to an end, but that’s just not possible with agricultural soils, said Agri SA president Johannes Möller. “The mining activities change the soil structure and condition irreparably. The water quality changes to such an extent that it usually ends up as a weak sulphurous acid solution which drains off in the rivers.

What happens is that the coal layers form a natural drainage layer, but when it’s removed, the water filters down to the layers of sulphides. The effect is evident in the rapidly declining quality of South Africa’s irrigation water.“

In addition, some mining companies file for bankruptcy as soon as the end of the mine’s lifespan is reached, leaving the terrain as is, said Möller.Also, the companies to whom the licences are issued need only to consult with landowners – they don’t have to negotiate, he warned.

“I know of one incident where the intention-to-prospect notification, complete with a map, was put up on a fence along the road. This was supposed to be a form of consultation. “I call on the farmers affected by the prospecting rights to contact Agri SA through their provincial structures. We’ll evaluate each farmer’s situation individually supported by Agri SA’s legal services.”

Yet another licence
Meanwhile, the state-owned African Exploration Mining and Finance Corporation (AEMFC) has also acquired a number of prospecting rights for both coal and gold in the Kroonstad region. Morgan said this was deeply problematic. The state, as majority shareholder of AEMFC, has applied for the granting of prospecting rights while also serving as the authority who awards those rights, he explained. Jan Potgieter, chairperson of Agri Viljoenskroon District Agricultural Union, said mining in this region will be disastrous, and they’ve already consulted a lawyer.

“We haven’t yet ascertained precisely how many hectares might be affected, but given the number of prospecting spots, it must be huge. We have top soils with good clay layers that retain moisture exceptionally well. How on earth can this be rehabilitated to its original state after mining?”

Viljoenskroon lawyer David Senekal said the entire process seems to be steeped in chaos. “Some of the farmers did receive letters informing them of the intention to apply for prospecting rights. That was all. There were no follow up consultations. “The matter was further complicated by the fact that the letters were sent by various consultants on behalf of the companies,” he added. “One doesn’t know who to talk to. However, we’ve set the ball rolling and will hopefully get the answers we need soon.”