Promised land undermined

As secretary of the Mpumalanga Lakes District Protection Group (MLDPG) Koos Pretorius has battled possibly-illegal coal-mining licenses threatening his organic cherry farm since 2006. Koos contends that the carelessness of the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) could cause the long-term destruction of one of our country’s most pristine agricultural areas. Susan Botes spoke to him.
Issue Date: 28 September 2007

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As secretary of the Mpumalanga Lakes District Protection Group (MLDPG) Koos Pretorius has battled possibly-illegal coal-mining licenses threatening his organic cherry farm since 2006. Koos contends that the carelessness of the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME) could cause the long-term destruction of one of our country’s most pristine agricultural areas. Susan Botes spoke to him.

Just to put things into perspective – how many farms on the Mpumalanga escarpment are we talking about when we refer to farms and mining?
More than 80% of all farms south of Dullstroom and north of Ermelo have either mining or prospecting licenses or license applications on them – about 114 farms in total. The constitutional court has ruled that if a development – such as mining – which might affect the environment is planned, a sustainability study is needed, including a cumulative impact assessment. At the moment the DME doesn’t refuse licenses if such studies haven’t been conducted.

What is the situation with Black Gold Coal Estates and where are you currently in the legal battle? In June 2006 Black Gold Coal Estates obtained mining rights to a farm next to organic farmer Pierre duHain, just outside Chrissiesmeer. MLDPG obtained an interdict against them in August 2006 because we believe the license was granted wrongfully. Through the record of decision the minister of Minerals and Energy, Buyelwa Sonjica, was to hand over all records used by the department to grant the mining license. DME handed over a poor attempt at a 58-page document. We told them this couldn’t be all the information. Although the second attempt was better, there were still numerous documents outstanding. In January 2007 the court forced the minister and the department’s deputy director general to hand over all documents, as there was still about 46 outstanding. The sheriff of the court was asked to inform the minister and deputy director general of the court’s decision and to make sure they were aware of the contents of the court order. Around May we received a letter stating that the minister and deputy director general were aware of the court’s decision. They supplied more documents in August 2007, but I want to know whether they realise that they can be held in contempt of court? There are still documents outstanding and we may want to call the minister and deputy director general in to tell us – in court – why we’re still waiting for documentation that should be in their possession. We will hopefully have settled this whole dispute by early next year.

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How does the new Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Bill affect you? It has no relevance to our case, as it was amended only after the mining rights were granted and the interdict was granted against Black Gold Coal Estates. The court case is only a background issue to a much bigger problem: DME’s view that they can allow mining without integration in the decision and planning stages and without the necessary information at their disposal, which the constitutional court found to be required.

Why would you want to remain on the Mpumalanga escarpment and fight for farming rights when you can start farming elsewhere? There is only 122 000ha of highly productive land in Mpumalanga – some of the most desirable land in the country. The escarpment forms a large part of this. The area has very fertile soil and limited resources and mining would destroy both. What I would like to know is which is better in terms of sustainability: mining, which has a temporary profit and long-lasting social and environmental cost, or other land uses, including agriculture? T he mining pollution at Loskopdam has made headlines recently.

How does the impact of mining there differ from that at Lake Chrissie? After decades of coal mining in the Loskopdam’s catchment area, the dam’s pH has dropped from 7 to 6. The moment the dam reaches a pH of 5 all the irrigation farmers downstream may loose their EurepGAP accreditation due to the negative impacts associated with the acidity of water. These include heavy metals becoming soluble in water. This problem will worsen when mining starts in the higher-up headwaters near the Mpumalanga Lakes District, because this is near where Loskop Dam’s main feeder, the Olifants River, originates. Currently the clean water from here is diluting the acidic water from the mines lower in the catchment. If the Olifants River’s headwaters are also contaminated, it will spell the end of socio-economic development in the area. The Olifants River’s origin also borders on the catchment areas with the Vaal River, Komati River, uMpuluzi River, and Usutu River as they all originate from the area around Lake Chrissie. Bordering these rivers’ catchment areas are the lakes, including Lake Chrissie. These lakes don’t have any outflow, therefore the acid mine drainage and heavy metals will poison them much quicker than Loskop Dam. Once they’re lost, nothing will restore them.

Why would you say that mining isn’t sustainable or cost effective? Just the limestone which will be needed to neutralise acid mine drainage will increase the cost of mining by about R30/t or R50/t. Then a purifying plant will have to be erected, and will have to work in perpetuity. The income will cease, while the costs remain forever. Basic economics 101 tells me this spells trouble. Prof Terence McCarthy says that acid mine drainage can be treated with limestone.
What do you think? It will definitely neutralise the acid, but we will then sit with other issues, such as the formation of gypsum (calcium sulphate). As there’s no outflow, once mine water has started flowing into Lake Chrissie and other pans in the Mpumalanga Lake District nothing can be done to alter it. The unique chemical character of each pan will be changed to sulphate and gypsum. The only solution will be to treat all water before it reaches the pans. This will have to happen in perpetuity. It is simple to say “shut down coal mining”, but coal mining drives our country’s energy.

What is your solution to this? We need coal, and at the moment we have about 50 billion tons in reserve that can be extracted. Annually Eskom burns about 110 to 115 million tons to supply us with power. If we exclude exports, we’ll have enough coal to supply us with energy for the next 500 years, but we need to explore alternatives to coal and alternative coal mining areas. You’ll find our coal reserves from Durban to Bloemfontein and the Free State, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu Natal, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. All these coal reserves are either very shallow or deep in the ground. Ask what the cost will be to mine these areas and take the social, economic and environmental impacts into consideration. Although it might be more expensive to extract the coal in these areas, the cost on other levels will be much lower. The coal seams in many of these areas are much thicker than in Mpumalanga. For example, the coal in Limpopo is layered between 40m and 100m thick, while it is only 2,5m in Mpumalanga’s escarpment. The impact on arable land is minimised since less land has to be mined for the same tonnage of coal.

What would your advice be to farmers in similar situations? To get involved with actions against the violation of their human rights. We have formed a new organisation, which has the backing of the esteemed advocate, George Bizos, who heads the Legal Resource Centre. They’re going to assist us with issues that violate constitutional or human rights. The organisation, which is a federation of different environmental organisations from all around the country, will be up and running within the next month. Unfortunately, farmers will have to fight their own battles on their farms and districts. I’m working on a document sketching the basic background information needed in a landowner/occupier versus mining license case. Seeing one’s attorney is vital for expert advice. We are using Cameron Cross of Centurion and Duard Barnard & Associates and they’ve given us vital advice.

Why do you say mining licenses granted on land under land claim are illegal? Once a mining license has been granted a farm is as good as sold. All a farmer can do is quibble with the mine over the price of the land, but the property basically becomes useless for agriculture. This is especially hard on farmworkers and -dwellers, as in many cases they’re left with nothing and nowhere to go. Not even new job opportunities, as mines bring in their own outside contractors. I see licenses on agricultural land under land claim as illegal, as it raises the question of exactly whose land has been “sold out”. One cannot apply for a water use license without a letter from the land claims commission, but DME is simply granting mining licenses on property that hasn’t been mined previously, despite the fact that the land claims aren’t yet settled. If a claimant is successful and receives his or her property, there’s no water, no coal and the land is infertile – of course it will look as though land restitution has failed. Who can farm on that? Thus agricultural BEE has to make way for mining BEE. It’s doomed to failure. You don’t think government is “innocent” in this regard? The state knows about problems such as acid mine drainage, but pollution is big business. Not having to pay for one’s pollution makes up a big slice of the profit. In the same breath mines are trying to minimise their costs. When a mining company has finished mining in a specific area, it needs to apply for closure. It is important to note that it needs to “apply”, and not actually be granted permission. Once closure has been granted, the pollution becomes the state’s problem. We can use the example of an abandoned mine near my farm. In 2001 they finished mining and left the mine unrehabilitated. In 2003 we asked the manager to come and rehabilitate the area. In April 2004 we wrote a letter to the DME. Later they replied, saying that they wanted to do a site inspection. However, they didn’t know where the mine was situated. This was eight years after the mine had opened and DME didn’t know where it was! In the meantime, the farm remained unrehabilitated while the mining company received a prospective mining license for the farm next door. Today the company has changed its name due to BEE, but although it has a 50% BEE partnership, it’s still the same miners at the core. Contact Cameron Cross on 012 643 0872. |fw