Keeping the mines out and the Marico’s water pure

The struggle to save one of South Africa’s last untouched free-flowing rivers from the clutches of mining companies has seen commercial and communal farmers standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Jaco Visser visited the area and reports.

The Marico River, which feeds into the Limpopo, is one of the last untouched free-flowing rivers in South Africa.
Photo: Jaco Visser

The idea of a conservation area goes back a long way,” says Santie van Graan, a farmer just outside Groot Marico. “But there were too many stubborn people back then. Then the mines came – and all the farmers woke up quickly.” The sudden change of heart to which Santie is referring is focused on one of South Africa’s last untouched free-flowing rivers: the Marico.

Farmers and local community members, together with environmental organisations, have finally come together to preserve it – and their actions include lobbying to have thousands of hectares in the catchment area declared a biosphere reserve by the UN’s Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). Achieving this would make it harder for miners to prospect in the biologically sensitive catchment area of the river.

Another mine-halting plan by the local farmers – establishing a game reserve – is not a new idea. Santie and her late husband bought their 500ha farm some 20 years ago. At the same time they visited the Klaserie Game Reserve bordering the Kruger National Park. “Farmers in Klaserie had dropped the fences between their farms to allow the animals to roam more freely,” Santie explains. “Every farmer may hunt game straying onto his piece of land, but no farmer is allowed to kill animals on their neighbours’ land.”

Inspired by the concept, Santie and her husband were among the first to make their land available for a similar planned game reserve in the Marico. Twenty years later, the threat of mining has brought their dream closer to reality. It has also triggered the creation of other concerned groups. One of these is the Marico Catchment Conservancy Association (MCCA), which was formed in July 2010 as a result of mining group African Nickel’s plan to explore for anthracite in the area.

According to Daan van der Merwe, project manager of the MCCA, one of the association’s objectives is the preservation of the sensitive Marico catchment area, which includes 21 known springs eventually forming the Marico River, and two tufa waterfalls. To achieve this, 85 farmers in the catchment area signed up to become part of a biodiversity stewardship programme. Conservancy areas, nature reserves and protected environments are all included in the programme.

UNESCO
Yet another plan is to get Unesco to declare the catchment area a unique biosphere. This step is being driven by Steve Weaver of A Rocha, a Christian non-governmental organisation concerned with the environment. “This would put the area in the international spotlight and make mines’ exploration plans difficult as it would attract negative global publicity,” he says. According to Steve, 26 000ha belonging to 85 farmers have already been declared a conservancy by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa.

Daan adds that an application has been made to the minister of Water and Environmental Affairs for 10 000ha to be declared a nature reserve. He explains that he is one of six farmers on 6 000ha of land who would like to drop the fences between them – realising Santie’s 20-year-old dream. “There is already game on this land,” he notes. Steve points out another reason for environmental protection: the region is renowned for having the second-highest bird diversity in the country.

In terms of the biodiversity stewardship programme, a conservancy is the least onerous form of environmental protection available to landowners. A nature reserve, on the other hand, requires an addendum to landowners’ title deeds, while management of the land is regulated by the National Environmental Management Act (Nema). According to Daan, the participation of the farmers in the biodiversity stewardship programme has helped the MCCA’s objective to keep mining exploration in the area at bay.

Tribal authority
It is not only commercial farmers who are worried about the possible effect of mining on the Marico catchment area. Peter Phefo, a leader of the Bahurutse Boo-Mokgatlha traditional authority, says he became aware of the mines’ proposed exploration activities when he received a letter to attend a consultative meeting with African Nickel. He thereafter became involved in the operations of the MCCA.

Not long after this, Peter and his community experienced the results of environmental pollution first hand. In late January, raw sewage spilled into the river from the town of Groot Marico. The Mokgatlhas, downstream from the town, were severely affected by the spill and the Public Protector has confirmed it will investigate the matter. According to Daan, the custodians of 40 000ha of communal land are adopting the biodiversity stewardship programme.

A bigger issue
The Marico is part of the river system feeding the Limpopo River that forms part of the border between SA and Botswana. The Limpopo in turn is vital for the growing centres of Gaberone and surrounding towns, and by agreement, SA has to ensure that offtake does not lower river levels by too much. “A certain amount of water must pass through to Botswana,” explains Daan. “SA is already 36% in the red with supplying water to Botswana. No mine can get a water-use licence for the Marico River unless it pays a bribe for it.”

He adds that the MCCA is working with the Department of Water Affairs to reaffirm the Marico as a Class A river, according to the department’s classification of river health. “Class A and B rivers are mostly untouched and in their original state of ecological health,” he explains.

“The classification extends to F-type rivers which are the worst affected by human interference. Once you go below Class C, it’s almost impossible to reclaim the river. That’s why we’re pushing the department to reaffirm the Marico’s classification.” This reaffirmation will add firepower to the legal armoury of concerned farmers in the Marico’s catchment area.

Contact the Marico Catchment Conservancy Association on 083 239 6943.