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South Africa is facing legal action in the high court and censure by the World Heritage Commission in Paris for its apparent failure to safeguard its first world heritage site from a massive new harbour and industrial complex in southern Mozambique.
Lawyers say the harbour complex poses a “serious and imminent threat” to the neighbouring iSimangaliso world heritage site (St Lucia) and argue that the case could end up in the International Court of Justice in The Hague for a legal opinion on the international obligation of nations to protect areas judged to have unique universal value.
Worried about the impact of the proposed Ponto Techobanine coal harbour complex on the iSimangaliso world heritage site, lawyers acting for local environmental groups have written to the SA government to urge ministers to use diplomatic pressure to dissuade Mozambique from going ahead with the harbour plan until all the environmental, social and economic costs have been examined at a regional level.
Durban-based environmental law specialist Jeremy Ridl said the proposed new harbour south of Maputo was larger than Richards Bay (currently among the world’s largest coal ports) and would handle up to 200 million tons of freight, oil, petrol and fertiliser.
Previous attempts to build a similar harbour were abandoned in the late 1990s after environmental impact studies suggested the project would cause irreversible harm to the marine environment and coastline.
Now the plan has been revived with support of the Mozambican government which has also published the boundary lines of the new project, on the doorstep of the Maputo Elephant Reserve and Ponta do Ouro candidate world heritage site.
Ridl, acting for the Aqua Terra Movement Mozambique, has written to Edna Molewa, the SA Environment Minister, and Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, urging them to act quickly to avert the potentially serious threats to the adjoining iSimangaliso Wetland Park and to protect “this important part of our global natural heritage”.
The iSimangaliso heritage park – which stretches from Lake St Lucia in the south to the southern border of Mozambique at Kosi Bay – was declared SA’s first world heritage site in 1999 and also forms part of a bilateral project to link the two nations via a transfrontier conservation and tourism zone.
Aqua Terra, whose members include former campaigners against dune mining at St Lucia, fear that a major harbour/industrial zone in the middle of a marine and wild-life conservation area will derail the development of regional tourism projects.
In his letter to the two ministers in early March, Ridl said his client would have no option but to seek relief in the high court if SA failed to act to protect iSimangaliso and honour legal obligations under the World Heritage Convention and regional conservation treaties.
Ridl said it was vital to act quickly as the planning of the harbour had reached “an advanced stage and construction may start soon”.
If Mozambique did not “bow to diplomatic pressure” SA could declare a dispute and have the matter determined by the International Court of Justice.
Ridl told The Mercury yesterday that ministers had not responded and he was preparing legal papers for the high court. Aqua Terra had threatened legal action “with reluctance” as its members did not wish to adopt a confrontational approach.
“However, the situation calls for urgent action, and if government does not act with due diligence and urgency, the assistance of the courts will have to be enlisted.
“Just as the principles of good corporate governance apply to a private corporation and demand of its directors that they act appropriately to protect the assets of their company, so too, it is submitted, is it your duty as the corporate managers of SA’s natural assets to act decisively to ensure their protection.”
Aqua Terra had also written to the UN World Heritage Centre in Paris, urging it to consider action against both SA and Mozambique.
One of the main objectives was to ensure that the Ponta Techobanine plan was sub-jected to a “credible, independent environmental impact assessment (EIA)” along with full disclosure of the harbour plans locally and internationally.
Major ecological concerns involved the impact of petro-chemical pollution, dredging and blasting on fish, coral and other marine species linked to the greater iSimangaliso ecosystem.
This included subsistence fishing communities that operated fish traps at Kosi Bay and regional movement of fish life between the two nations.
“The construction of a harbour and massive industrial zone in this sensitive environment will be seriously detrimental to the growing tourism industry.”
The exact identity of those backing the Ponta Techobanine harbour remains unclear, but the Chinese and Botswana governments and multinational coal mining groups have been linked to the project. Mozambican government officials could not be reached for comment yesterday, with previous attempts to solicit comment met with caution.
The Environmental Affairs Department and International Relations and Co-operation Department did not respond to queries.