SIX MORE of the planet’s natural wonders have been declared World Heritage Sites – two of them in Africa.
The new sites, added during the World Heritage Committee’s recent meeting in Russia, are:
n Sangha Trinational, a chain of national parks shared between Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo.
n The lakes of Ounianga, 18 mostly freshwater lakes in the Sahara desert in north-eastern Chad.
n The Chengjiang fossil site in Yuann Province, China, one of the key sites for understanding the early evolution of life on Earth.
n Lena Pillars Nature Park in Russia, known for its wildlife and spectacular natural rock formations along the Lena River.
n Western Ghats in India, a global biodiversity hotspot and home to a number of flagship mammals, including the endangered tiger and endemic lion-tailed macaque.
n Rock Islands Southern Lagoon in the Pacific Ocean island country of Palau, a unique landscape of limestone islands, marine lakes and coral reefs.
The list now inscribes 962 properties that the World Heritage Committee, a 21-nation panel under the auspices of Unesco, deems to have “outstanding universal value”. These include 745 cultural, 188 natural and 29 mixed (cultural and natural) sites in 157 countries.
SA, which has eight proclaimed sites, is under pressure from the committee because it has sanctioned opencast coal mining and approved other mining applications in the contested buffer zone of the 28 000ha Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape in Limpopo that was inscribed in 2003. Part of this ancient landscape is protected within the Mapungubwe National Park. Mapungubwe, in the north-west corner of SA, contains artifacts of a rich and highly sophisticated Iron Age trading kingdom that had links with China, India and Arabia. Its savannah landscape includes palace sites and dependent settlement areas of the kingdom that flourished there between the 10th and 14th centuries AD – predating the neighbouring Great Zimbabwe complex. Items found by archaeologists from Pretoria University include a gold rhino statue, gold bowls and jewellery and a royal sceptre.
In November 2010 the World Heritage Committee sent a “reactive monitoring mission” to investigate issues of concern at Mapungubwe, followed in January this year by a second mission.
Issues investigated included the additional heritage impact assessment (HIA) that had been requested, to be able to assess the potential impact of the proposed large-scale coal mining at Vele to the east of the property. This report was submitted to the committee by the Department of Environmental Affairs in November last year.
The monitoring missions also had to examine the buffer zones and consider the overall state of conservation of the property.
The most recent mission reported that opencast coal mining had resumed and said they’d been told the mining company, Coal of Africa, wanted to reach full production by March.
“The open pit site which is at Vele colliery, in its current form, is only a limited version of the open pit that Coal of Africa will move forward across the landscape once they put their mining operations in to full speed. Yet, the visual impact of even this ‘small’ intrusion in the landscape is substantial and will not only destroy any cultural heritage showing up in its way, but will obviously also modify the cultural landscape,” they said.
“Once the opencast mines are refilled and the bush replanted, what remains will be a cultural landscape of coal mining, not a cultural landscape of the K2 and Mapungubwe (archaeological) periods.
“Therefore, the mission team does not agree with the statement of the HIA that the impacts of mining at Vele on the ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ of Mapungubwe cultural landscape will be minimal.”
It noted that the K2 archaeological area at Mapungubwe had “seriously deteriorated”, so much so that the property risked being placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The mission recommended the buffer zone delineated in 2009 should be increased. The major threat was opencast mining and there was the potential for huge tracts of land around the property to be “irreversibly damaged in a similar way” and “no mitigation measures are possible to reduce the impact of the opencast mining”.
The committee has asked SA to submit information clarifying Mapungubwe’s boundaries, including the buffer zone, before February 1 next year. It also asked SA to ensure that any mining activities did not affect the site’s “outstanding universal value”.
The Environmental Affairs Department said in a statement last week: “South Africa remains committed to working with the World Heritage Committee in ensuring effective implementation of the convention, and will be co-operating to provide further information as requested.”