The 1 100-year-old Mapungubwe World Heritage Site in Limpopo has been compromised by opencast coal mining.

South Africa has been blasted by UN World Heritage Committee experts for putting coal mining ahead of protecting one of the nation’s oldest cultural treasures, the 1 100-year-old Kingdom of Mapungubwe World Heritage Site.

A report tabled at the annual World Heritage Committee meeting this week warns that opencast coal mining by an Australian company poses a “major threat” to the integrity of Mapungubwe and could result in “unacceptable and irreversible damage” to huge strips of land in the vicinity.

It is expected the government will come under fire later this week from the world committee and will be called upon to halt any further opencast mining in the area, and to strengthen protection measures as a matter of urgency.

Mapungubwe, one of eight SA World Heritage Sites protected by an international convention because of their “outstanding universal value”, is an ancient stone citadel kingdom dating from around 900CE, and is located on the country’s northern border with Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Archaeological artefacts collected from royal graves – including a golden rhino, gold bowls and a royal sceptre – suggest the kingdom once enjoyed lucrative trading relations with China, India and Arabia.

An expert monitoring team which visited Mapungubwe earlier this year at the request of the UN World Heritage Committee warned that there was no effective way to mitigate the impacts of large-scale opencast mining by Australian mining house Coal of Africa Limited, which would lead to “a highly detrimental impact” on the value of the Mapungubwe landscape.

They noted with concern that the SA Department of Minerals and Energy recently authorised more than 20 other mine prospecting leases for coal, petroleum and gas in the area – and the SA government appeared to have ignored previous pleas to put the mining on hold by quietly giving the nod to the Australian company to carry on mining.

The monitoring team included Lazare Eloundou, chief of the African unit of Unesco’s World Heritage Centre, and Dag Avango, a history researcher from the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology.

They were surprised to find that the Australian coal mining plant was 95 percent complete, despite an official government assurance that mining had been halted.

They were also handed lengthy protest notes from several cultural groups which complained they had not been consulted properly by the government or the Australians.

Vhangona Cultural Movement members said they found it ironic that an Australian company seemed to be ignoring their rights as the aboriginal people of Mapungubwe.

“If we were to go to Australia to go mining at Ayer’s Rock (Uluru) when the people objected to this, should we calm them down by saying that we are going to create lots of jobs for the Aborigines, give their children bursaries and pay some royalties to their trust funds?”

Eloundou and Avango noted the world committee had asked SA to hold fire on mine development until a more thorough heritage impact assessment was compiled.

But when they visited the site it became “crystal clear” the Australian outfit had resumed its operations and stockpiled large volumes of coal.

The monitoring team was also critical of the findings of the belated heritage impact assessment, which seemed to take the view that there was no possibility of protecting some of the archaeological sites other than by fencing off, recording and then “destroying them”.

Some of the statements made in the heritage report, financed by the company, diminished its legitimacy and also “call its objectivity into question”.

The monitoring team report is due to be presented later this week to the UN World Heritage Committee in St Petersburg, Russia, along with a draft recommendation urging SA to halt any further opencast coal mining in the area.

Instead, the mining company should be asked to sacrifice some of its profits by using more expensive, underground mining techniques.

The monitoring team said it had been presented with evidence that the only reason the company was using the more damaging opencast mining method was to save money.

Eloundou and Avango said they were convinced the landscape around Mapungubwe would suffer “major devastation” from opencast mining and would be transformed into a “vast industrial landscape”. - The Mercury