Johannes Nkonyane and his partner, Khanyisile, believe the proposed coal mine will bring jobs to the struggling rural economy and improve prospects for their six children and 13 grandchildren. PICTURES: Nhlanhla Phillips
Durban – It's another rainy, misty day along the Drakensberg escarpment and Oubaas Malan is getting drenched. His wet grey hair is plastered on his head and his dark green suit is soaked. But the 67-year old farmer wouldn’t be anywhere else on earth.

“You see how much it rains here,” says Malan, as he trudges through the sensitive grasslands of the eastern Mpumalanga highveld, bordering KwaZulu-Natal. “This is a high rainfall area – we get about 1000mm a year. That’s more than double the national average. Ja, it’s very nice for us farmers.”

For 65 years, his family has reared sheep in the lush hills and deep valleys of Mabola, near Wakkerstroom, which locals describe as the “jewel” of the province.

With its vast network of springs, streams, wetlands and rivers, the Mabola region has been classified as a strategic water source area, a national freshwater ecosystem priority area, and an aquatic critical biodiversity area. It supplies thousands of people and farms, industries and towns, with clean water.

Locals draw their pristine drinking water directly from streams and mountain springs. “Our water is crystal clear,” boasts Malan, a tall man with an easy laugh.

But there’s a “curse” that runs beneath the ground – rich seams of black gold that Malan, and other local landowners, believe threatens their way of life. And the hunt for coal could soon bring Malan a new neighbour: Yzermyn, a controversial underground coal mine, run by an Indian mining company, Atha-Africa Ventures, which has been linked to relatives of President Jacob Zuma.

Last week, it emerged that the firm, which has never operated a coal mine in South Africa, secured the final signature it needed in August – that of Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa – to extract coal for the export market within the Mabola Protected Environment. But this was never publicly disclosed.

Commercial mining may take place in a protected environment only with the permission of the ministers of mineral resources and environmental affairs. For Malan, who vows to make it impossible for Atha-Africa to operate, Molewa’s green light is a blow.

Local farmer Oubaas Malan, the chairperson of the Mabola Protected Area, points out where the mine will operate. He believes the proposed mine will bring an end to his sheep farm, and worries that more mining companies will flock to Wakkerstroom because of its rich coal deposits.

“I’ve always known this area is rich in coal,” he says, surveying the scenic stretch of land where the surface area of the proposed mine will be located. “If this mine comes, and we hope it doesn’t, I’m worried our water will be poisoned.”

The declaration of the Mabola Protected Environment in January 2014, a pioneering effort of conservationists, local landowners and regional state conservation authorities, threw a safety net over more than 8 000ha of the region’s privately owned high-altitude grasslands and highly sensitive wetlands and pans that support endemic plant, bird and animal species and unique and endangered ecosystems.

But eight months later, in September 2014, former mineral resources minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi granted Atha-Africa’s mining rights.

The battle lines have been drawn, with the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) since launching a series of legal challenges to fight the project. It represents a broad-based coalition of eight civil society organisations spanning BirdLife SA, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, groundWork, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, the Bench Marks Foundation, the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of SA, the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the Association for Water and Rural Development.

Their fight to protect the Mabola Protected Environment is not only about preserving its rare and fragile biodiversity, but safeguarding South Africa’s water security over the next 30 years, particularly as the worsening impacts of climate change unfold. The region is the source of three major rivers – the Tugela, the Vaal, and the Pongola – that supports thousands of downstream users, who will be affected if they are potentially contaminated, they warn.

The area has been classified as one of 22 strategic water source areas – the 8% of land that provides more than 50% of the country’s freshwater, in projects supported by both the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA).

“If there ever was an example of a mining right that should never have been granted, it’s this one,” says Melissa Fourie, the CER’s executive director. “The mine poses significant risks to a sensitive and strategic water source area... on which thousands of downstream users are dependent – so pertinent in this time of drought. While offering minimal local employment, the mine also threatens existing tourism and agriculture jobs.”

Molewa maintains the mine will not compromise the management objectives of the Mabola Protected Environment, but conservationists argue mining is incompatible with its survival.

“Our instructions are to challenge the two ministers’ decision to grant permission for commercial mining inside this declared protected area in court, and to ask the court to set that decision aside,” explains Fourie. She predicts the case could end up in the Constitutional Court.

Over coffee in the sleepy hamlet of Wakkerstroom, Angus Burns, the senior manager of WWF-SA’s land and biodiversity stewardship programme, struggles not to swear. He has spent over a decade fighting for the protection of the area, working with local landowners to become guardians of their rich grassland habitat. This nourishes the biodiversity that supports farming and eco-tourism.

“This is an Indian company that has never had a coal mine in Africa and of all the places to operate your first coal mine you choose a strategic water source area in a protected environment? These are the sacred cows our landscape. We shouldn’t be touching them. They are the machines that provide us with water for free.”

What frustrates Burns is the “overwhelming” evidence, including from Atha-Africa’s own specialist reports, that declared the project a “no go” and too sensitive to mine.

The groups cite in their appeal how Atha-Africa’s consultants, Natural Scientific Services, warned against the project, with its biodiversity specialist red-flagging the impact on the supply of water to the surface water resources (due to the dewatering activities) and citing potential groundwater contami- nation.

“These and other aspects of the mining project are in strong conflict with international, national and provincial legislation, policies and guidelines. Most potential impacts of the mining operation had a high overall significance rating, even with mitigation,” the specialist said.

Burns agrees. “Numerous studies have shown how the area is too sensitive to mine. Subsequent to that suddenly there is a consultancy that can ‘mitigate’ all the damage and concerns raised by prior consultancies, so my question is you have a whole lot of evidence that says no, including from the government itself, but you go with the one report (from EcoPartners) that says yes. It’s like climate change denialism.”

In their appeal, the groups accuse EcoPartners of not being objective in its environmental assessment of the region, noting how its findings of the absence of sensitive species are “entirely irreconcilable” with the findings of the earlier Natural Scientific Services biodiversity report.

On its website, EcoPartners declares: “If your business uses resources, creates waste, splutters out emissions or oozes effluent, we can be of assistance. It does not have to be dirty, but even if it is dirty we can get you shining up to international standards.”

In May 2014, the DEA rejected the original environmental report from EcoPartners, while records the CER has obtained show how the Department of Mineral Resources’ own officials recommended the refusal of the mining rights application, citing the threats to “irreplaceable sites” and highly threatened species, though this was overruled.

The DWS, too, initially opposed the application in “known sensitive habitats” and cited the alarming “dewatering of wetlands”, warning of the decant of acid mine drainage.

Koos Pretorius, of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, points out how Molewa likely never consulted the mining and biodiver- sity guidelines, which rule the im- portance of the biodiversity features in sensitive areas and associated ecosystem services is sufficiently high to prohibit mining in these areas.

While the groups maintain few locals are likely to be employed for the mining operation and that there is strong local support against the mine because of the potential water impacts, Johannes Nkonyane needs work for his children.

“All we care about is making money,” says Nkonyane, from his home in the Wakkerstroom township of eSizameleni. I care that my children will get work. There is no work for us here and we need to survive.”

Walking past his house, 21-year-old Zama Ngcobo agrees. “There are no jobs for us young people,” she says. “We live on grants and our grandmother’s pensions.”

For Fourie, that the precedent of mining in a protected area is being set is the point of no return. “Allowing commercial mining inside a protected environment – declared over privately-owned land – is unfortunately the thin edge of the wedge.”

Malan agrees. “If one sheep goes through the gate, the whole flock goes through. And then it’s the end of farming with livestock here. Our land will be polluted like the farmers in Witbank and Middelburg.”

Mining will comply with the rules, says Atha-Africa

Praveer Tripathi, the senior vice-president of Atha-Africa Ventures, says the firm’s regulatory approvals have been “painstakingly and methodically assessed” by three different departments, separately and jointly, over a period of almost four years, with “unprecedented and flawless public participation”.

This will “ensure that any perceived threat” to the functioning of the wetland is either negated or mitigated in the interests of sustainable and transformative development to which Atha-Africa Ventures has been committed from the outset.

Even before pre-mining, it continued to conduct extensive quarterly groundwater, biodiversity and air quality monitoring to establish a baseline.

“Atha-Africa Ventures is confident that its mitigation plans will ensure that, by the time the life of a mine ends, the wetland is at the same baseline condition if not better,” he said.

In his firm’s plea to Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane to waive its water licence suspension, he states that the CER is “deliberately sensationalising and disseminating incorrect information and employing deliberate delay tactics to halt its mine.

The firm “resents the continuing innuendo” that it held an improper relationship with the relatives of President Jacob Zuma.

“Atha-Africa Ventures has two black economic empowerment shareholders, namely South Africa India Minerals, which holds 16% in Atha-Africa Ventures, and the holder of the 10% shares in Atha-Africa Ventures is Bashubile Trust.

“Sizwe Zuma is a beneficiary along with many others. Atha-Africa Ventures is aware of a familial connection between Sizwe Zuma and the president but this has not, and will not, influence the business relationship between Sizwe and Atha-Africa Ventures.”

Tripathi says construction and mining activities will comply with the regulations contained within the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act. “Atha-Africa Ventures is in the pre-tendering phase and is unable to proceed further as its legal water use authorisation has been suspended due to an appeal with the Water Tribunal.

“An application has been made for rezoning (from agricultural to mining) and Atha-Africa Ventures does not foresee any hurdles as the company has all the relevant mining and environmental approvals.

SATURDAY STAR