When conservationist Vincent Carruthers trekked through one of his favourite places on Earth with a colleague recently, he was stunned by the drone footage that emerged.
It revealed thousands of hectares of land “stripped like moonscapes” on the edges of the internationally-protected Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve, from mining activities.
Carruthers played a pivotal role among the small group of dedicated environmentalists who lobbied for almost a decade for the Magaliesberg - he describes it as a “great mountain range that has witnessed the whole span of life from its very origins” - to ultimately being declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in June 2015.
“The Magaliesberg is a critically important environment in South Africa It’s almost 100 times older than Mount Everest and half the age of the Earth, a unique treasure in this part of Africa...
“If we mess it up, we’re destroying evidence of nearly 3 billion years of evolution.
“It’s not just about preserving this pretty landscape; it’s about preserving seriously deep heritage,” he says.
Along with a group of other regional environmentalists, he is concerned about prospecting and mining applications that locals warn pose a danger to the reserve, in particular an application by Kaywell Holdings.
The firm has applied for a mining prospecting right for dolomite aggregate and limestone mining on 45hectares in the Hennops River, which lies in the buffer of the biosphere.
Residents of the areas surrounding the proposed prospecting site, including members of the soon-to-be-promulgated Crocodile River Reserve adjoining, have appealed to the Department of Mineral Resources and environmental authorities to decline any mineral prospecting application and “prevent this pristine Unesco buffer zone from being reduced to quarries”.
“Mining is damaging the sustainability of the biosphere and undermining the commitment the government made to UNESCO to protect this unique region and promote its environmental integrity,” said the non-profit Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve (MBR) management company.
“Prospecting and mining within the biosphere buffer zone are undesirable,” remarks Andrew Murray, the chairperson. “The approved management plan for the MBR is clear - that there is already an over-reliance on mining within the Magaliesberg region.”
It was formally appointed to manage the biosphere under the agreement between the government and Unesco. “The further intrusion of mining in a zone intended for tourism, recreation and conservation is contrary to the approved and adopted management plan.
“The international commitment that the Department of Environmental Affairs, North West and Gauteng made to Unesco is to reduce invasive development such as mining in both the core and the buffer zones, while supporting activities with sound ecological practices, including environmental education, recreation, eco-tourism and scientific and social research.
“Any application for prospecting is contrary to that intent and must be rejected.”
In a recent urgent appeal to authorities, including Unesco, Gary Watson, who lives in Laezonia, Centurion, highlighted how Kaywell’s application represented an “imminent threat” to the Biosphere Reserve’s integrity.
“The purpose of this appeal is to visually locate the location of the application for a prospecting licence in the context of the reserve and to provide additional information regarding this national heritage which has been omitted by the environmental impact assessment practitioners appointed in this application
“We’re gravely concerned the granting of a prospecting licence within the buffer zone poses a substantial risk to the integrity of the biosphere, the considerable effort and resources expended by government and volunteer resources to have the biosphere declared a Unesco Biosphere Reserve.”
The Biosphere Reserve, stated the DEA in 2015, is endowed with scenic beauty, unique natural features, rich cultural heritage value.
It is also of archaeological interest as it includes the Cradle of Humankind.
“The area contains rich floral biodiversity, a number of faunal species, and over 45% of the total bird species of southern Africa.”
The current landscape, say locals, is undisturbed and ecologically pristine. It forms part of the Aloe Meander and borders the Crocodile River nature reserve biodiversity stewardship project.
But the company’s environmental consultants state that if approved, its prospecting activities will be non-invasive, limited to around 1ha and “hence will have no environmental or social impact”.
But local residents have criticised the basic assessment report, prepared by its consultants. “The (environmental assessment) practitioner (does not) motivate why these important biodiversity assets are less important than providing for the economic needs of a handful of people for this site,” writes Mercia Komen, another leading figure behind the creation of the biosphere, in her comments on the firm’s document.
“The biosphere reserve concept is important, especially in SA, because of the conflict between extreme poverty and the need for economic development and to protect priceless natural assets,” says Carruthers.
“When it comes to mining, it’s almost impossible to mine and not damage the environment. The flipside is that mining can provide employment in the region, but the economic benefits are short-lived. Mining damages the surface of the earth permanently.”
Jenny Cornish, chairperson of the Crocodile River Reserve, says the region is home to irreplaceable biodiversity that is protected in environmental legislation.
“There’s no green space left anywhere in Gauteng - it’s not about conservation, but our survival. This is what cleans our air.”
The Saturday Star