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Mining in Mabola: The slow violence of environmental degradation

27 October 2021 at 9:01 am

This article was first published in the City Press

If coal mining is allowed to go ahead in the Mabola Protected Environment (MPE) near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga, it will result in a predictable form of environmental violence for local communities.

The project will also lead to geographically dispersed and intergenerational environmental violence for South Africans, due to greenhouse gas emissions and threats to water supplies. But viable alternatives, including job creation within a green economy, do exist.

What is slow environmental violence?

In 2011, globally renowned environmental humanities scholar Rob Nixon explained the slow violence of environmental degradation as “a delayed destruction” made up of a series of long deaths. These are:

staggered, dispensable casualties, both human and ecological, which carry the weight of trauma and degradation but lack the political salience needed to afford significant outrage.

The extractive industries, for example, appear to cause “only” localised environmental damage in the shorter-term, but if considered fully, produce a long-term environmental violence of “delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space”.

As Nixon reminds us, the principal casualties of this violence are almost always the poor and those members of society least able to protect themselves.

Noxious gases, dust, smoke, traffic and water contamination

The localised environmental problems that coal mining in the MPE will cause are well-documented and acknowledged by the mine’s supporters.

The mine’s social and labour plan (SLP) notes that coal mining will generate dust, noxious gases and smoke, noise, vibrations, traffic, and the “contamination of surface and groundwater on downstream water users”. These environmental harms will be imposed on local community members, potentially damaging their health, and threatening their long-term means of subsistence livelihoods and employment.

The mine’s proponents counter this reality by drawing attention to the economic opportunities that the mine will supposedly create, including 576 jobs. However, even they make clear that very few of those jobs will go to people local to the area.

This accords with the history of mining in South Africa where, by and large, local communities do not benefit economically from mining because local people are rarely employed by the industry.

Few jobs for locals

A socioeconomic impact assessment commissioned by the mine owners came to the same conclusion.

The assessment found that while a few unskilled jobs would be created, most employees with the necessary skills would be sourced from outside the local community. The mine’s SLP notes that the mine would have a low impact on the local community in terms of jobs and benefits.

That the local community will suffer the negative environmental consequences of the mine while being highly unlikely to benefit from it economically is an entirely predictable outcome. Following Nixon’s compelling argument, however, decision-makers need to consider much more than just these local realities.

What happens in Mabola matters significantly to other parts of the country as a deterioration in water quantity or quality becomes a substantially limiting factor on livelihoods elsewhere.

Long-term consequences for South Africa’s water security

The MPE was declared in 2014 to protect the biodiversity there, which is critical for the provision of fresh water. Mabola falls within the Enkangala-Drakensberg Strategic Water Source Area, one of only 22 such areas which, in water-scarce South Africa, are described by the national department of water and sanitation (DWS) as “national assets”. The area provides water for Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Free State.

Up until earlier this year, the proposed mine, for which all necessary permissions have been granted, was to be located within the MPE.

This changed in 2021 when Vusi Shongwe, Mpumalanga MEC for agriculture, rural development, land and environmental affairs changed the boundaries of the area to ensure that the mine fell outside of it.

The current legal battle

Given the damage the coal mine will do to both the local environment and to national strategic water supplies, a coalition of eight NGOs have been fighting against it since 2015. This battle has involved extensive court action, including eight distinct pieces of high court litigation, one case going to the Supreme Court of Appeal and to the Constitutional Court.

At present, an interdict has been granted to halt the mine from starting operations, pending the outcome of many of these court challenges. One of those challenges aims to set aside the decision of the MEC to cut the four properties out of Mabola.

Government’s contradictory approach

Government’s mixed messages around critical environmental issues in South Africa risk serious short- and long-term negative environmental consequences.

On the one hand, recent public statements by government officials in Mpumalanga have linked natural disasters such as recent floods to climate change and underscored the need to “work together on issues of global warming and how to mitigate climate change”. To do so, the premier of the province, Refilwe Mtsweni-Tsipane, noted that the provincial government was “advocating and mainstreaming climate change and environmental issues for a better, cleaner and healthier environment for all”.

But in the same recent State of the Province address, the premier also stated that she was “delighted” to announce that the proposed coal mine within the Wakkerstroom area was set to commence its operations.

The contradictions inherent is this assertion are startling. The burning of coal is a significant contributor to climate change (not to mention the negative impacts on air quality and therefore human health), while coal mines have been shown to have a devastating impact on agriculture due to the significant impacts they have on the supply and quality of water available for farming and the vast tracts of arable soil that are lost.

Ecotourism and green economic alternatives

Given that we cannot afford to burn more coal (UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated in August that we must sound the death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet), or endanger South Africa’s scarce water supply, new and imaginative ways of thinking are required.

The challenge is to find alternative means by which communities are offered meaningful long-term socioeconomic opportunities within the context of the preservation of natural resources. This means that conversations should start around livelihood alternatives to extraction.

In her address, Mtsweni-Tsipane also mentioned the ongoing development of Mpumalanga’s Green Economic Development Plan, which aims to drive the province’s adaption of green technologies such as renewables. With strong political and financial support, the province can become the central commercial and manufacturing hub for a just transition in South Africa. A just transition which, evidence demonstrates, could create significantly more jobs than are currently created in the province by the coal sector.

There are also other promising income generating and employment avenues to explore, such as community-based ecotourism (CBET). Evidence from South Africa, such as the Bulungula Lodge in the Eastern Cape, the Makuleke Ecotourism Project in the Kruger Park, or the !Xaus Lodge in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park illustrate that if CBET is implemented properly with the support and cooperation of all relevant stakeholders, communities can benefit significantly from it.

Small businesses can flourish, skills can be developed, and good jobs can be created. Other options exist, such as involving local community members, who often have extensive knowledge of the environment within which they live, directly in the management and preservation of areas like Mabola.

Setting a precedent for the future to protect people and the planet

Whether new coal mining goes ahead in the MPE, or not, will set a precedent. If the permissions granted to the mine are upheld by the courts, a dangerous precedent will illustrate that nowhere is safe from the predations of extraction, no matter how important it is to our collective health and wellbeing.

If the permissions stand, South Africa will be contributing to an alarming global trend which is resulting in the downgrading, downsizing and degazettement of protected areas to pursue narrow and destructive short-term interests related to mining, ranching and oil and gas exploration.

If, however, the permissions to mine are set aside, South Africa will be boldly acknowledging the critical importance of long-term environmental sustainability. In doing so, it will avoid the negative geographical and temporal environmental consequences, and the accompanying damage to water security and livelihoods, that will result from the mine.

If Mabola is left intact, South Africa will also be implementing the range of science-based policies it has painstakingly developed towards meeting the constitutional imperative to “have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations

This ongoing legal battle is being presented by the mine’s proponents and the provincial government as a battle between alleged economic development and the narrow interests of environmentalists who are accused of being more concerned with Mpumalanga’s grasslands than with people’s lives.

In reality, however, the battle is primarily about a failure of imagination and foresight, and an attachment to coal – despite its role in the climate crisis. It is a battle between forces intent on securing short-term gains for the few – no matter the appalling costs to the environment and people’s livelihoods – and those who recognise the critical need to preserve the environment for the benefit of current and future generations within the context of the climate emergency, as well as an urgent need to build our resilience to adapt and respond to the effects of climate change.

It is between forces stuck in the past, trying to exploit a resource that we can no longer afford to extract and burn, and those committed to a new vision of the future where holistic, intergenerational concerns about livelihoods and their dependence on a healthy environment are understood and take precedence.

Horsfield and Muponde are attorneys at the Centre for Environmental Rights.