Social and environmental impact of mining

by Sep 13, 2012Magazine

social-and-environmentA Mining company can uproot an entire community for the meager sum of R600: a prospecting permit from the Department of Mineral Resources costs only R500 and a mining permit is R100.

In contrast, tribal, cultural and community structures in rural areas have been destroyed through the relocation of entire villages and the over-use and pollution of scarce water resources. The effects of mining on local communities – damage to homes, cultural heritage sites and the ecosystems on which livelihoods depend, and the destruction of the social structure of rural communities – are not factored into GDP growth, but the costs are high and the wounds may be permanent.

The dynamics of the latest feeding frenzy is at odds with the drive to create sustainable, decent jobs and improve the social well-being of the majority of the population, who are already at the receiving end of the structural crises caused by 120 years of aggressive resource extraction.

Wayne Visser, a KPMG analyst, recently described mining conglomerates as ‘planet guzzling monsters’. This term is embraced by Human Rights lawyer Richard Spoor and environmental activist Mariette Lieferrink, who are both critical of rampant profit-driven resource extraction. ‘It is about get rich quick. There is no benefit. It is unsustainable,’ said Spoor.

Stealing the family silver

Spoor said that far from the ‘nationalisation’ that mining magnates claimed the 2002 Minerals and Petroleum Resources Act (MPRDA) would usher in, it actually ‘amounted to the biggest giving away of minerals rights ever seen’.

‘Giving away the country’s silverware was justified in the name of empowerment’, he said of the BEE drive.

Mining has since contributed R6bn to the fiscus but little to training and development in the industry, as initially planned.

Spoor said the unfairness of the process is highlighted in the Charter and MPRDA, which require consultation only with local government and not with those directly affected by mining operations. Agreements are confidential.

One of the main drafters of the MPRDA and the Mining Charter, former Mineral Resources deputy director- general Jacinto Rocha, admitted to Amandla! that both were flawed, but emphasised that the initial intention was noble. However, instead of a focus on skills and community development, beneficiation and job creation, attention was diverted to ownership.

The Act made all land the custodian of the government, instead of land owners, to streamline the application of mineral rights. Old order mineral rights holders now had to partner with BEE companies to have their rights renewed, which in effect gave precedence to a BEE elite when transferring rights. Environmental and other standards were relaxed to smooth the transition, all aimed at loosening the century-old grip of multinational and white companies on South Africa’s rich resources and facilitating a new black ownership regime.

But there is a bitter underside to this.

Land grabs and water wars

Effects of the MPRDA first became evident in the platinum fields, where companies made deals with traditional leaders and local authorities (who double up as labour recruiters and enforcers) to move communities. Tens of thousands of people were affected.

Chief researcher for the Bench Marks Foundation and former SACP provincial executive member in the North West, David van Wyk, says the platinum ‘minefields’ are the ‘Wild

West’, where nothing tangible is done for the population despite trillions of rands carted out of the country. In the area of Marikana, there are dozens of unsecured railway crossings and within a few years some of the cleanest water in South Africa has become the most poisoned. Communal toilets are standard, unemployment escalates and the HIV/ AIDS infection rate is more than double the national average.

Legislation allows mining companies to approach a tribe directly and ‘promise them the world [with] no intent to keep any promises, [to] get the prospecting rights,’ said Van Wyk.

‘With R600 I can chase people off their land, I can go and put a prospecting rig next to the church or next to the crèche or whatever.’

Now the same pattern is becoming evident in the new coalfields, primarily in Limpopo’s Waterberg area, where a ‘low intensity war’ over resources is developing in this coal-rich but water-starved area. New coal mines are being established to feed Medupi, the first of two massive new coal-fired power stations.

Several communities have been coaxed into Section 21 agreements with mining houses, which are meant to ‘prove’ their commitment to community participation and upliftment in terms of the Act’s requirements. Human rights lawyer Richard Spoor has found that communities are often not properly compensated for the loss of their homes.

‘If you want to move people you go ahead. There is nothing in the mining legislation that talks about people … about how people should be compensated … So no standards are prescribed. The closest they come to a so-called standard is the Mining Charter which stipulates targets for black empowerment. That is it.’

But groups such as the Dzomo La Mupo Foundation in Venda are challenging Australian collier Coal of Africa’s attempts to mine coal at sites they deem sacred, encroaching on their cultural heritage at the edge of the Mapungubwe Heritage site and using water that is crucial to their livelihoods. They allege they are being sold out by chiefs and politicians, who are making deals without due consultation.

Politicians and the government have also joined the scramble more overtly. A few months ago, Limpopo’s state-owned mining company, Corridor Mineral Resources (CMR), concluded a gigantic R9 bn joint venture with India’s largest coal company, Coal India. CMR is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Limpopo Economic Development Enterprise and the deal was overseen personally by Premier Cassel Mathale, according to City Press. The stated aim is to develop new coal mines in the province to create jobs.

Pitting jobs against the future

Spoor and Van Wyk are concerned that there appears to be no proper management of natural resources such as coal. A proper strategy is needed to control mining so that resources remain for generations to come, and are not mined out now.

Greenpeace Africa is among those who warn about coal mania’s potential to escalate a looming water crisis in Limpopo and the country as a whole. Its research shows that investment in renewable energy rather than coal- powered generation is urgent. South

Africa’s current electricity system is geared to supply energy-intensive industries, and building new coal-fired power stations to ‘keep the lights on’ means catering to big business at the expense of the 12.3 million South Africans without access to electricity. Profits are generated for ‘a privileged few, while the people of South Africa pay the price’.

Environmental activist Liefferink emphasises: You cannot have job growth on a deteriorating environmental base.’

Reproducing apartheid

Van Wyk says the ANC is doing ‘exactly the same as the old government did’ by allowing a practice of ‘building matchboxes for black people’. Simply moving villages to sub-standard ‘little squares somewhere else’ shows little consideration for their cultural realities.

But Spoor emphasises that relocating communities is a costly last resort and many communities now simply live adjacent to mines. They suffer from damage to houses caused by blasting, to increased noise, decreased water supplies as boreholes and wells run dry, dust- covered household contents and losses of agricultural land.

Who will pay?

The courts recently ordered Umcebo Mining to compensate farmworkers and nearby communities for damage to their homes and health, and harm to their livestock.

Residents of Turfspruit and Macaltsdorp in Limpopo, who were subjected to day and night drilling by Platreef Resources’s platinum prospecting operations, laid a formal complaint with the Human Rights Commission about pollution of their water and harm to their livelihoods.

Significantly, Spoor plans a class action suit against Xstrata, citing nuisance legislation, following the relocation of the DeWildt Cheetah Research Centre outside Pretoria to the Waterberg because of the harm caused to the animals from blasting and other mining operations.

If this test case succeeds, all communities detrimentally affected by mining – whether through relocation, air or water pollution, dust and loss of grazing, to noise, illness and cracks to houses from blasting – could bring civil cases against mining companies.

Spoor believes that mining companies’ would be more circumspect about their operations if they were ‘responsible for the harm that they do … and [if] that harm extended to hardship and inconvenience and a loss of a sense of place and all of these non-pecuniary losses, it would make it a lot more difficult for mining companies to mine. The economics would be disturbed. You could still do it if it was profitable after you have paid the compensation you have to pay.’


Van Wyk noted the continued use of the ‘rape’ metaphor by government and mining houses when discussing the industry, pointing to a recent event in North West where a Steyldrift mine manager told local community members that the relationship between a mine and surrounding communities was like a marriage. It was thus unnecessary to get outsiders to solve problems.

A community member retorted: ‘It is interesting that you talk about a marriage because you know, four years ago when we woke up, we saw your prospecting rigs here, when we woke up we found you in bed with us and we didn’t say you could get into our beds so we consider your presence here to be rape.’

The rape analogy had its origins at the time of Cecil John Rhodes, who said at a DeBeers board meeting in 1894 that ‘Africa is lying there waiting to be taken. It is our duty to take her.’ The South African government’s economic language was not dissimilar as it referred to ‘virgin territory, penetrate, open up’. ‘This is all a sub-text of rape,’ says Van Wyk.

‘And this is what is happening in Africa. And I am afraid the ANC is just an accomplice to the whole process because all they are interested in is developing this black middle class as rapidly as possible.’

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