World Rainforest Movement

Global Gluttony: Mines feeding on forests in South Africa

The colonial period of South African history has left a mindset that encourages the exploitation of anything that can be dug out of the ground and shipped off to feed the rapacious appetites of first world industries and consumers. This is what drove the colonial imperative of England, Portugal, France and Spain in centuries gone by, and although there has been political transformation in previously colonised African countries, the economic forces remain largely unchanged. If anything, achieving independence has resulted in a worse situation, where new governments, under pressure to balance their budgets, have allowed the exploitation of mineral and other resources to accelerate, yet still without achieving economic independence.

South Africa is most famous for its gold and diamonds, but has many other minerals. The bulk of these are exported in their unbeneficiated state.

Early mining was mostly with excavated shafts that required timber supports. The gold boom caused massive demand for timber for mining needs, housing, transport wagons, and railway sleepers; which was drawn from forests that were then abundant in eastern South Africa. When it became apparent that the resource was limited, alien tree plantations were established. Theoretically, the pressure on forests has been transferred to plantations, but there are many ways in which they impact negatively on the few remaining patches of natural forest.

Modern equipment and technology have made it possible for mining to take place on a far greater scale. Where minerals are located close to the surface, there are massive open pits from which ores are excavated. South Africa’s most famous open pit is the Great Hole of Kimberley, now exhausted. Open mining has been common along the west coast, in the beautiful Namaqualand area, as well as in Northern Cape (Sishen), and Northern Province (Phalaborwa).

There has also been strip mining on the eastern seaboard, which is geologically active in the sense that there is movement of the coastal interface caused by the natural process of sand dune establishment. This process has been active for over 100 000 years, but more recent dunes (up to 25 000 years) have presented an opportunity for the extraction of minerals. The first large-scale mining of these minerals –mainly ilminite, zircon and rutile– took place on the KwaZulu Natal south coast in the 1950’s. This operation had limited economic value and was abandoned.

In the early 1970’s, RBM (Richards Bay Minerals) started mining the forested dunes along the northeastern coast of KwaZulu Natal. This development took place in an era of political isolation when South Africa was under pressure, both internally and externally, to end Apartheid. The country became a victim of the illegal government and its foreign allies’ plans to exploit whatever raw minerals were available. Foreign companies that wanted minerals were given incentives in the form of subsidies, tax breaks and export rebates. Environmental costs arising from these artificially driven operations were ignored and effectively passed on to local communities. As a consequence, future generations of South Africans will have to bear the cost of a grossly damaged environment, and the loss of the use of the resources that have been stolen. The only tangible benefits of these activities, was the foreign currency that was so desperately needed by South Africa for sanctions busting; and the low cost to the miners, boosting the profits of processing and manufacturing operations in countries like Canada.

Whilst all mining creates some problems in terms of environmental destruction and exploitation of resources (including people), the Richards Bay example must be one of the worst.

The scale and extent of the deliberate environmental destruction that is part of the mining process continues today. It is of a vast scale that is difficult to imagine –the expression “moving mountains” might give an idea of the amount of soil that is moved and processed in the course of extracting the minerals that occur in the dunes.

The mining company obtained prospecting and mining leases from the South African government (either directly or through the surrogate Kwa Zulu homeland state). The initial agreements appeared to favour the local people who had been moved from the mining area, but over time, the aspects of the agreements that were designed to protect and to compensate local communities, have been systematically eliminated.

The natural environment, which was primarily pristine forest with trees hundreds of years old, has been destroyed. Thousands of hectares of this rare forest type have been replaced with an experimental effort to restore vegetation, that may one day resemble the original forest, on the sand dumps that have been created where the mining has already proceeded.

The mining company has spent astronomical amounts of money on propaganda claiming that their vegetation efforts have been successful. If one looks behind the public relations façade, there is a very different picture, that of an ecological Frankenstein. The mining operation has failed to abide by the conditions of the leases that stipulated the area along the frontal (facing the sea) dune that was not to be mined. Similarly, areas along natural waterways and lakes that should have been protected have been mined illegally, and no penalties have been imposed on the company by the government.

There are many downstream and off-site impacts of the mining that are also largely ignored. Dune slumping resulting from the failure to observe the setback line along the coastal dunes, has created serious erosion and effectively made beaches unusable for tourists and other recreational activities. The authority concerned, the National Dept. of Mineral & Energy, has apparently ignored other problems, because the perceived benefits from the mining outweigh the damage to the environment.

There is a very poor understanding of the intrinsic value of natural forests and the benefits that are derived by humans from the ecological functions of these forests. The company’s unproven assertion that their vegetation programme will eventually enable the original dune forest to re-establish on their mine dumps has reduced public antipathy towards their operations. The same lie has been told so often that it now appears that even fairly well educated individuals have been blinded to reality. The mining company has entered into funding agreements with academic institutions such as the Mammal Research Institute of the University of Pretoria, which has consistently delivered research findings that appear to support the company’s claims of success. There are however, many contradictory views, and research by scientists from the University of Cape Town has challenged the claims of those paid by the mining company. In terms of empirical evidence, there is very little to support the notion that the current experiment will lead to the re-establishment of the forest and thicket that has been destroyed.

Future generations that inhabit the area presently being mined will have to pay a large price for what has happened during the last 30 years. There will be no mineral resource after the mining ends, and the intrinsic value of the landscape will have been virtually eliminated when the mining company packs its bags and moves on to greener pastures. The area that has been mined at Richards Bay is now essentially a heap of homogenous sand that no longer has the capacity to function ecologically or hydrologically in the manner of the original dunes. The land will be unable to support agriculture as before. There will be no hardwood resource to supply wood for implements and housing. The plants and animals that supplied medicines and food will have been wiped out. Two thirds of the area will be planted with alien Casuarina plantations which may have some value as fuel wood to local people but this will have very limited benefit. Indigenous Acacia natalitia trees that have been planted will also have limited use as firewood, and the undergrowth may provide some browse.

Another public relations ploy of the mining company has been to establish “community projects” that are supposed to help develop skills to enable local people to sustain themselves after the mining comes to an end. The training offered includes basic trades and agricultural activities, which may help to some extent but at the same time, traditional skills and knowledge have been lost. The intricate relationship between local people and the natural environment will have been replaced with the exploitative mindset of the multinational corporation that has dominated the local economy since mining began.

But then there will be nothing left to exploit.

By: Wally Menne, e-mail: . Photos of the mining area are available at:

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