Cape Town – The United National Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has approved the designation of the Magaliesberg and Gouritz cluster ecosystems as Biosphere Reserves.
The two biosphere reserves add to the existing portfolio of six biosphere reserves in South Africa, bringing the total of these important protected ecosystems to eight.
South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs confirmed that the designation of the Biosphere Reserves was approved at the 27th Session of the Unesco Man and Biosphere (MAB) International Coordinating Council in Paris, France, on Tuesday. The Council is being held from June 8 to 12.
Welcoming the announcement, Minister of Environmental Affairs, Minister Edna Molewa said: “South Africa is proud about the additional sites that have just been listed and the government, as the designation of these areas, supports national efforts of expansion of the conservation estate in addition to supporting the achievement of government’s development objectives”.
The Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve straddles the Gauteng and North West provinces and falls within the Bushveld Bakenveld terrestrial priority area, which has been identified as a priority area for conservation action. The site is at the interface of two great African biomes, namely, the Central Grassland Plateaux and the sub-Saharan savannah with the remnants of a third biome, the Afro-montane forest.
The Magaliesberg Reserve covers approximately 360 000 ha and was located between the Pretoria and Johannesburg in the east and Rustenburg in the west, with approximately 262 000 people living within the designated area.
In addition, the area is endowed with scenic beauty, unique natural features, rich cultural heritage value while it is also of high archaeological interest as it includes the Cradle of Humankind, which is part of the Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa World Heritage site with 4 million years of history. The area contains rich floral biodiversity, a number of faunal species, and over 45 percent of the total bird species of Southern Africa.
The second newly designated site, the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve area covers an area of more than three million hectares and straddles the Eastern and Western Cape Provinces. The area is globally unique as it is the only area in the world where three recognised biodiversity hotspots — the Fynbos, Succulent Karoo and Maputoland-Tongoland-Albany hotspots — converge.
The entire biosphere domain falls within the Cape Floristic Kingdom which is the smallest, but one of the richest of the six floral kingdoms in the world, and the only one found entirely within the boundaries of one country.
The Gouritz Reserve is home to high levels of endemic plant species, threatened invertebrates and butterfly species. It also provides a migratory route for large mammals and serves as a nursery for marine species. Due to its immense historical significance, the biosphere reserve includes three components of the internationally renowned Cape Floral Region Protected Areas World Heritage Site.
The existing Biosphere Reserves in South Africa are:
Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve (Western Cape Province, designated 1998)
Cape West Coast Biosphere Reserve (Western Cape Province, designated 2000)
Waterberg Biosphere Reserve (Limpopo Province, designated 2001)
Kruger-to-Canyons Biosphere Reserve (Limpopo Province and Mpumalanga, designated 2001)
Cape Winelands Biosphere Reserve (Western Cape Province, designated 2007)
Vhembe Biosphere Reserve (Limpopo Province, designated May 2009).
“The government will continue to manage its growing portfolio of biosphere reserves in collaboration with land owners, communities and other partners to ensure that we meet Unesco standards and our own national goals of sustainable development,” Molewa said in a statement on Wednesday.
Molewa indicated that the implementation of the Magaliesberg Biosphere Reserve management plan would create a number of alternative community opportunities in partnership with the private sector and mitigate negative industrial impacts in pursuit of sustainable tourism and cultural heritage development.
Molewa added that the designation of the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve, which was South Africa’s biggest biosphere reserve, “will enhance South Africa’s status as the third most biodiverse country in the world and enhance our effort to conserve the world renowned Cape Floral region”.
Launched in 1970 by the Unesco General Conference, the Intergovernmental Man and Biosphere Programme aims to improve human environments and preserve natural ecosystems. The Programme promotes research and capacity building with the main objective of reducing the loss of biodiversity and addressing the ecological, social and economic aspects. The Unesco network of biosphere reserves connects people around the world who were pioneering a positive future for people and nature.
The South African delegation was being led by the Acting Deputy Director General for Biodiversity and Conservation in the Department of Environmental Affairs, Skumsa Mancotywa, who was supported by the Heads of Departments for Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Thandeka Mbasa and North West Department of Rural, Environment and Agricultural Development, Dr Poncho Mokaila.
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By Marie-Louise Antoni
It is hard to imagine “Putting nature first” as the slogan of a mining company. It’s a bold statement to make when it plans to strip-mine phosphate in an environmentally sensitive and internationally significant area. But that is what Elandsfontein Exploration and Mining claims it is doing as it sets out to mine on the border of the West Coast National Park.
The company, known as EEM, already holds prospecting rights, but obtaining mining rights will be a battle, because the minister of mineral resources can turn down or limit applications that affect critical biodiversity, heritage or areas of hydrological importance. The application is challenged by all three aspects.
But the company is confident about its prospects. “From a legal standpoint, we believe it will be compliant. We’re legally within our rights to proceed with the application,” said Michelle Schroder, metallurgical manager and spokesperson for the mine.
Mine right in the heart of the biosphere reserve
The site falls within the biosphere reserve and lies on the West Coast, just over an hour north of Cape Town. An aerial view shows an expanse of green pooling out from the Langebaan lagoon, spreading inland to the town of Hopefield about 30km away. Much of this land belongs to the park, which is world-renowned for its flora and birdlife, and the lagoon is an international windsurfing mecca and vital to tourism.
Every year, the park attracts more than 200 000 tourists and creates 20 000 permanent jobs, indirectly sustaining about 100 000 people.
The proposed mine lies at the very heart of this area, in the park’s buffer zone, within a critical biodiversity area (CBA). About 400 hectares will be actively mined, and another 220 hectares have been set aside for further development. And the deposit is mammoth – the second largest in the country – with ore tonnage weighing in at about 90-million.
The local economy has traditionally been supported by more sustainable industries such as agriculture, fishing, conservation and tourism, and the site falls well outside the Saldanha Bay industrial development zone.
Two important aquifers facing risk
The property is zoned for agriculture and was previously a private nature reserve separating two portions of South African National Parks (SANParks) land. It was considered vital to the park’s expansion strategy and earmarked for a biodiversity corridor, which is why SANParks has tried to buy it over the years.
The region is generally water-scarce and the company will be using groundwater, some of which will be pumped back into the system. There are two important aquifers in the area, one of which is believed to seep into the lagoon, which is internationally protected for its wetland ecosystem as a Ramsar site.
“We’re looking at water very closely with the department,” said Schroder. “We’re trying to understand what our potential impact might be and how to mitigate it.”
About 3km to the east lies a rich fossil deposit. A fossilised skull known as the Saldanha Man was found there in the early 1950s. It’s the oldest known human fossil found in the Cape, estimated to be between 400 000 and 700 000 years old. The find brought international attention to the area.
Site of global archeological significance
Middle and Early Stone Age tools of more than a million years in age have also been found, and the site is of global significance. Dr David Braun, who holds the research permit for the archaeological site, noted in a study that the area is “one of the richest sites of its kind in Africa”.
The proposed mine’s infrastructure will also require waste treatment facilities, a slimes dam and power lines, as well as an 18km pipeline to the port in Saldanha. This will run over neighbouring properties, many of which are also CBAs.
A documentary was produced last year by Ron Moller of storyteller productions by UCT environmental law students on the mining of Elandsfontein. They won the best interpretation of environmental law unto film.
But EEM says the deposit is strategic and that, although there isn’t a current shortage of phosphate, global demand is rising. Phosphate is used in agricultural fertilisers, and the company says it is critical to food security.
Between 300 and 400 jobs will be created and 80% of the labour force will be locally sourced. The current life of the mine is estimated at 15 years. The company says it will develop skills and is also looking at bursary schemes for science students at various tertiary institutions.
“We want to move away from the perception that mining is a filthy, dirty thing,” said Schroder, adding that the company is planning significant offsets and rehabilitation.
A mine with positive net effect
“There will be better conservation in the area if we mine than if we don’t,” she said, saying that there will be a 10:1 offset ratio. “Environmental impact has been a critical driver in our decision-making, and we’ve employed the best experts. The net effect is positive.”
When asked whether the application is a difficult one, Philip le Roux, technical manager for the mine, said: “No, not at all. We’re following the letter of the law. We already have prospecting rights and have also received departure from the municipality.”
But has the company done enough to inform those it says will benefit from the mine – the very same people who, should the operations not go according to plan, will be saddled with the consequences?
Le Roux believes it has. “We followed the law. We advertised,” he said. “We’re working with all organs of state and government departments, as well as different organisations. We’re saying: ‘Please come and monitor us so that we can comply.’”
The current process falls under the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, and Le Roux said the company is bound by the mineral resources department’s regulations. These state that companies must consult stakeholders and submit their first scoping report within 30 days of notification. “We were expecting a response from the department in January, but it came through in December,” he said.
However, documents show that the company submitted its application on December 9. By law, the department has 14 days to reply, which means the company would have had a response by Christmas Eve at the latest.
No avenue for public comment
In reality, though, the department responded the very next day. But EEM only published its notices on December 19, more than a week later, and well into the holiday period. These notices were placed in two newspapers, alongside a telephone number that did not work.
The mine’s environmental consultant, Olivia Braaf, was notified of this error. She apologised, saying it was a technical fault, but by January 8 it still did not work, even though the deadline for public comments to be included in the first submitted scoping report fell on the same day. But Braaf maintains that the process was legally compliant and that contact could also have been made by email, post or fax.
At public meetings held in Hopefield and Saldanha on January 6 and 8, respectively, several stakeholders complained. One even asked for a letter to be written to the department to request an extension, but instead, project holding costs were cited. The company did say, however, that concerns would be raised with the department.
Complaints absent from meeting minutes
But meeting minutes submitted to the department on January 22 do not mention these discussions, nor was a written objection, dated January 20, included in the report. In fact, the report specifically states that no objections were made. Braaf claims that the written objection did not apply to that stage of the process, but adds that objections have now been included in the final scoping report.
Furthermore, in EEM’s submission to the department, the company states that it intended to hold two sets of public meetings during the scoping phase, but only one set was held. A further environmental impact assessment meeting was scheduled for May this year, but has not yet taken place.
“This is just the start of the process,” said Braaf. She added that the department’s guidelines state that consultations do not end after 30 days. “In fact, further in-depth consultation is required to more substantially inform the environmental impact assessment and environmental management programme. There will thus be ongoing consultation through the process with interested and affected parties and key stakeholders.”
Public participation essential
Tracey Davies, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, said that public participation in mining rights applications is extremely important. “The process takes on an even more significant role when the mining is likely to affect biodiversity priority areas,” she said, referring to the 2013 Mining and Biodiversity Guideline. “The guideline makes it clear that in such cases there may be a greater number of stakeholders interested in and concerned about the proposed activity.”
The 2002 Consultative Forum on Mining and the Environment created a set of public participation guidelines, which were sponsored by the Chamber of Mines. The forum said consultations don’t only benefit the public. When properly conducted, they also benefit mining companies, enabling them to prove due process, which adds to their credibility and is ultimately less costly.
And although there is no blueprint process, the guideline repeatedly uses the example of “an open-cast mine bordering a national park” as an example of where public sensitivity would be high. It also says that public sensitivity heightens with issues such as water catchments, archaeology and areas such as conservancies, nature reserves, national parks, Ramsar sites and heritage sites, and particularly for new developments in previously undisturbed areas.
High to very high public sensitivity matrix
These guidelines (confirmed by the 2013 Mining and Biodiversity Guideline) include a public sensitivity matrix, ranging from very low to very high. Because of the tangle of factors to be considered, the mine’s application could fall under the “high” to “very high” categories.
This would mean extensive public consultations, media releases and radio announcements, and between 200 and 400 stakeholders should be identified (or, depending on its classification, between 1 000 and 3 000). Currently, the company’s publicly released database contains just under 200 names, about 30 of which appear twice or even three times.
“We looked at the guidelines but at the end of the day, decisions are made by law,” said Le Roux. “In my opinion, we’ve sat down with the best experts. We’re making decisions and 90% of them are based on environmental reasons, for the least impact and to the benefit of everybody.”
Schroder said: “We’re aware of the guidelines, but have not taken them into account at this stage. We believe we can mine responsibly. We’re taking conscious decisions that are not necessarily cost-effective but that are the most environmentally safe.”
The company has now released its scoping report, and will submit its environmental management programme report on June 10.
This means these two phases were run almost concurrently, whereas the guidelines specifically recommend two distinct phases so stakeholders can ensure their concerns are addressed.
The guidelines remind us that stakeholders “contribute essential local knowledge and wisdom” and that these processes help to “clarify the degree to which they are willing to accept or live with the trade-offs”.
These guidelines are “soft law” and difficult to enforce, but proper consultations would help to demonstrate good faith – and give more credence to the company’s slogan of “Putting nature first”.
Source: Mail & Guardian
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