Mining poses threat to iMfolozi wilderness zone
Petmin group subsidiary told Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife it wants to extract anthracite on borderline, writes Tony Carnie
One of the world’s oldest game reserves and a cradle of African rhino conservation is under threat by a coal-mining venture that could wreck one of Africa’s most iconic wilderness areas.
Tendele Coal Mining, a subsidiary of the JSE-listed Petmin group, has signalled a desire to start mining on the borderline of the iMfolozi wilderness zone.
The iMfolozi Game Reserve was proclaimed in 1875 — just three years after the Yellowstone National Park in the US — to protect the world’s last remnant population of the southern white rhino.
The rhinos had been hunted to the point of extinction, but a tiny pocket of 50–100 were discovered in what was to become known later as the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park.
Due to the dedication of game rangers such as the late Dr Ian Player, the park’s rhino population multiplied and spread to game reserves across SA, the rest of Africa and to zoos across Europe and the US.
Now Tendele Coal Mining has indicated an interest in mining anthracite on the boundary of the wilderness zone.
Tendele has a mining operation at Somkhele, about 10km east of the park, but its managers gave undertakings nearly 15 years ago that the company would not exploit coal reserves within the 5km-wide wilderness buffer zone.
Tendele’s newly appointed chief operating officer Jarmi Steyn recently met park custodian Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife and indicated the company was evaluating plans to mine in the eSiyembeni area, which is less than 1km from the park boundary.
While there may be no legal hurdle preventing mining just outside the park, Ezemvelo and several conservation groups fear that regular blasting, noise, dust and other effects will sound the death knell for this unique wilderness area.
The iMfolozi wilderness, home to the densest populations of white rhino in the world, was given special protection because it was largely unscarred by development. No cars, roads, lodges and no permanent human settlements are permitted in the area. Apart from conservation staff, the only visitors to this area are small groups of wilderness hikers.
Wilderness areas cover less than 1% of SA’s surface.
If Tendele were allowed to mine, Ezemvelo argues the special character of this area — including intangible values such as unpolluted views of the night sky and the sounds of nature and wild animals — will be degraded to the point that it will no longer qualify as a true wilderness area.
In a letter sent to Tendele in February, Ezemvelo CE David Mabunda appealed to the company to ditch their plans immediately. "Our responsibility is to preserve the iMfolozi Wilderness Area, which is central to the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and is a scarce, finite and irreplaceable resource," he wrote.
Noting that the company had undertaken to not mine on the park boundary, Mabunda wrote: "We trust that Tendele Coal Mining will make the correct decision, namely to abort any plans to mine at eSiyembeni."
In his response, Steyn said Somkhele Mine had previously considered mining at eSiyembeni, "but due to insufficient geological data and, at the time, an uneconomical mining model, the area was not included in the life of mine (LoM) plans of Somkhele mine".
"Due to the current economic conditions, considering LoM and the continued employment of about 1,000 people, the mine has been revaluating the feasibility of mining in the area. Over the past 10 years, the mine has impacted the community through various projects as well as the employment of employees directly and indirectly."
Steyn said the mine had "plowed back" more than R1bn into the surrounding Mpukonyoni community and concluded a BEE deal whereby the local community and employees owned 20% of the mine.
"Considering this as background, it would be a socioeconomic disaster for the Mpukonyoni area should the mine not be able to find alternative sources for continued production and reinvesting in the community."
Asked for more information, Steyn appeared to back-pedal somewhat this week, stating that Tendele was still in the "very early stages" of evaluating the economic potential of a new mine. "Taking into account the current economic conditions, the capital required to develop a new mining area and the current existing life of mine, Tendele has no intention to commence any mining activities at eSiyembeni," he said.
Nevertheless, she confirmed Tendele anticipated that 48 households would have to be relocated if the mine went ahead. Based on a very conservative estimate of five people per household, this suggests that at least 240 people would have to leave their homes. Tendele has already evicted and relocated 208 rural households from its mining area.
Steyn said the company was investigating new, "noninvasive" mining technology that would require no dynamite blasting, with other measures to mitigate machinery sound and other noise or dust effects.
On whether Tendele was reneging on assurances given to Ezemvelo, Steyn confirmed the mine promised in 2002 it would "try to avoid mining in the area" and that five years ago it discussed the possibility of avoiding open-cast mining.
“Due to … economic conditions … the mine has been revaluating the feasibility of mining in the area.”
The Wildlife and Environment Society (Wessa) slammed Tendele, suggesting that the company had abandoned its previous stance of acting in the best interests of the environment, the Imfolozi wilderness and KwaZulu-Natal’s tourism economy. Noting that another mining company, Ibutho Coal, had launched a similar proposal about four years ago to mine in the Fuleni areas adjacent to the park, Wessa spokesman Morgan Griffiths said: "To now be punting for another mine right up against the fence line, like the Fuleni coal mine application, is worrisome, selfish behaviour on the part of this company (and that of the other Tendele Coal mine applicants)."
"Clearly Tendele has not paid attention to the strong ground swell of local opposition to [the] inappropriate Fuleni mining application," he said.
The iMfolozi Community and Wilderness Alliance said Steyn "would want the public to believe that the mine is simply in preliminary investigations, yet the mine has been active in eSiyembeni getting residents to sign a document without leaving a copy behind".
"There is already evidence that the irresponsible and covetous ambitions of Somkhele to mine coal in eSiyembeni is causing conflict in the area that could lead to bloodshed."