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Ancient African Citadel Threatened by Mining Venture

From Leon Marshall in Johannesburg The proposed opening of a coal mine on the verge of one of South Africa’s most prized nature reserves has put the cat among the pigeons. Conservationist have long been alarmed at the way mining is being allowed in some of the country’s most sensitive areas. Now they are preparing...

From Leon Marshall in Johannesburg

The proposed opening of a coal mine on the verge of one of South Africa’s most prized nature reserves has put the cat among the pigeons.

Conservationist have long been alarmed at the way mining is being allowed in some of the country’s most sensitive areas. Now they are preparing to haul the government’s department of mineral resources and the mining company before court.

They have also launched a public resistance campaign and have used an authoritative environmental program on one of the state-owned television station’s three channels to urge viewers to call government officials to demand explanations. They have themselves been unable to get information or even to get through to these officials, but their telephone numbers and email addresses were repeatedly flashed on screen for the viewers to use.

What brought to a head their outrage at this latest instance of mining’s intrusion is the blatant manner in which just about every environmental, and in this case even cultural, consideration is being flouted. They fear the mine will deface the landscape, pollute the air, foul the area’s water resources, and do incalculable harm to the budding tourist trade.

The mining company, Australia-listed Coal of Africa Limited (CoAL), has already started massive land clearance and excavations, despite questions about the legality of their operation.

In a rare display of unity, environmental organizations have formed a consortium through which they have applied for a court interdict to stop the mining works. And, seemingly feeling itself under pressure from the public outcry, the national government’s department of environmental affairs has now also stepped in by calling a halt to construction and instructing the mining company to appoint an independent environmental consultant to assess its compliance with environmental legislation.

The reserve being threatened is the Mapungubwe National Park, a rugged terrain of about 70 000-acres (28,328 hectares) lodged against South Africa’s northern Limpopo River border with Zimbabwe and Botswana. It is an intriguing landscape of rocky outcrops and hills, and of grassslands and woodlands dotted by enormous baobabs, the ancient tree which locals laughingly say got planted on its head because the branches protruding from their huge cylindrical trunks look like roots groping in the air.

From footprints and fossils, the area was a favourite stomping ground of dinosaurs. The first humans to inhabit it were San people, who, as in other mountainous areas of southern Africa, have left their delicate and mysterious evidence of the way they viewed life and their surroundings in the form of a remarkably rich exhibition of rock art in caves and their old rock shelters around the area.

The settlement that has, however, been the most notable, is an African tribe that moved into the area by about AD 900. Whence their route led from the north is not clear, but, referred to as the Zhizo, it seems they joined up with some other group to found a civilization that pre-dated even the Great Zimbabwe dynasty, the famous ruins of which are situated a good way north in today’s state of Zimbabwe.

Until its discovery in the 1930s it was not believed that southward migrations by African tribes had reached so far and that it could have resulted in a community of such sophistication that it could be spoken of in terms of a nation state.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the height of its power must have been during the thirteenth century. An estimated 5,000 people were by that stage living in the valley, while their king and his household and guards were gloriously ensconced on a sizeable flat-topped hill that allowed entry only up a makeshift staircase along a crack running up the near-vertical cliff face.

Clearly, no one with ill intent would have made it safely to the top of the fortress of Mapungubwe, after which the park is called. The name has been given contradictory meanings, including “place of the stone of wisdom” and “place of the jackal”, or “place where jackals eat,” the latter apparently in reference to the bones scattered around the area that attracted the animals.

From pottery sherds, beads and wristbands, and, most significantly, from a gold-plated wood-carving of a one-horned rhino of the kind found in the East, and from a golden scepter and beads, the community clearly did flourishing business with countries like then Persia and others farther East.

It is largely because of its archaeological and anthropological significance that Mapungubwe was listed by the United Nations in 2003 as a World Heritage Site. So venerated it was by the African National Congress (ANC) government that took over when South Africa became an all-race democracy in 1994 that it named the country’s highest state award The Order of Mapungubwe.

The park is supposed as well to be the catalyst of an ambitious scheme to link it to adjacent land in Zimbabwe and Botswana to form what has already been decided to be called the Great Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. South Africa has been the driving force behind the scheme, the essence of which is to promote conservation and make ecotourism the region’s economic mainstay.

Considerable funds have been invested into consolidating the national park by buying out more intervening farms. A striking interpretive centre has been built near its entrance where artefacts from the ancient kingdom will be on display. There are also plans to allow game greater freedom of movement by opening the national park to adjoining private reserves and conservancies on the South African side.

Leading conservation organizations like the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF), WWF South Africa, and BirdLife South Africa have joined forces to oppose mining. Together with local community organizations they fear mining could endanger the reserve’s World Heritage status and jeopardise its extension and the transfrontier plans.

Lucas Machete, head of the local Machete community that won a land claim in terms of South Africa’s land-restitution program to an irrigation farm separating Mapungubwe Park into two parts, told me earlier this year he and his people have submitted strong objections to the mine with the government, but have received no response.

He said his community wanted to develop ecotourism. Mining was not sustainable. It was only going to cause destruction. Moreover, situated where it was on the Limpopo River border, it was going to attract more illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe. More crime, AIDS and such were going to result, he said.

“Our national heritage is being put at risk. My question to President (Jacob) Zuma is: ‘You bestow the Order of Mapungubwe. How can you allow the place after which so presitigous an award is named to be destroyed? Let the Australians go and mine in their own country,” he said.

On the 50/50 nature program on the SABC 2 television channel, environmentalists noted that while South Africa had good environmental laws, the problem lay with their implementation.

There were also repeated references to corruption and to the mining applicants having good connections.

Conservationists have been fighting mining’s intrusion in other sensitive areas. One is the Mpumalanga Lakes District, an extraordinary system of more than 300 lakes on the high grassland of Mpumalanga province in the country’s north-east, which is the source of four rivers. It is classified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) for being home to big flocks of water birds and for supporting a large number of threatened and near-threatened species.

Professor Terence McCarthy of the school of geosciences at the University of the Witwatersrand has done a study of the area with several fellow scientists. He said afterwards: “There is no other place like this in the country. Geomorphological uniqueness like this often goes hand in hand with biological uniqueness, which translates into high degrees of endemism.”

Another target has been Wakkerstroom, a system of wetlands and grasslands along the country’s eastern Drakensberg escarpment which is a world-renowned birding site. Even the country’s beautiful Cape winelands has had a close shave before public pressure caused a mining company to back off.

Conservationists have been urging the government to draw a map clearly delineating the ecologically sensitive areas of the country where industrial development like mining should not be allowed.

But BirdLife South Africa, an affiliate of BirdLife International, has noted in a statement that a significant number of these mining and prospecting applications were coming from the state’s own African Exploration & Mining Finance Corporation (AEMFC). It was indeed the same one that wanted to mine in the winelands.

The statement says: “It (AEMFC) is selecting areas without any apparent concern for the short-, medium- and long-term impacts on the environment and the water security of the country. This is distressing, as one would expect the state’s own mining company to act within the letter and spirit of our country’s conservation laws and strategies.”

It adds: “Mining companies are becoming more and more frantic in their race for land. BirdLife South Africa is not against mining and recognises the important role it plays in our economy. But it remains an essentially unsustainable industry with destructive effects on the environment. We cannot just look on as the scales get tipped against the environment and the livelihoods that depend on it. As conservationists, we ask for mining to be excluded from environmentally-sensitive areas…

“The Draft National Strategy on Sustainable Development and Action Plan 2010-2014 stresses that ‘there is an urgent need for a sustainable development strategy that will provide an enabling tool for South Africa to meet the country’s socio-economic objectives without compromising the environment’. These are promising words. The test, however, lies in their application, and that depends on the political will of our public representatives and government ministries.

“It is BirdLife South Africa’s fervent wish that we can all act together to secure these precious remaining parts of our natural environment for posterity,” the statement concludes.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn