Mining companies are eyeing the last untouched stretch of the western coast of the Western Cape

The last, relatively unspoilt stretch of the Western Cape coastline between the Olifants River and the Northern Cape border is threatened by two new mining-related uses.

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The applications to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) are for prospecting rights at Karoetjies Kop 150 farm, which extends six kilometers inland and 15 kilometers along the coast north of the Soutriver.

SRK Mining (Pty) Ltd wants to search for diamonds along the coastline, targeting places where diamond giant De Beers had dug huge exploration trenches in the 1970s.

Nekwana Trading Enterprise (Pty) Ltd wants the prospecting rights domestically as it sees the opportunity to extract heavy minerals, kaolin and gemstones.

Environmentalists and local residents have raised the alarm about a “tyranny of small decisions,” where countless prospecting and mining applications and other development activities are individually approved by the government, without proper assessment of their cumulative impact on the environment.

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In the letter of acceptance to Nekwana, DMRE says the company is required to “consult” with the regional office of the department or the diamond prospector regarding operations on the same property. However, there is no requirement for a combined impact assessment of the two operations.

Professor Emeritus Merle Sowman, former head of the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at the University of Cape Town, has repeatedly called for a strategic environmental assessment of the cumulative effects of the growing mining footprint all along the west coast.

She has warned that applications are reviewed on an individual basis without the government understanding the overall impact and net effect of all of its various approvals.

Sowman says there is a general, lengthy and strategic decision-making process underway to determine where and when human activities can take place in South Africa’s ocean regions, as required by the Marine Spatial Planning Act, which came into effect in 2021.

But because so many approvals have already been given for prospecting and mining applications, as well as other coastal developments, she says, an overarching strategic environmental planning process to enable sustainable development on the West Coast will be undermined.

“It’s very worrying. There is tremendous pressure to allow more mining because the government sees this as economic growth potential, but no one is seeing the big picture,” she says.

Nekwana’s request

Nekwana Trading Enterprise (a company with a postal address in Polokwane, Limpopo) wants to find sillimanite, monazite, manganese ore, leucoxene, kaolin (clay) and garnets.

In its documentation, the company states that part of the prospecting work will include drilling operations with boreholes limited to a depth of 20 meters. Initially, twelve boreholes will be drilled to test target areas with up to ten or more boreholes depending on initial results.

The company says mining is already contributing to the economy of surrounding cities, such as Nuwerus, Bitterfontein, Lepelsfontein and Rietpoort, and will attract foreign investment through transportation and benefits. It says it will improve social cohesion in local communities.

The company says mining activities will boost local businesses and SMEs and reduce youth and general unemployment.

It says a kilometer-long ‘buffer zone’ will be created around the estuary and shoreline, where no drilling or activities will take place.

The final baseline assessment report and environmental management program documentation, including public comments, were submitted to DMRE on May 19.

Proposed selected target areas for new diamond exploration, highlighted in red, at Karoetjies Kop 150. The yellow lines show old De Beers exploration trenches from the 1970s. Source: SRK Mining (Pty) Ltd, Draft Basic Assessment Report and Environmental Management Programme.

SRK’s application

SRK Mining (Pty) Ltd, based in Koekenaap, wants to prospect ‘general’ and ‘alluvial’ diamonds on 296 hectares and the adjacent surf zone.

The application was accepted in April. A draft baseline assessment report and environmental management program was released to interested and affected parties for comment in June and closed on July 15.

SRK says it is applying for the area where De Beers/West Coast Resources had diamond prospecting rights in the surf zone – to about 32 meters out to sea from the low water mark and an average 800 meter wide coastal strip.

In December 2022, De Beers/West Coast Resources rights expired, and SRK Mining took the opportunity to apply for a new prospecting right for a small portion of the heritage right.

‘The only land use [in the area] is uncontrolled recreational activities with ad hoc campsites during the crayfish season. The environmental impact will be the same as with the informal campsites,’ says SRK.

It says there will be no prospecting during the summer and Easter holidays and all excavations will be made safe to allow free access during these periods.

“Having an authorized and environmentally friendly company on site will also help reduce the problem of illegal diggers, crayfish poaching, litter, illegal hunting and gathering of plants (firewood), a common occurrence along the West Coast,” said the statement. SRK.

According to the company, the preliminary evaluation involves 20 sample wells with a footprint of 11 by 8 meters and 6.5 meters deep. After the assessment, the wells are filled and repaired.

If the results are promising, mass samples will be taken from much larger trenches, but this will require additional consent, including another environmental impact assessment and specialist studies.

Environmentalists are expressing their concerns

Mike Schlebach, general manager of the non-profit organization Protect the West Coast (founded in 2020) writes on his website that the entire west coast “is in danger of becoming one huge mining site, all the way from Lambert’s Bay to the Namibian coast.” border’ – more than 500 km of coast.

Environmentalists say that where prospecting is approved, mining permits are inevitable if the value of deposits is deemed profitable.

Communications specialist Miles Masterson wrote on the website: ‘While not as disruptive as full-scale mining operations, the prospecting activities, such as collecting sediment samples and performing heavy mineral separation, can involve excavating and disrupting coastal ecosystems and habitats. In addition, given the mineral-rich quality of the area, the likelihood of these prospecting activities leading to actual mining is extremely high…in this pristine, pristine coastal zone.”

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Schlebach describes mining in the coastal zone as “an obsolete and destructive form of mining in which beaches are excavated to extract minerals for everyday use, such as cosmetics, with little or no rehabilitation.”

“It means the loss of heritage sites, the degradation of biodiverse areas and fragile ecosystems, the pollution of surrounding marine environments, the loss of livelihoods for local fishermen and a general decline of nearby communities.”

Allen Lyons, a retired geologist and former president of the Strandfontein Ratepayers Association, says: ‘It’s a bit like a food frenzy and we’re not winning a battle. It’s also a very expensive process, and by the time one of our appeals reaches the minister, the battle is usually already lost.’

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Image: Sacha Specker / GroundUp

Words: John Yeld / GroundUp

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