Mining in Paradise? Caught Between A Rock And Heavy Minerals On The Wild Coast, South Africa


South Africa has its fair share of controversial mining proposals. In the late 1980s, the protracted and widely publicized conflict surrounding a proposed heavy minerals mine at St. Lucia (in the vicinity of what has now become a World Heritage Site) heralded a new era in which environmental groups can engage mining development interests in fierce contests enacted on a national stage. Local communities that would be most affected by proposed mining often risk becoming pawns in a battle between more powerful groups. Leading interest groups sometimes lose sight of the key interrelated elements of South Africa's charted course for sustainable development: wealth creation, environmental stewardship, and community empowerment.

A proposal to mine heavy minerals from coastal dunes at Wavecrest on the Wild Coast sparked a national outcry amongst environmental groups due to the pristine character of the Wavecrest area, its scenic beauty, and the diversity of its natural habitats, including patches of coastal dune forest and two estuaries. In addition to the environmental protest, local community leaders who live near the proposed mining area came out in opposition to the mine, fearing it would severely disrupt their traditional lifestyle.

Notwithstanding this broad opposition to mining, the Strategic Assessment of Resource Use Options at Wavecrest concluded that mining might, after all, represent a sustainable development option and that further feasibility studies and a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment should be prepared. This outcome was based on a number of conditions: an essential concern is whether these conditions will be fulfilled by the mining company.

Opposition to mining

Local opposition to mining amongst the Xhosa tribes living near the proposed mine was one of the most prominent aspects of the Wavecrest controversy. As reported in a national newspaper in an article entitled "Tribes put peace before prof-it,"

the Wildlife and Environmental Society [a prominent environmental NGO] was approached by Mr. Kekane, a leader from the local communities. He told the society: "a job and wealth is not an inheritance." Kekane made it clear that the local communities would rather forsake the lure of possible financial reward and continue to live in contented peace in their environment, free of the problems associated with ill-considered, inconsiderate development. (Mail & Guardian, 1999)

The strategic value of this local opposition for the environmental groups was crucial. The legitimacy of these groups has been questioned in South Africa on the basis of their almost exclusively white, affluent membership. Environmental groups are sometimes perceived as elitist and their conservationist agenda has been criticized for not incorporating -- or even damaging -- the interests of the poor and vulnerable.

Local community opposition to mining thus featured prominently in the environmentalists' campaign. This opposition was always characterized as unanimous and local communities were portrayed in such a way as to idealize the present interaction between local people and the natural environment: "A contented local community continue their tribal existence, in harmony with their surroundings and blissfully separated from the crime and discord outside of their Utopia." (Wavecrest Hotel, 1999) Such portrayals were somewhat misleading.

The opposition to mining included a wide variety of groups. They were mindful that exclusive opposition to mining without presentation of alternatives for socio-economic development would diminish their chances of success, particularly in the context of the impoverished status of the Wild Coast area. Meetings were organized at Wavecrest with a large and inclusive list of invitees to establish a plan for the sustainable development of the Wavecrest area, including initiatives such as community woodlots and small ecotourism ventures.

Mining company representatives were also present at one of these meetings, but their attendance turned out to be a public relations disaster. The mining company was branded as arrogant and exploitative by mining opponents and local community leaders, while those supporting the mining venture (particularly at the regional and provincial government level) felt that local communities had been fed misinformation and been cajoled by environmental groups.

The Strategic Assessment

In this highly charged setting, the provincial government commissioned a strategic assessment. Its primary purpose was to compare various resource use options in the area -- mining, agriculture, tourism, and conservation -- and to identify that resource use option, or set of options, best suited to the local environment and allowing for the most efficient and prudent use of available resources. It was intended as a screening mechanism in the early stages of the decision-making process, to gauge whether feasibility studies for the mine, including a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), should be allowed to take place. The 12member study team completed the study in roughly seven months. Their conclusion was that mining was a feasible option on the basis of the potentially vital roe a mining investment could play in such an economically depressed area.

The Wavecrest region s a particularly underdeveloped area n the poorest province in South Africa. In 1991, the Human Development Index for the area was a mere 0.18 compared to the national figure of 0.71. Social infrastructure in the area (schools, clinics, etc.) is extremely limited, and he bad roads are a severe constraint on agriculture or tourism. Given these conditions, the socio-economic benefits of the mine -- including employment, related multiplier effects, and infrastructure provision (such as tarred roads and water pipes) -- would far exceed the benefits from likely tourism and agriculture development.

With respect to the natural environment, the report supported many of the environmental groups concerns. It found that not only the coastal dune forests and estuaries, but also the wetlands and small patches of fynbos (plant communities characterized by fine-leaved bushes and reeds), represented important habitats, giving rise to high levels of plant diversity at the habitat and landscape levels. On a regional scale, however, these plant communities were not considered significant enough to preclude mining, especially as impacts on the forests could be minimized by sensitive planning. Water abstraction from the rivers feeding the estuaries, on the other hand, was identified as a potential fatal flaw for mining. In-depth research on this issue was stipulated as one of several conditions for mine planning.

Further, the assessment found that the opportunity costs of mining in terms of lost tourism or conservation value were not too significant, especially considering the long stretch of comparable coastline to the north of Wavecrest. The team argued that mining could co-exist to a significant degree with agriculture and (to a lesser extent) tourism and conservation if it was implemented as part of an integrated development plan.

Crucially, however, six fundamental prerequisites to continued mining development were established. They included an acknowledgement that mining may yet be ruled out on the basis of information provided by an EIA and that a comprehensive Environmental Management Plan be prepared guaranteeing the preservation of all forests and estuaries. The Strategic Assessment could not make a conclusive recommendation on the topic of local community opposition to mining. Hence, one of the most important conditions was as follows:

The opposition to mining amongst local communities remains a potential fatal flaw for mining in the area. Further planning for the mining option should only occur following an in-depth community participation program, implemented by independent facilitators. Significant time and resources need to be dedicated to this process.... However, if the outcome of this participation process reveals continued and widespread opposition to mining, then mining should be abandoned. (Coastal & Environmental Services, 2000)

Disregard for Local Communities?

As expected, environmental groups criticized the report as mining-friendly. Critics argued that local communities had been insufficiently involved in the study and that their views and interests had not adequately been considered.

The time and resource constraints faced by the study team made it impossible to undertake the kind of comprehensive and inclusive participation effort Warranted by the situation. This was especially true because the potential mine was a deeply controversial issue within the communities themselves. Opposition to mining was most fervent amongst elderly males -- those who owned cattle and were thus accorded greatest authority in the villages. It was these men who felt that they had most to lose: the mine would occupy some of their prime grazing land, and they were unlikely to benefit in terms of employment. They also felt that the mining development would undermine their authority, partly because of the improved status of employed youths, and they were concerned about the erosion of traditional customs.

This influential group of local opponents made communication between the study team and local communities extremely difficult. The men were highly suspicious of study team members, whom they suspected as undercover agents for the mining company. This antagonism was exacerbated by a long history of outside influences in the area, ranging from highly insensitive mineral prospecting activities to strong lobbying by environmental groups. Due to their high status in the villages, these men dominated meetings between the study team and the communities. They were extremely intolerant of community members -- mostly younger men or women -- with positive comments about mining.

This anti-mining group had a strong and direct effect on the study team's research. In one village, the team was threatened with violence if team members continued to talk with individual members of the community without prior consent of the committee of elders. This level of internal tension signifies that local opposition to mining was far from unanimous. The study team was hence faced with a dilemma: how can a conclusive report be written about the perceptions and views of the local communities if the study team is prevented from speaking to people? Should the traditional authority vested in the elders be accepted as the "community voice?"

These dilemmas were compounded by a number of factors. First, opposition to the mine was often based on limited and, at times, incorrect information as well as suspicion and underlying fears. A number of different companies had prospected in the area for more than 30 years and they had been very disrespectful of the local leadership, thereby creating a hostile attitude toward mining development and preventing open debate about the pros and cons of mining. Further, many of the local community members' perceptions of the mining proposal were based on information provided by external anti-mining groups.

The mining company and all those who supported mining (in the eyes of the elders this included the study team) were viewed by the elders as yet another intrusion by colonialist and exploitative forces, following the early white settlers, Apartheid rulers, and, after 1994, the central government. The battle against the proposed mine was thus framed as a conflict between tradition and modernity, between subsistence livelihoods and capitalist industry, and between traditional leadership and the state. This left little room for compromise or consensus-seeking negotiation and made it very difficult for the study team to engage with local communities, especially given time constraints. For this reason, a more comprehensive community participation program is required as a prerequisite for mining.

Scale is (Part of) the Problem

The issue of scale compounds the problem. On a national and provincial level, the prime imperatives are for employment and wealth creation. Given the severely underdeveloped socio-economic status of the Wavecrest area, the mining option could provide important support for national and provincial programs for job creation, infrastructure provision, and diversification of the economy.

Even on a local level, strong opposition to mining came primarily from the villages immediately adjacent to the proposed mine, while villages a little further inland were more open to the mine. Communities further afield had less to lose in terms of lost grazing land, and hoped to gain from better infrastructure and employment opportunities.

This issue of scale underlies the Strategic Assessment itself. It may be argued that because the mining proposal was ultimately the incentive for the assessment, local interests in rural development are insufficiently regarded or even dominated by top-down, industrial development interests originating outside the local area. On the other hand, should the question of whether or not to allow mining at Wavecrest be decided in isolation from the district, province, and country? It is evident that it cannot.

Hoping for the Impossible?

Compromise underlies the Strategic Assessment's conclusions. The report argues that mining could support sustainable development if certain conditions are fulfilled. The most crucial of these is the implementation of an indepth participation program, conducted by independent facilitators and provided with sufficient time and resources. Only by means of such a program can the explicit deficiencies of the Strategic Assessment be overcome and a satisfactory decision on mining taken. Ideally, such a program should support the creation of inclusive institutions where deliberations are based on trust and authentic participation.

Fulfilment of the conditions specified in the Strategic Assessment requires dedication and commitment, particularly from the mining company and regulatory authorities. Given that these authorities are limited in their capacity to monitor or even enforce conditions, much depends on the responsible and committed behavior of the mining company.

As argued by some of the report's critics, we should perhaps be cautious in hoping for responsible corporate behavior. If, for instance, mining were to cornmence after only a superficial participation program, a mockery would be made of the Strategic Assessment and severe resentment and even violent conflict might result. It is for this reason that the question of corporate responsibility is such a vital one in mining. Can critical surveillance by environmental NGOs and local community groups, international peer pressure and market demands, and coordinated government supervision provide sufficient incentives for the mining company to do the job properly or give up entirely on a project? The outcome of the proposed mine at Wavecrest may provide an answer.

References & further reading

Coastal & Environmental Services (2000). Strategic Assessment of Resource Use Options at Wavecrest, Centane District, Eastern Cape -Synthesis Report.

Hamann, R., Nongwe, N., & Andrew, M. (2000). Environmental assessment and rural development: Are they conflicting or complementary? In Proceedings of the IAIA Conference 2000. Worcester, South Africa.

Kepe, T. (1999). The problem of defining "community": Challenges for the land reform programme in rural South Africa. Development Southern Africa 16:3.

Mail & Guardian (1999, January 15-21). Tribes put peace before profit.

O'Riordan, T. & Ward, R. (1997). Putting trust in shoreline management. Land Use Planning 42:3.

O'Riordan, T., Preston-Whyte, R., Hamann, R., & Manqele, M. (2000). The transition to sustainability: A South African perspective. In The South African Geographical Journal 82:2.

Wavecrest Hotel (1999). The Mining Debate.

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