Statement on environmental MEC’s decision to exclude properties from the Mabola Protected Environment to enable a new coal mine
15 February 2021 - We, a coalition of eight non-profit public interest organisations, have been challenging the authorisation of a large new coal mine inside a declared Protected Area and Strategic Water Source Area in Mpumalanga since 2015.
We condemn the recent decision by MEC VR Shongwe, the Mpumalanga MEC for Agriculture, Rural Development, Land and Environmental Affairs, to revoke the protected area status for a large part of the Mabola Protected Environment in order to enable that new coal mine to proceed.
The Mabola Protected Environment
The Mabola Protected Environment near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga was declared in 2014 under the Protected Areas Act. That declaration followed years of extensive scientific research, planning and consultation by a number of government agencies, including the Department of Environmental Affairs, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the Water Research Commission (WRC), the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Mpumalanga Tourism & Parks Agency. There was also extensive public consultation, including with the proponent of the mine, all of which was taken into account by the then MEC before she made her decision to give the area protected status.
That 2014 declaration of the Mabola Protected Environment gave formal protection to this area under the Protected Areas Act. One of the protection measures imposed by that law is that no commercial mining may take place in a Protected Environment without the joint permission of the Ministers of Environmental Affairs and Mineral Resources.
The Mabola Protected Environment has strategic value and importance for a number of different reasons. Most crucially, its grasslands with extraordinary biodiversity fall within the Enkangala-Drakensberg Strategic Water Source Area, one of only 22 such areas in South Africa. Together, these 22 Strategic Water Source Areas across South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland comprise only 10% of the country’s land area, yet produce 50% of the freshwater. They are strategic because they supply water to South Africa’s largest urban centres and agricultural areas, and support downstream economies and ecosystems. The Enkangala-Drakensberg Strategic Water Source Area specifically supports water for Gauteng’s economic hub of Johannesburg and Tshwane as well as various towns and agricultural regions in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State.
The MEC’s decision
The MEC’s decision revokes the protected area status for a large part of the Mabola Protected Environment to allow a large new coal mine to be established there. This decision is objectionable for many reasons, of which we list a few below.
- The decision disregards the reasons why this Protected Environment was declared, such as protection of the area due to its biological diversity and the provision of environmental goods and services, protection of a specific ecosystem, and protection to ensure that the use of natural resources in the area is sustainable.
- The decision undermines South Africa’s existing protected area network, and makes a mockery of South Africa’s dedicated efforts at protected area expansion. The National Development Plan seeks the implementation of the protected areas expansion strategy, and targets have been nationally agreed for the preservation of South Africa’s environmental infrastructure and services.
- The decision also sets a dangerous precedent for the withdrawal of protection for protected areas, including national parks, to allow mineral deposits to be mined inside these iconic places of natural heritage that belong to all South Africans.
Strategic Water Source Area
- The new coal mine would fall within the Enkangala-Drakensberg Strategic Water Source Area.
- As long ago as 2013, the Department of Water and Sanitation published the South African National Water Resource Strategy II. That Strategy affirms government’s commitment to the protection of Strategic Water Source Areas because “these areas form the foundational ecological infrastructure on which a great deal of built infrastructure for water services depends. They are thus strategic national assets that are vital for water security, and need to be acknowledged as such at the highest level across all sectors”.
- South Africa’s 22 Strategic Water Source Areas were identified as part of a multi-year government-funded collaborative project by the Water Research Commission (WRC), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), with review and refinement by the CSIR.
- In 2018, the Water Research Commission published a briefing note to the Minister of Water and Sanitation in which it urged the declaration of all Strategic Water Source Areas as Protected Areas for the sake of South Africa’s water security. (“Declaration of Strategic Water Source Areas as Protected Areas: towards South Africa’s water security”)
- In 2019, the DWS published the Water and Sanitation Master Plan, which provides that: “these strategic water sources (‘water factories’) must be protected and maintained through appropriate regulation.” It lists the protection of Strategic Water Source Areas as a key action for 2021: “Declare strategic water source areas and critical groundwater recharge areas and aquatic ecosystems recognised as threatened or sensitive as protected areas (Volume 3, Action 1.6.1) DWS, CMAs, DEA 2021”
- Both Minister of Water and Sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu, and Environment Minister, Barbara Creecy, have told Parliament that their departments are in the process of creating legal protection for Strategic Water Source Areas.
Grasslands conservation and climate adaptation
- A new coal mine will compromise Mabola’s grasslands, and the crucial ecosystem services that these grasslands provide. Some of these include carbon sequestration, mitigation of droughts and floods, generation and preservation of soil fertility, protection from soil erosion, pollination of crops and natural vegetation, contribution to climate stability and wetland support and provision of clean water. All of these are particularly crucial in an era of climate crisis that is increasing the incidence of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods.
- The MEC’s exclusion of the property also flies in the face of the 2020 Dr Pixley Ka Isaka Seme Local Municipality Spatial Development Framework, which lists the Wakkerstroom landscape – including its grasslands, forests and wetlands – as a “priority conservation site” where “steps must be undertaken by authorities to ensure that the natural environment is protected at all costs … no development will be allowed in areas that include any form of water bodies. It is the role of a spatial development framework to ensure that the natural environment and ecosystem is protected at all costs. This municipal policy is legally binding.”
Greenhouse gas emissions
- Underground coal mines, such as the proposed coal mine that the MEC seeks to facilitate, are large direct contributors of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions, particularly methane gas: ventilation causes significant quantities of methane to be pumped into the atmosphere. Methane is estimated to have a global warming potential 23 times higher than carbon dioxide.
- The MEC’s decision stands in stark contrast to South Africa’s Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, 2019, as well as its international climate change commitments to mitigate GHG emissions and indeed Mpumalanga’s Climate Change Declaration.
- The properties that the MEC has excluded from protection are located in the Mpumalanga Highveld air pollution hotspot declared by the Minister of Environment in 2007 as the Highveld Priority Area (HPA), within the Dr Pixley Ka Isaka Seme Local Municipality. The poor ambient air quality within the HPA causes devastating harm to the lives and health of the people living within and around the area. Long-term exposure to moderate and high levels of air pollution causes significant harm to human health, including: decreased lung function; the accelerated deterioration of the lungs and heart; and the development of diseases such as asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, tuberculosis and cancer. Allowing additional air pollution from new coal mining in a pollution hotspot is not in the interests of affected communities – particularly vulnerable groups like the aged, children, pregnant women and people with existing respiratory and cardiac disease – and flies in the face of the declaration of the priority area.
Destruction of road infrastructure
- This mine’s coal would be trucked out of the area. It is the local communities who will bear the burden of increased air pollution from the coal haulage, and the further deterioration and destruction of roads that is evident in other parts of the Mpumalanga Highveld where coal mining is underway.
Viability of the mine
- The mine’s proponent has indicated that it intends to export a portion of coal mined, and sell the remainder to Eskom for burning in its coal power stations. The MEC’s decision ignores the significant drop in national coal-fired electricity demand, and a significant decline in demand for South African coal in major export markets.
Impacts on mining communities
- The MEC’s decision ignores this mine’s own Environmental Impact Assessment Report on the direct cost of the mine to local communities. This includes the displacement of existing jobs and compromise of existing access to clean water. It also ignores the mine’s own concessions about the limited extent to which it will employ local people to work on the mine.
- More generally, various members of our coalition have worked in coal communities in South Africa for decades, and have produced research reports evidencing the detrimental impacts of coal mining on local people and communities: instead of jobs and prosperity, local communities suffer a loss of access to water, livelihoods, health and cultural heritage and bear the brunt of increased temperatures and extreme weather events.
Circumventing the Protected Areas Act
- The MEC’s decision to exclude the proposed mine area from the Mabola Protected Environment is an obvious attempt to circumvent the joint Ministerial permission required to allow commercial mining in the Mabola Protected Environment – permission which must be sought from Environment Minister Creecy and Minerals and Energy Minister Mantashe. It also appears to be an attempt to avoid an earlier court judgment setting aside an approval previously given unlawfully.
- In terms of the Protected Areas Act, commercial mining is prohibited in a protected environment unless permission to do so has been granted by both the Minister of Environmental Affairs and the Minister of Mineral Resources. In November 2018, the Pretoria High Court set asidethe 2016 decisions of the then Minister of Mineral Resources, Mosebenzi Zwane, and the then Minister of Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, to permit this new coal mine to be developed inside the Mabola Protected Environment. In doing so, the court made a punitive costs order against the Ministers and the MEC for Environment in Mpumalanga because it found that there was no justification for their lack of transparency and departure from the requirements of the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act.
- The mine’s proponent attempted four times to challenge that judgment – most recently in the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court, however, left the Pretoria High Court decision intact and awarded costs against the company.
- In October 2018, two days before the hearing in the Pretoria High Court, MEC Shongwe published his intention to exclude the proposed mining area from the Mabola Protected Environment, and called on the public to submit their comments and objections. The Coalition submitted a comprehensive objection to the proposed exclusion in December 2018. In January 2019, the MEC withdrew this notice without explanation.
- However, on 9 August 2019, MEC Shongwe once again published notice of his intention to exclude the proposed mining area from the Mabola Protected Environment. The Coalition submitted a comprehensive objection to this second proposed exclusion. In June 2020, the Coalition made representations to an advisory panel appointed by the MEC to make a recommendation to him regarding this exclusion.
- Following these representations, there has been no publication of the advisory panel’s report.
- The Coalition has submitted a request for reasons for the MEC’s decision under the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act, 2000.
Mpumalanga’s Development Path
- Like many parts of South Africa, Mpumalanga suffers from high levels of poverty and inequality, and unemployment is rife. These are matters of great concern to all the members of the Coalition. However, starting another coal mine cannot be the answer.
- This mine would never create meaningful local employment to justify the local and downstream consequences of compromising this Strategic Water Source Area and the long-term water pollution, the health impacts of air pollution, the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, and the loss of natural resources like grasslands, wetlands and water supply, so essential for South Africa’s ability to protect itself from the worst impacts of climate change.
- The Socio-Economic Impact Assessment Report commissioned in 2013 by the proposed mine records that “the majority of of labour and employees are likely to come from outside the A[rea of] D[irect] I[nfluence] due to lack of skills locally”. In addition, the mine’s Social and Labour Plan notes that although the mine will provide 48 learnerships, that these learnerships will not necessarily lead to employment.
- Ten years ago, the Mpumalanga provincial government convened a high level Climate Change Summit, and adopted the Mpumalanga Climate Change Declaration. That declaration acknowledged the reality and importance of climate change, and committed to mitigating climate change impact through reducing greenhouse gas emissions; working to reduce the impacts of climate change through adaptation; ensuring the conservation of biodiversity in the province; ensuring the contribution of ecosystem goods and services to the social and economic development of the province; increasing the contribution of a low carbon footprint in the economy of the province through the promotion of renewable energies and the creation of sustainable livelihoods; promoting the development of a green economy; and encouraging government, business and industry to engage in sustainable climate change projects in Mpumalanga. (http://www.mpumalanga.gov.za/dedet/news/Archive/climateChange.asp)
- Clearly, the MEC’s decision on Mabola contradicts these commitments, and undermines the prospects of local people to engage in the green economy and to protect themselves and their communities from the impacts of climate change. Instead of another polluting, climate destructive coal mine that will benefit only a few and keeps Mpumalanga captive to the dying coal economy, the people of Mpumalanga deserve a development path that is inclusive and sustainable.
The Coalition defending the Mabola Protected Environment comprises the Mining and Environmental Justice Communities Network of South Africa, groundWork, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, BirdLife South Africa, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, the Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD) and the Bench Marks Foundation.
The Coalition is represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights.
 In September 2019, in a Parliamentary Question and Answer on Strategic Water Source Area protection, Water and Sanitation Minister Sisulu concluded: “To regulate the SWSAs, an inter-departmental task team has been set up to explore the restriction of certain activities that have a negative environmental impact in terms of Section 24(2)(a) of the National Environmental Management Act, Act 107 of 1998. In collaboration with the Department of Environmental Affairs and the South African National Biodiversity Institute, my Department is exploring legal mechanisms that can afford these areas with the best protection and regulation.” In October 2019, in a Parliamentary Question and Answer on Strategic Water Source Area protection, Environment Minister Creecy concluded that: “The work to increase protection of SWSAs and their surrounding sensitive ecosystems is being undertaken during the current 2019-2024 Medium Term Strategic Framework.”
 The National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, 2019 adopted by Cabinet in 2020 provides for measures that include the adoption of climate resilient approaches to natural resources management to restore and maintain ecosystem goods and services (1.1.20, p.29), and the protection and conservation of South Africa’s most vulnerable ecosystems, landscapes and wildlife (1.1.23, p.29).