By Tony Carnie
DYNAMITE, dust, floodlights and convoys of coal trucks threaten to shatter the tranquillity of one of Africa’s oldest game reserves and “wilderness” areas.
A mining group is planning to blast open a new coal mine on the southern fenceline of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal.
Ibutho Coal (Pty) Ltd, a South African company that has been linked to a number of multinational mining groups, plans to cash in on soaring demand for coal in China, India and Europe.
But conservation groups believe the mining plan will diminish the ever-shrinking space for ancient landscapes insulated from the commerce and degradation of the expanding human economy.
iMfolozi game reserve – part of the larger Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park – was proclaimed as a game reserve in 1895, mainly to protect the last southern white rhinos left in the world. In 1958, the southern section of Imfolozi was also set aside as Africa’s first specially-protected wilderness areas. Wilderness areas are among the last wild, undisturbed areas of the natural world that are not controlled or developed by humans.
No roads, vehicles or permanent human settlements are allowed in the iMfolozi wilderness area, with access limited to conservation staff and small groups of tourists on foot who come to experience the unique and undeveloped spaces that make up less than 0.5 percent of South Africa’s land surface.
However, on January 27 the Department of Mineral Resources granted a mining right to Ibutho Coal to develop an open-cast coal mine in the Fuleni area, a 14 000-hectare block on the southern fenceline of Imfolozi.
According to a background information document prepared by the mining company’s environmental consultants, the mine would use conventional drilling and blasting techniques, with coal transported by road to a nearby railway siding, or directly to the Richards Bay Coal Terminal for export by ship.
Although an environmental impact assessment has yet to be done, most of the process is controlled and authorised by the Mineral Resources Department, rather than the Environmental Affairs Department.
Several conservation groups have expressed alarm and have started an online petition to block the project.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has not yet responded to requests for comment.
The Wilderness Action Group, the Game Rangers Association of Africa, the Global Environmental Trust, the Wilderness Foundation and the African Conservation Trust are expected to object strongly and rally opposition.
The latest proposal by the Ibutho group has heightened concerns about the expansion of coal mining and exploration by other companies along the western and eastern boundaries of the reserve.
Commenting on the recent expansion of coal-mining around the park, veteran conservationist Dr Ian Player said: “Here we have people coming from all over the world to experience the peace and tranquillity of the African wilderness and what they get instead is loud blasting noises that completely destroy the fundamental solitude of wilderness.”
An online petition circulated by several conservation groups suggests that parts of the main Fuleni mine would be less than 40m from Imfolozi’s wilderness area and include coal mine dumps and stockpiles up to 70m high.
“It is an open-cast mine, so there will be blasting, noise and dust that will intrude into the wilderness area, while artificial lighting at the mine will cause light pollution during the night,” the petition says. “South Africa has no shortage of mines, but a unique wilderness area with such a rich history can never be replaced.”
It remains unclear whether the mine has any direct foreign shareholders, but initial searches of company, director and Competition Tribunal records suggest that the Fuleni mine was linked to a 2008 Optimum Coal merger agreement to supply export coal to the Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton group through a black empowerment group.
Optimum was acquired by Glencore International plc, which has its headquarters in Switzerland.
While government correspondence to Ibutho Coal is directed to an address in Vryheid, the main Ibutho holding company is in Johannesburg. Directors include Peter Gain, Menzi Egbert Qweta, Pholwane Locksley Pege, Thembi Myeni, and former Richards Bay Minerals director Tom Borman.
Mining company consultants Jacana Environmentals and IDM Consultants say the anthracite coal from Fuleni is intended for export to China, India, Europe and the Middle East, with some for domestic use by Eskom, Xstrata and Samancor.