Human Impact

This is the editorial from the Mercury today, 18 June 2014

HOMO sapiens have been part of Earth’s natural community for many thousands of years, causing relatively minor changes to the structure of our planet. Our ancestors certainly used fire, axes and ploughs to clear very large tracts of land and forest to create farms or to gather building material, yet the overall impact of our species was largely insignificant when compared to the much more powerful forces of nature, such as volcanoes, climate, earthquakes, floods or glaciers.

But since the Industrial Revolution, humanity’s impact on the face of the Earth has become so far-reaching, and so dramatic, that some scientists argue that we have left the Holocene era behind, entering a new geological and historical epoch known as the Anthropocene (anthropo meaning “human” and cene meaning “new”). The global human population has also multiplied in less than 200 years from 1 billion to its current level of almost 7 billion, driving the global hunger for oil, minerals and other natural resources.

Now there are very few places that have not been transformed or damaged – despite the foresight of early conservationists and politicians who set aside some vestiges of the old world as nature reserves and game sanctuaries.
Yet even these enclaves remain insecure.

Now Imfolozi, one of the oldest game reserves and wilderness areas in Africa, is under assault as the Ibutho coal mining company prepares to blast open a rich seam of anthracite coal less than 100m from the reserve’s southern borderline.
If that happens, Imfolozi and its specially protected wilderness area will never be the same again. The tranquillity will be shattered by the sounds of blasting and the incessant noise of machinery and coal-hauling trucks. The dark night sky will be lit up by 24-hour floodlights, while a new industrial workforce and access roads are likely to create further opportunity for rhino horn and ivory poachers.

Because the proposed new coal mine is so close to the Mfolozi River, there is also a grave risk the environmental impacts will ripple out much further to threaten the quality and volume of clean water feeding nearby Lake St Lucia and the iSimangaliso World Heritage Site.

South Africa is desperate to create new jobs and economic growth, but this cannot come at the expense of our priceless natural heritage, tourism or fisheries. Our national and provincial leaders must act quickly to pull the plug on this unacceptable threat.


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