By Tony Carnie
This article appeared in the Mercury on Thursday, 26 June 2014.
As a new coal mine in rural KZN looms large, the local population fears its land and community will be torn apart.
THE LIVES of several hundred people in rural KwaZulu-Natal are about to be turned upside down once again as a local mining company gears up to blast open the earth next to their homes and export rich deposits of coal to China, India and elsewhere. Ibutho Coal stands to profit handsomely from digging up the deposits of export-grade anthracite coal on the borderline of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park near Mtubatuba.
But what is in it for the people whose land and community will be torn apart? asks Induna Timothy Mthethwa of the Ocilwane community. “We have not even been told where we will be relocated – or how many of us. There has been no proper process of consultation. How are we expected to agree to something so far-reaching for our community when we don’t know exactly what is happening and when we are not in a strong position to negotiate with these miners?”
To add insult to injury, Mthethwa recalls that his community was uprooted from ancestral land near Empangeni in 1963 and shifted to a new rural settlement on the southern border of the Imfolozi game reserve. Now, just over 50 years later, scores of residents of the Ocilwane, Ntuthunga and Fuleni area face the prospect of being shifted against their will to make way for a mining operation that has hitherto offered little more than a handful of lowpaying jobs, some new roads crowded with dusty coal trucks and an unspecified number of education bursaries to their children.
Seated in the shade of a thorn tree overlooking Mvamanzi Pan and the nearby Mfolozi River, Mthethwa and fellow members of his ward committee say they are under pressure by the mining company to take quick decisions that will affect the future of at least 300 households. “But how are we going to benefit from this? Will they give us shares in their company?” asks community elder TS Maphumulo. “We are scared that we will be pushed to make quick decisions and also be divided as a community.”
Despite the harsh realities of rural poverty, MQ Ndimande says several community members have managed to educate their children to tertiary level by raising and selling cattle. “If our land is taken away by the mine there will be no grazing for our cattle. How will we be able to educate our children? We don’t want a mine if it oppresses us.”
Another elder, who does not identify himself, recalls that when the community was relocated in the early 1960s the magistrate who ordered the eviction made a promise that they would not be moved again.
Amos Ndimande is also troubled by what lies ahead for his community, noting that they have consulted members of the nearby Somkhele community where another coal mine was opened some years ago. “We have spoken to the people at Somkhele, so we know what we can expect. We are very worried about losing our grazing land and about our cattle dying from drinking toxic water that is polluted by the mine. Even now, we are getting dust from Somkhele which can create problems like asthma. We are worried that our houses will crack up fromthe dynamite explosions that happen almost every day.”
Ndimande’s son, Phila, says he is prepared to toyi-toyi and go to court to challenge the mining company until he gets answers to the many questions left unanswered. “We also know from the people at Somkhele that the money they were given to build new homes ran out quickly,” he said.
So far, the opposition to the proposed Fuleni/Ibutho coal mine has focused largely on the negative impacts to the ecology and tourism in the neighbouring Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and the iSimangaliso/St Lucia World Heritage Site.
Roger Porter, former head of conservation planning for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, says he has several serious environmental concerns about the mining proposal. But it was also vital for government decision-makers to ensure that the full sociological implications of the mining plan were investigated thoroughly.
Porter says the new mine is likely to destabilise a cohesive community because of the potential for crime, prostitution, health problems, blasting noise, dust, water pollution, the loss of grazing land, crop land and sacred sites. “No one seems to have informed the Fuleni community of the full implications.”
A draft scoping study by Ibutho’s environmental impact consultants appeared to focus on the macroeconomic benefits of mining at a national or regional scale, with scant attention give to the micro-economy of the people living in the 14 000 hectare mining lease area. “It is this micro-economy that is fundamental to the livelihoods and welfare of the Fuleni community,” says Porter, who visited the area this week with local and foreign journalists and community activists from other parts of the country who provide advice on the social and environmental implications of mining. They include Sifiso Dladla, KZN representative of Mining Affected Communities United in Action, and Robby Mokgalaka, coal programme campaigner from the Pietermaritzburg group groundWork.
Porter said he was worried that Ibutho Coal was being “disingenuous” by failing to disclose the possibility of further mining projects in the Fuleni area. “They are starting in arguably the least controversial area where there are fewer people and sited close to the Mfolozi River as a water source. Their strategy appears to be to gain a foothold for the first mine and then develop other mines. “If the government agrees to permit the first mine it would have few legal grounds to prevent or refuse further opencast mining that will affect many other people.”
Peter Rutsch, a member of the board of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife who also visited Fuleni this week, said the provincial conservation agency had several concerns about a major opencast coal mine being built within 70m of the boundary line of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and specially zoned wilderness area. While these concerns had to be balanced against the interests of rural development, Ezemvelo believed there should be a significant buffer strip to separate industrial scale mining from flagship conservation areas such as the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park. Rutsch said he would report back to the board soon on his visit and advise on what legal options were available to ensure that Ibutho followed a fair and comprehensive environmental impact process.
Ibutho Coal has declined to comment on issues of the community. Spokeswoman Megan Hunter said the company stood by its decision taken last month to refrain from commenting on the Fuleni mine proposal until it was in a position to provide meaningful feedback on concerns raised. “With regards to the issues raised in your e-mail regarding the community, all positive and negative impacts on the community will be addressed in the specialist studies currently being conducted and will be communicated and discussed with the community as part of the EIA process,” she said. “Please rest assured that direct consultation with all the relevant stakeholders and affected parties is ongoing.
“Further communication in this regard will be forthcoming as and when appropriate,” said Hunter.