By Vivien van der SandtThis article appeared in the Daily News on Monday, 30 June 2014.
A NORTHERN KwaZulu-Natal community that faces being uprooted if a proposed coal mine is approved have said their neighbours’ bitter experience with a mining company had largely influenced their decision to oppose it.
The Fuleni anthracite mine, planned only 40m away from the border of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park’s (HiP) Wilderness area, has galvanised environmentalists who have launched a global campaign to stop the development.
On Tuesday, global lobbyists Avaaz.org and the Global Environment Trust took foreign and local journalists on air trips to see the area, followed by a road trip to meet the community.
The affected community of Ocilwane, with around 300 households, is separated by the Mfolozi River from the huge open-cast Somkhele mine, South Africa’s largest producer of metallurgical anthracite, which has been operating since 2007.
Acting as translator for the leadership of Ocilwane, local resident Philaa Ndimande told journalists, “We are in touch with the Somkhele community (about 12km away) across the river, and we are talking to them. These people are talking to us and making us aware that we are in big trouble (if the proposed Fuleni mine goes ahead).”
He said that the neighbouring community felt that Somkhele’s bosses had made many promises while they were seeking the permissions needed to mine, but had reneged on them. They fear the same will happen with Ibutho Coal, which is planning the Fuleni mine.
Ndimande explained that, as part of the agreement that Somkhele’s representatives struck with the community at the time, graves were moved. But, more than seven years later, no headstones have been erected, so families did not know where their loved ones are buried. Families had also been told they would be given a goat and a cow for each relocated grave, in order to perform the traditional rituals, but they had been given cash instead, which did not cover the cost of buying the animals.
Those forced to relocate had not been able to rebuild their houses either, said Ndimande. “People are still crying. They took money thinking that it was enough, but it wasn’t.”
The Ocilwane community say they already affected by the blasting and the dust from Somkhele, and respiratory problems such as asthma are rife. Cattle have also been dying, and they believe the mining operation has caused a water shortage, and polluted the water.
Invited to respond, Johan Gloy, CEO of Tendele Coal Mining (the owner and operator of the Somkhele anthracite mine), said, “Formal agreements regarding grave relocations were signed between the mine and individual community members. It was specifically agreed that headstones would not be erected due to the risk of vandalism.
“People were given the opportunity to choose between a cash payment of R8,500 or a goat and a cow. Most people chose to take the money.
“The mine is satisfied that all compensation agreements have been fulfilled.”
Gloy denied that their operation had affected either air or water quality in the area. “Dust and vibrations are continuously monitored, and reports are submitted quarterly and annually to the Department of Mineral Resources,” he said.
“All community complaints related to dust, noise or blasting damage are investigated by external parties, with feedback given to the complainant.
“Somkhele’s water use is strictly regulated and management is confident that the mine complies with all national legislation governing water use. There is zero discharge of water from the Somkhele mine,” said Gloy.
Avaaz flew journalists, campaigners and environmental specialists over the sprawling Somkhele opencast pit, populated by trucks, dredgers, earth-moving equipment and a coal-washing plant.
On flights manned by The Bateleurs, an NGO “flying for the environment”, journalists were also shown the unspoilt area where the two Mfolozi rivers – the Black and the White – converge. There are gently rolling hills sprinkled with traditional houses, and orderly communities with clinics, schools and other amenities.
This is where Ibutho Coal, which Somkhele/Tendele Coal Mining says is not connected to them, is seeking permission to mine only 40m from the famous iMfolozi Wilderness area, on the south-east side of the park.
The campaigners fear that such a development would be the death knell for an environment already under pressure from Somkhele, which is only 5km from the eastern boundary of the HiP, as well as Zululand Anthracite Colliery on the western side.
Four communities in this area will be uprooted, and an important natural reserve (HiP) will be devastated if the Fuleni mine goes ahead, the lobbyists believe.
The Ocilwane community is also opposed to being uprooted. They told the visiting delegation that they had already suffered the disruption of having been moved from their ancestral land near Empangeni in the 1960s by the apartheid government, to make way for an agricultural college.
Local leaders claimed that Ibutho Coal had already, during the prospecting phase, adversely affected their community. The company had dug almost 2 000 boreholes and pits, and left them uncovered, which was a hazard to people and cattle. It also left metal poles in the ground that were obscured by grass, and which were damaging vehicles and injuring people and cattle.
Ibutho Coal representatives had called meetings with the community and made all sorts of promises, such as paying for bursaries and providing jobs, said Philaa Ndimande. “The mining companies’ strategy is always the same.”
Local Induna Timothy Mthethwa said the community felt they needed a lot more information before they could deal with the mining company. They feel pressured to make quick decisions when they do not have all the information they need. They had not even been told which households would have to be relocated, and where they would have to go.
Added elder, Amos Ndimande: “We will keep this up (the resistance) until all our questions are answered.”
Avaaz and the Save Our iMfolozi Wilderness group, which first revealed the mining plan, have collected about 60 000 signatures opposing the Fuleni mine, via online petitions.
Avaaz has also written to newly appointed Mineral Resources Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi requesting a meeting, and asking him to safeguard the HiP.
Avaaz campaign director, Alex Wilks has told Ramatlhodi that the Mthethwa Tribal Authority never gave consent for Ibutho Coal to proceed with its application for prospecting rights in Fuleni. Avaaz says “the company has been prospecting – almost certainly illegally – in the area since 2006”.
The company had also failed to notify and obtain permission from the landowner, the Ingonyama Trust, says Avaaz.
Ibutho Coal was invited to respond to these allegations but had not done so at the time of going to press. Spokeswoman Megan Hunter is on record as having said that the company will not comment while the statutory processes are ongoing.
Avaaz has put strong emphasis on the threat to rhinos, should the Fuleni mine get the go-ahead. The Ocilwane elders pointed out that they are presently involved in fighting rhino poaching, as part of an initiative that has been rolled out at all communities around the HiP.