By Richard Compton
Two of KwaZulu-Natal’s most respected and experienced conservationists have jointly argued that the controversial ‘Fuleni’ coal mine envisioned to be established right on the boundary of the Wilderness area of the historic iMfolozi Game Reserve will undermine and in some cases destroy the very fabric of managing Protected Areas in KZN, if not South Africa.
Both argued that the proposed coal mine could only be viewed as “destructive and of no benefit to anyone – save vested interests”.
Oscar Mthimkhulu, manager of the Maloti Drakensberg World Heritage Site and Jabulani Ngubane, manager of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP), expressed their “increasing dismay” at the damage the mine would cause to tourism, wildlife and natural resources alike, as well as devastating the livelihoods of local communities presently living in the path of the mine.
As trustees of both biodiversity and the management of HiP, they are charged to manage, serve and sustain the State’s fiduciary and legal duties with regards to managing Protected Areas as the people’s common heritage.
The mine’s location and activity would also “wholly undermine” environmentally sensitive business models presently being pursued.
“From where I sit this ‘Fuleni’ coal mine looms as a death knell to our historic and internationally recognised Wilderness area where vast numbers of people, locally and internationally, year in and year out come on trail. Even the mining company Ibutho Coal acknowledges this. The knock-on, adverse affects of the mine to the larger HiP are threatening to say the least,” said Mthimkhulu.
For Ngubane, nothing in his 16 year-long career in conservation (save perhaps the titanium mining issue at Lake St Lucia) has ever posed more of a threat to Zululand’s natural environment.
“The location of this mine less than 100 metres from the Wilderness boundary will not only mean that this status will disappear, but the impact of constant noise, dust, night time lighting, alien plant infestation, seismic vibrations etc. will undermine the ‘Sense of Place’ and the essential attraction for people coming to visit our premier Big 5 game reserve,” he said.
The loss of this wilderness heritage meant future generations will never experience it: “This is a travesty. Apartheid denied these people full enjoyment of this Park and now a mine stands to do the same”
He reminded people that at some 31 500ha, the Wilderness area of HiP was about the same size as the entire Mkhuze Game Reserve: “We are not talking about a molehill here.”
The influx of people to work the mine and the enhanced road access to the area, he said, would only heighten the prospect of increased poaching as well. He emphasised the significance attached to this Wilderness area where above all else it represents one of the most popular breeding sites for both White and Black Rhino.
Both appealed to the South African government as well as the mining company Ibutho Coal to give “serious and informed thought” to this application and provide an alternative location for the mine.
Mthimkhulu said the Fuleni coal mine went to the heart of conservation’s greatest challenge; making the discipline meaningful to local people’s wellbeing and ridding it of its historic, colonial image of marginalisation and exclusivity.
“You have to marry the interests of Protected Areas with the potential impacts of such business on our core responsibility to protect and manage such areas for the benefit of all people and not just the mine’s shareholders. If this mine is allowed to happen, then we are merely saying that anywhere – and everywhere – is up for grabs, whatever the damage to our natural ecosystems and the people residing in the specific area.”
Mthimkhulu is well placed to make comment on protecting Wilderness having over the past nine years been at the forefront of both managing the Maloti Drakensberg World Heritage Site (WHS) and more recently steering a process that will see a Buffer Zone established around the WHS to ensure that development and activities outside of the Park are compatible with the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage designation.
Establishing where the buffer needs to be located and establishing what constitutes appropriate development activities within the buffer zone is all about consultation and receiving by-in from others organs of state, interest groups and directly affected parties.
“I’m alarmed to read that our authorities and Ibutho Coal have so far not done this and have repeatedly postponed their required mandate of telling our local communities at Fuleni about where the proposed mine will go and what precise impact it will have on them.”
It was also a “major concern” that Ibutho Coal has failed to work with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife to define such an acceptable buffer to the Park, despite being asked to by the relevant provincial authority.
Ngubane placed great emphasis on the mine’s impact on overturning established and future business practices.
“What is being ignored here is the real and genuinely enormous potential that eco-tourism and related activities will have on our regional economy. This mine will simply destroy these models.”
Ngubane has been central to the roll-out of what is considered the most exciting and progressive community-led expansion of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park ever. Some two years in the making, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is on the cusp of signing off on an initiative that will see three Amakhosi in the same south-eastern area where the coal mine is being mooted, fuse some 7 000ha of community land with the park.
“This Big 5 Reserve demonstrates that traditional leadership is prepared to forsake quick-fix solutions to unemployment and instead embrace eco-tourism as a sustainable and sensitive business model for the long-term benefit of their people. They are knocking on the door to invest in their future, and all this is now at risk.”
He added this 7000ha was only Phase 1 with Phase 2 and 3 enlarging this footprint to some 18 000ha: “Yet the realisable vision is much larger where HiP could quite feasibly be expanded to link up with Opathe Game Reserve outside Ulundi and the Kwasanguye community conservation areas as well as the eMakosini Valley of the Kings”.
This vision, he continued, is to realise the uMfolozi Biodiversity Economy Initiative which stands to from a megapark on the southern reaches of Ulundi making this town the Gateway to Zululand.
““I am quite convinced that the employment this mine says it will create is miniscule against this larger vision. The jobs created by this initiative cannot ever be outweighed by a 30 year mine!