Birds v. Coal: South African Court Asked to Decide

CAMBRIDGE, UK, November 17, 2008 (ENS) – Wildlife conservationists have applied to the South African High Court for a judicial review of permission granted to a British-South African company to mine coal in the core of one of South Africa’ most ecologically sensitive natural environments.

Conservationists contend the prospecting rights obtained by Delta Mining, a South African company, majority owned by London Mining as of October, are illegal and pose one of the most serious threats to South Africa’s natural heritage for decades.

They warn that extraction of coal from almost 200 square kilometers of the Wakkerstroom/Luneburg region, an area of wetlands and grassland east of Pretoria, would destroy habitats used by over 300 bird species.

One of the species at risk is South Africa’s national bird, the blue crane, Grus paradisea, which is listed as Vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

South Africa’s national bird, the blue
crane (Photo by Patrick Coin)

The sources of four major rivers are found in the region and all could be polluted by mining operations, the conservationists warn.

BirdLife South Africa, supported by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds based in the UK, has applied to the South African High Court for the judicial review of Delta’s prospecting rights in the Wakkerstroom/Luneburg region.

“This is one of the biggest threats to South Africa’s wildlife to emerge for decades,” warned Paul Buckley, RSPB Africa Specialist.

The groups maintain that these prospecting rights were obtained without proper consultation with affected landowners and without adequately taking the severe conservation impact of mining into consideration.

Their application is being opposed, by both Delta Mining and the South African Government’s Department of Minerals and Energy.

Delta Mining was awarded prospecting rights for the Wakkerstroom/Luneburg area in August and November 2007. The conservationists argue that the rights were awarded in violation of sections from the National Environmental Management Act and the Minerals & Petroleum Resources Development Act.

Both laws require consultation with interested and affected parties, which in this case includes landowners and environment groups, such as BirdLife South Africa, WWF–South Africa and the Ekangala Grasslands Trust.

“The Wakkerstroom/Luneburg region is irreplaceable and a significant area of this important natural heritage will be destroyed if the mining goes ahead,” warned Carolyn Ah Shene, of BirdLife South Africa’s Policy and Advocacy Division.

“The area is one of South Africa’s prize natural possessions, attracting large numbers of tourists who visit the region to see its unique landscapes, plants and animals,” she said.

Wakkerstroom’s high altitude grasslands host more than 300 species of bird and more than 100 endemic plants, and more than 80 percent of bird-watching trips in South Africa include Wakkerstroom in their schedule.

Wakkerstroom is also a base for one of BirdLife South Africa’s community conservation projects, as well as the Wings over Wetlands Project.

Among sites threatened by the prospecting is the Pongola Forest Reserve, which is a formally protected area and forms part of the Eastern Grasslands region.

Delta Mining claims in its Environmental Management Plan that there are “no threatened species on the site,” yet the conservationists point out that 13 of the country’s endemic bird species are found only in this grassland region and this area was designated an Important Bird Area by BirdLife South Africa in 2001.

Ah Shene said, “We have absolutely no confidence in the company’s promises of environmental safeguards. It has blatantly ignored the legal requirements for environmental impact studies so far, suggesting it has no regard for the impact of its proposed development on the region’s natural environment.”

“Thousands of people who depend on farming and tourism in the region will lose their jobs if mining goes ahead,” she said.

The groups are asking the South African government for formal environmental protection of the area targeted for coal mining.

“The South African government must show it values our biodiversity and the livelihoods of people who benefit from ecotourism by immediately assisting in the formal protection of this area. Formal protection will ensure that this area becomes a No–Go for any activity that will threaten this region and the environmentally sustainable activities linked to it,” said Ah Shene.

“This is one of the biggest threats to South Africa’s wildlife to emerge for decades,” said Paul Buckley, RSPB Africa Specialist. Wakkerstroom is known worldwide as a biodiversity hotspot and has long been a unique environmental showcase for South Africa.”

London Mining’s October acquisition of 50.5 percent of DMC Energy is the beginning of what the company calls “its strategic expansion into the coal industry.” With a 2.36 billion tonne portfolio of iron assets supplying, and being developed for, the global steel industry, London Mining believes this acquisition “will add substantial value to London Mining,” the company said in a statement October 13.

Christopher Brown, managing director of London Mining said, “This acquisition will form the basis of London Mining’s new Coal Division which we hope to grow rapidly in the future. We are particularly excited about entering into the coal business due to the strong demand from steel making and power generation that has resulted in major price increases this year, in a similar manner to iron ore.”

“British companies are improving their environmental records and we expect Delta Mining and London Mining to be equally responsible. They must go back to the drawing board, recognize the global importance of these grasslands and its biodiversity and undertake the required consultations legally required in South Africa,” said Buckley. “Those earning a living from showcasing Wakkerstroom’s rich natural environment expect nothing less.”

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