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January 30, 2010

How rampant mining is destroying the farms in South Africa's breadbasket

by Sipho Masondo

South Africa's best agricultural land is under threat as the department of mineral resources hands out a rapidly growing number of prospecting licences.

Experts are now warning of "disaster" and say that "food security is in serious danger" as mining companies try to cash in on the country's ever-growing demand for coal to feed power stations.

Scores of farmers in the Free State and Mpumalanga complain that the first they hear of applications approved by the department of mineral resources is when representatives of mining companies arrive on their farms to start drilling.

The department's spokesman, Jeremy Michaels, said that according to the department's latest annual report, it had received 20,163 applications to mine and prospect between 2004 and 2009 - of which 16,190 were accepted and 3653 rejected. Of the 16,190, 5805 were issued with mining and prospecting licences.
An investigation by The Times has revealed that:

  • At least 10ha of Gideon Anderson's maize farm in Wonderfontein, Mpumalanga, is useless because it has been polluted by heavy salts and metals from an unsealed water pollution control dam on a neighbouring farm now being mined by the Vuna Colliery.
One of Vuna's directors is Andrew Hendricks, husband of former department of minerals and energy minister Lindiwe Hendricks, whose department granted the right to mine the farm in 2006 while she was still minister. Vuna did not respond to request for comment.
  • Rookie le Roux, owner of a 4000ha farm near Chrissiesmeer, Mpumalanga, told The Times the DMR had granted two coal mining companies licences to prospect on his farm. He was only made aware of this when a representative of one of the companies arrived on his farm last month to inform him that he had 14 days in which to object to the department's decision; and
  • Pierre Duhain's 750ha farm near Carolina lies unproductive after he invested millions in an organic dairy and vegetable operation. A major food retailer cancelled his contract after mining company Black Gold Estates received a licence from the DMR to mine coal on an adjacent farm.
Duhain, who told The Times he first heard of Black Gold Estates' intentions when bulldozers arrived on his neighbour's farm, is taking the company to court.

Duhain said pollution from the mine would have decimated his crops and land.
Black Gold Estates spokesman Landlord Mbethe would only say: "We have been granted a mining licence".

Free State lawyer Kobus Botha, who represents farmers in the Viljoenskroon, Kroonstad and Bothaville area, told The Times that in the past 18 months, up to 25 notices have been served on farmers informing them that mining companies have been granted rights to prospect on their land.

The Mpumalanga Lake District Protection Group has launched at least five court actions to prevent companies from prospecting or mining on farmers' land - either because they didn't conduct adequate environmental impact assessments as required by law, or didn't consult the communities their operations will affect.

Botha said that until 2004, a property's mineral rights belonged to the land owner - but now the state is the custodian of all the country's mineral wealth.
Prospecting - a process that entails extensive drilling to establish the depth and quality of mineral deposits - affects not only the value of the farmer's land but the productivity of the soil.

"Once a notice for the right to prospect has been served, there is nothing more you can do. There is no participation process for the land owner, it is basically a negotiation between two third parties, the department of mineral resources and the prospecting companies. The role of the farmer is irrelevant," Botha said.

Grain SA chief executive Neil Ferreira said Mpumalanga and the Free State accounted for over half of the country's grain production. "Together with the North West, they produce about 80% of the country's grain and they happen to be the ones affected by mining activities," he said, adding that Mpumalanga's high rainfall made it the most stable grain-producing area in the country.
The province also produces fruit and vegetables, many of which are exported, said Agri SA Mpumalanga president Echardt Paul.

"Mines pollute our water resources. Mining licences are granted left, right and centre without proper consideration of the environment," he said. Paul said crop irrigation in Witbank, Delmas, Middelburg, Wonderfontein and Carolina was becoming increasingly difficult because of water pollution caused by mines.
Agri SA natural resources director Nic Opperman said vast tracts of highly arable and productive land was under serious threat from mining and prospecting.

He said he had received numerous complaints "from all the farming unions" in Mpumalanga - especially in areas like Middelburg, Delmas, Leandra, Wonderfontein, and Witbank, which lie on top of huge coal reserves.
"We are very concerned about the long-term viability of agriculture in that area," Paul said.

Farmers face having their produce rejected by the European Union if the quality of irrigation water continues to decline.

"I'm not being emotional about this, but the problem is huge. All the evidence is there to suggest that we are heading for disaster. Most of the mines are working without water licences," he said.

Opperman's claim was borne out by Water Affairs and Environment Minister Buyelwa Sonjica, who last year revealed the names of 38 of 104 mines known to be operating without water licences in the country.

Professor Anthony Turton of the University of the Free State's Centre of Environmental Management said only 20% of the country's agricultural land was highly productive and arable.

"Half of that is also where you find coal. We mine cheap coal to create cheap electricity. The cost of converting highly arable agricultural land into low-yield coal or wasteland has not been factored into mining," he said.

Reports have detailed how toxic water containing uranium, streaming out of an old mine shaft near Randfontein, west of Johannesburg, was threatening to flow into the Vaal and Limpopo rivers.

Democratic Alliance shadow agriculture minister and former Agri SA president, Lourie Bosman, said: "It's very serious and we are quite worried. Mining in Mpumalanga is severely impacting on the availability of agricultural land. That's just one problem. The other one is water pollution. Once water has been polluted by mines, it is close to impossible to rehabilitate it."

Bosman said acidic dust emanating from mines made vegetable farming impossible. "If we carry on like this, it's going to be a disaster. Food security is in serious danger."

Mining analyst Wonder Nyanjowa said South Africa's coal demand was outstripping supply. "The facts are that coal demand and supply fundamentals are robust with demand outweighing available supply. Any business person would want to get into this industry, produce coal and tap into rising coal prices."

The Times

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