Namaqualand Coast and De Beers Mine

Mar 16, 2011

MISSION  03 of  2011

Name of Mission: Namaqualand Coast and De Beers Mine       
Date of Mission: 16 March 2011
Aircraft used: Cessna 172      
Pilot: Gerhard Mew    
Beneficiary: Tessa Mildenhall of Conservation South Africa

Objective of the Flight

To  capture visual imagery of the impact that mining has had on the west coast of South Africa, in particular the DeBeers Namaqualand Diamond Mine

Beneficiary’s story of the mission        By Tessa Mildenhall

On the 16th March 2011 Conservation South Africa (CSA) flew a team of investigators, on a Bateleurs-supported flight, from Cape Town along the west coast to the mouth of the Orange River in Port Nolloth.  The objective of this flight was to capture visual imagery of the impact mining has had on the west coast of South Africa, and in particular the DeBeers Namaqualand Diamond Mine.  The team of investigators included: the pilot, Gerhard Mew;  a journalist from Die Burger,  Jorisna Bonthuys; the CEO of CSA, Sarah Frazee; and cameraman, Ian Miller (on behalf of  the Biodiversity Mainstream Communications Programme of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).

In its heyday the DeBeers Namaqualand Diamond Mine employed more than 3,000 people in the area.  With the downscaling of the mine by De Beers, and the consideration of subsequent decisions concerning the sale and the transfer of mineral rights of the mine, it is important for CSA to engage with the process.  In particular, as DeBeers moved forward with their sale process, CSA wanted to contribute as much information and as many visual aids as possible, in support of a campaign to stimulate media interest and generate awareness of the importance of the area, amongst all stakeholders and decision makers.

Why do we care?
Locked up for nearly a century inside tightly restricted access, the DeBeers  Namaqualand Mine is home to two of South Africa’s unique claims:

  1. a wealth of biodiversity which includes species of plants and animals seen nowhere else on planet earth;
  2. one of the largest mining footprints in the country, in terms of the area that has been disturbed in the mining process.  While the first claim is an asset, in that the botanical “gems” of the Namaqualand Coast provide one of the few long-term benefits for the livestock of populations, and their ecotourism industries, the second, is arguably one of its greatest liabilities, with large tracts of disturbed coastal lands that now have limited economic development potential.

The Namaqualand Mine is located in the Succulent Karoo Hotspot, one of only two entirely arid ecosystems in the world to earn Hotspot status. The Succulent Karoo boasts one of the greatest numbers of reptiles and tortoises, as well as the richest succulent flora on earth, with 69 percent completely unique to this region.  Since the mining operations fall within this global conservation priority, CSA has historically worked with DeBeers on developing a sustainable closure strategy.  However, late last year De Beers decided to sell rather than close the Namaqualand Mine.  CSA has tried repeatedly to engage DeBeers with recommendations and strategies on how, responsibly, to sell their Namaqualand Mine to a new company.  But DeBeers has ignored CSA’s suggestions for general good practice and has pursued a process that has gone against the intent of South Africa’s Mineral and Petroleum Resource Development Act of 2002, and the provisions of the country’s Promotion of Administrative Justice Act of 2000.

What has happened since the flight

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DeBeers announced its intention to sell the mine to Trans Hex, an announcement that came as a big surprise to many.  Although DeBeers claims that the sale commitment to Trans Hex was based on an “open and rigorous selection process that evaluated prospective bidders on a number of criteria determined by DeBeers as critical to ensuring the long term sustainability of the Namaqualand Mine community.”  The position taken by CSA is that the process was far from open.  DeBeers and the purchase broker, Standard Bank, denied requests by CSA and representatives from the Kommaggas community, who have a pending land claim on the area, to be involved in the process.  CSA then offered international mining guidelines as credible review criteria for assessing bidders on their socio-economic practices, and encouraged DeBeers to involve, at the least, an external and independent review panel for assessing the social commitments and restoration track records of potential buyers.  This suggestion, despite being common practice for many modern mining companies, was ignored by DeBeers.

Competence of Pending Buyer
CSA is questioning how DeBeers assessed Trans Hex as having the necessary technical competence (or “proven track record” for restoration of the fragile Namaqualand environment) for accepting the liability associated with its Namaqualand Mine.

Dr Peter Carrick, an ecological rehabilitation specialist on mines of the West Coast of South Africa and who consults for CSA has said:  “To date, Trans Hex has made no real attempt at any environmental rehabilitation at any of its Namaqualand operations, even those that they have been trying to close for many years. For example, another mine in the region, Hondeklip Bay, has large areas with unstable slopes and standing open water, presenting a safety hazard to the neighbouring community.”

Adequacy of Financial Provisions for Rehabilitation
CSA and local communities also worry that the financial provisions may be insufficient to clean up nearly a century of mining operations by DeBeers. The estimated costs of this work are not publicly known.  This is particularly concerning given that the costs were calculated entirely by DeBeers  and have not been verified by any sufficiently independent external consultants or other third party auditors.  For this reason, CSA has requested that the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) insist on an independent audit of the financial provision calculations in the draft, revised by the Environmental Management Programme Reports (EMPR), to ensure its sufficiency for cleaning-up the environmental degradation caused by DeBeers activity at the Namaqualand Mines.

Despite the fact that CSA still has many unanswered questions, the awareness that has been raised as a result of this campaign has been phenomenal.  To date more than 35 articles as well as television and radio interviews have supported a parallel process to call on the Minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu to support several key actions regarding this issue.  Namely – to recognise the rights of all interested and affected parties by

  1. Allowing these parties the opportunity to receive detailed information about proposed amendments to the EMPRs for Namaqualand Mines, which currently include a downgrading of rehabilitation obligations,
  2. Granting an opportunity to provide comments on these amendments to the Ministry for their decision-making,
  3. Recognising the rights of interested and affected parties to be given detailed information on the proposed transfer of mining rights to the Trans Hex subsidiary, particularly its ability to comply with the rehabilitation obligations of DeBeers for the Namaqualand Mines, and to be given an opportunity to make public comment.

CSA has also submitted a request for information to both the DMR and DeBeers under the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000.  We will keep you up to date on developments.

On behalf of Conservation South Africa, we are incredibly grateful to The Bateleurs and their networks for their assistance in this campaign, and in particular to Joan who worked tirelessly to get us off the ground as quickly as possible.  We thank them and their partners for all they do in flying for the environment and supporting the organisations and people who are doing the same from the ground up.

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Potato Circles

During the flight we were surprised to see just how far reaching the potato and rooibos expansion has become.  CSA has vowed to increase its efforts to support these farmers to adopt best practice guidelines within their industry.  CSA, through the Green Choice, has worked similarly with the wine industry through the Biodiversity & Wine Initiative, as well as with many other agricultural sectors operating across the Cape Floral Kingdom and the Succulent Karoo Biodiversity Hotspots.

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Pic of Plumes (shape of Africa)

Seen here is a Koignas processing facility within the mine.  The windswept bits are fine residue deposits that have blown across the area, known as plumes.  Similar plumes in the adjacent Alexcor Mine have resulted in millions of rands worth of damage as a result of being left unrestored.  A recently submitted Amendment to the current EMP for this area no longer includes provisions to restore these fine residue deposits, and CSA is concerned that these changes are significant and that proper restoration should be undertaken as recommended in the current EMP.

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Pic of Coastline

Sand, craters and dumps are all that can be seen along this stretch of the Namaqualand coastline.

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