There’s a story that ancient kings placed a curse on Mapungubwe Hill, but Mapungubwe’s real curse may turn out to be the huge deposits of coal that lie under it. By Alison Westwood
Many South Africans aren’t yet aware of the significance of Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site. In Limpopo Province where the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet, it holds more than 50,000 years of human history and could one day form part of Southern Africa’s largest eco-tourism destination.
It’s a legendary place where the Kingdom of Mapungubwe – the civilisation that produced the famous golden rhino and was a forerunner of Great Zimbabwe – rose and fell. It’s an area of special natural beauty where krantzes shelter more than 150 rock art sites. Much of the land around the park has been given over to game, including a wild dog research project.
In June 2006, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe signed a memorandum of understanding to develop the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA). The vision is to link up with the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (which includes Kruger Park) to create one of the greatest conservation areas on earth.
However, Mapungubwe’s future as an eco-tourism destination is under threat by mining. Coal reserves estimated at more than three-billion tonnes have been found in the area.
Coal of Africa Limited (CoAL), an Australian-based mining house, has acquired mining rights to establish the Vele Colliery, an 8,000 hectare open-cast and underground strip mine seven kilometres east of Mapungubwe National Park. A new coal-fired power station, Mulilo, will be sited adjacent to Vele. At least five more coal-prospecting licences have been granted to the west of Mapungubwe on properties that were destined to become part of the TFCA.
Conservationists fear that if any mining licences are approved, the Limpopo-Shashe TFCA may be killed in its infancy. They feel that a large industrial development such as Vele/Mulilo could significantly reduce the tourist potential of Mapungubwe and lead to financial failure of eco-tourism. Further mining operations and industrial developments would then find it easier to gain approval.
South African law stipulates that all mineral resources belong to the state and gives sole power of approval for mining licences to the Department of Minerals and Energy (DME). A new law due by 2012 should transfer this responsibility to the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT). It may be too late for Mapungubwe.
Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are already underway for both Vele Colliery and Mulilo Power Station, but scoping reports failed to account for their cumulative impacts. According to Arcus Gibb, consultants for Mulilo, a public participation process has highlighted this issue and the final EIAs will reflect it. Geoff Norris, chairman of the Northern Tuli Game Reserve west of Mapungubwe, has commented, ‘Any EIA plans and actions can only hope to mildly ameliorate the enormous and destructive impacts of those developments.’
The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) said that although the proposed projects will not be located inside the planned park, their effects would be apparent from within it, ‘including smoke stacks, air pollution and noise’. EWT are also concerned about the large amounts of water that will be used – the Limpopo River is ‘already stressed and oversubscribed’.
Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said, ‘DEAT has significant concerns with regard to the proposed Vele Colliery and does not support it based on available information.’ He said it could cause local and trans-boundary impacts and negatively affect the tourism potential of Mapungubwe, and that pollution of the Limpopo River could be harmful to downstream Makuleke and Pafuri areas of the Kruger National Park, registered as Ramsar wetland sites.
Meanwhile, a report in miningmx quoted CoAL MD Simon Farrell saying: ‘The regulatory process in South Africa is far too slow and the country’s civil servants and bureaucrats need to get off their bums.’ DME has promised a 12-month turnaround on mining licences for approved projects and production at Vele Colliery is expected to start in the third quarter of 2009. As Christopher Aberdein, spokesperson for Mulilo, pointed out to Getaway, ‘Should the Vele coalfield not go ahead, one or other application will in all likelihood be approved by DME.’
Mapungubwe’s greatest danger is its obscurity. When mining threatened Kruger Park, massive public pressure prevented it. With all of Kruger’s potential but without its high profile, Mapungubwe probably won’t be as fortunate.