South Africa's Stunning West Coast Faces Serious Mining Threat

Tony Butt

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Updated 565d ago

The west coast of South Africa is one of the few truly wild surf coastlines left on the planet. It contains hundreds of quality surf spots, many of which can be world-class on their day. The coastline is a dry, inhospitable area with unpredictable conditions including strong tradewinds, freezing temperatures and fog; it is sparsely populated and mostly devoid of drinking water, electricity or cellphone reception. Even though there are surf spots everywhere, being in the right place at the right time can be a real challenge. Put all those factors together, and you can understand why this place remains uncrowded.

There are a lot of South African surfers who have almost made it their life’s work to discover the hidden surfing gems of the West Coast. According to Alan van Gysen, Cape Town surfer and one of the world’s finest surf photographers: “There are few places left in today's crowded, technologically-chaotic world where you can get away, breathe the free air of a coastal wilderness, and truly untether yourself. The west coast of South Africa is one of these places. Seemingly forgotten for eons due to its arid harshness and lack of modern luxury, the West Coast is a place where you can still find an empty lineup; where you can have that rare opportunity to see the world as it once was, and where you can discover the magic of a world we need to protect and look after for so many more to enjoy.”

The area not only has world-class surf. It has unique flora and fauna and is one of South Africa’s Critical Biodiversity Areas, recognised as priority areas for unique biodiversity which should be kept in natural or near natural states. It also has a population of first-nation societies such as the Khoisan people, who understand the value of the natural environment much better than most of us.

The west coast of South Africa is also well-known for minerals. For years, vast expanses of the coast have been closed off to the public by mining companies such as DeBeers, famous for extracting diamonds. Now, an Australian mining company called Mineral Commodities Ltd is threatening to devastate an even larger part of this coastline. They are starting with a 50-kilometre stretch but have future plans to mine practically the entire coast right up to the border with Namibia.

Cape-Town big-wave rider Frank Solomon, who has been surfing there practically all his adult life, is determined that we must get together and stop it: “It is probably one of the most productive coastlines in the world in terms of surf – the potential there is endless. One of the few wild places left for surfing. To lose something like that and to know that generations to come won’t be able to experience it is heartbreaking, and we cannot let that happen.”

The mining on the west coast of South Africa needs to be nipped in the bud now, before it is too late. So, before I go on with more details, please check the Protect the West Coast website and sign the petition (HERE).

Where is it?

The initial stretch of coastline that is being mined is about 360 km north of Cape Town, just near the Olifants rivermouth. The mining company is already operating there and has just been granted approval for an expansion that will affect a stretch of coast 52 km long. The coastline in the south of the area contains rocky outcrops, beaches and cliffs up to 50 metres high. Further north, the coastline is predominantly sandy beaches backed by dunes. The mining will take place right up to the beach, obliterating the coastal environment.

And that’s just the beginning. There are future plans to mine the entire coast from Eland’s Bay to the border with Namibia, including building a giant port at Boegoebaai, about 20 km south of the border.

Who are they?
Mineral Commodities Ltd is a large Australian Mining corporation, that describes itself as having “a primary focus on the development of high-grade mineral deposits within the mineral sands and battery minerals sectors”. They are also famous for non-compliance with environmental laws; for lack of transparency regarding on-site activities and future mining plans, and for lack of engagement with local communities and other affected people.

The CEO of Mineral Commodities Ltd, Mark Caruso, has recently stepped down after being charged with assault, burglary and trespassing.

One reason an Australian company is operating in South Africa is that they would simply not get permission to mine on Australian coastlines. Compared with South Africa, Australia has much stricter environmental standards and a much more environmentally-aware public. This kind of externalisation – or colonial extractivism – is, of course, a classic strategy used by multinational corporations: if you can’t get away with it in one country just look for another one with slacker environmental laws and more-easily corruptible officials.

Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker, who has surfed extensively up and down the West Coast, is outraged that an Australian company should come and mine in South Africa just because they can’t do it in their own back yard: "To propose to dig up 50 km of the most pristine environment and beautiful untouched beaches, is overstepping every boundary. Imagine if this same proposal was to restrict access and dig up every beach on the Australian west coast from Cape Mentelle to Cape Leeuwin. This is exactly what we are dealing with.”

Can we live without this?

Can we live without this?

What is being mined?
The minerals being extracted are; ilmenite, leucoxene, rutile, zircon and monazite, garnet and staurolite. I know – you’ve probably never heard of them. They are typically used for ceramics and in the pigment industry for paints and inks. In other words, things associated with luxury items for the developed world, things we could probably live without. Things that the Khoisan First-Nation people would certainly not value above what has been their homeland for tens of thousands of years.

The minerals are embedded in the sediment. They need to be extracted by digging up millions of times more weight in sediment than the mineral itself. They exist along the coastline, particularly where there is an estuary, and are constantly being replaced by the riverflow and wave-driven cycles. Extracting the minerals, and the millions of tonnes of sediment that go with them, is a traumatic event that interferes with the delicate natural balance of the coastline, and can have far-reaching consequences.

The mining technique is a kind of shallow open-cast mining. Large excavators dig up the ore before it is hauled away in truckloads to a processing plant. Here, the minerals are separated from the sediment, and the remains are dumped back on the beach.

Removing millions of tonnes of sediment from a coastline, including all the flora and fauna that goes with it, and then dumping it back again, is bound to be highly disruptive. However, Mineral Commodities Ltd assure us that they will put things back the way they found them: “The tailings are pumped back to the beach where the tidal action of the waves on the beaches distributes the tailings in a natural process, effectively reforming the beach profile.”

What will be lost?
Obviously if we don’t stop the mining, it will seriously affect tens if not hundreds of surf spots. Apart from access to the coast which will be made impossible by the mining activities, the sediment disruption will alter the coastal morphodynamics in unpredictable ways. This is particularly important because some of the spots are world-class beachbreaks, which could be seriously and irreversibly affected.

Apart from the surf, the mining will also have huge negative effects on the local population, the local ecosystem and the environment further afield. Here are just a few of these impacts:
*Loss of public access to beaches;
*Damage to the fragile dune system which evolved over millions of years as a natural land-sea interface;
*Disturbance and destruction of marine life;
*Sediment imbalances which can affect filter feeders, which in turn affect the fish and hence the fishing industry;
*Impacts on land-based ecosystems, especially since this is already a Critical Biodiversity Area;
*Loss of archaeological resources and fossils;
*Air pollution from the mining activities;
*Loss of sense of place, extremely important for local first-nation societies such as the Khoisan People;
*Impacts on scarce water resources in the area.

But surely there must be at least some benefits? Of course, what they always tell us is that it will bring jobs for the local population.

But does the prospect of jobs for a few hundred people for a relatively short time warrant ripping apart a massive length of coastline and destroying an entire ecosystem forever? In reality, the real benefits are just for the people who will make a profit from selling those minerals – a small group of businessmen addicted to money and power.

Mineral Commodities Ltd states that it is committed to protecting the environment. But how can a company whose only reason to exist is to perform an activity that destroys the environment, make a pledge to protect the environment? If they really wanted to protect it, they should stop mining altogether. In the words of Derrick Jensen: “The specific and explicit function of for-profit corporations is to amass wealth.

"The function is not to guarantee that children are raised in environments free of toxic chemicals, nor to respect the autonomy or existence of indigenous peoples, not to protect the vocational or personal integrity of workers, nor to support life on this planet. We may as well expect a clock to cook, a car to give birth, or a gun to plant flowers.”

What can be done?
The Protect the West Coast action group is advocating a ‘multi-pronged strategy’ including raising awareness, objections, appeals, complaints, legal action and direct protest action.

All these things are being done at the same time. But what you can do is help to massively increase public awareness of the problem, among the surfing community and beyond. Even if you think you are never going to go there or surf those waves, the place is still worth saving. I personally have worked on many campaigns to save surf spots simply because they are marvels of Nature and it would be sacrilege if they were destroyed, even though I have no intention of surfing there.

So check the website (HERE) and get involved. Sign the petition (HERE), tell everyone you can about it and put it on your social media. If you happen to be anywhere near the area, look out for any actual physical protests and join in, if you can. Because the more of us there are, the quicker we act and the longer we sustain that action, the more likely the West Coast will be saved, for now and for the future generations.

All images kindly donated by Alan Van Gysen.