Back story: How 500 tons of gold almost foiled heritage site
Mantashe was concerned that heritage status for Barberton Makhonjwa mountains would block access to 500 tons gold
Mining minister Gwede Mantashe was opposed to the Barberton Makhonjwa mountains gaining World Heritage Site status because the area is home to at least 500 tons of easily accessible gold – equal to centuries worth of mining.
A letter leaked to Times Select reveals that Mantashe wrote to department of environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa a month before the decision, urging her to ensure that jobs and economic development were not be trumped by conservation.
The mountains were granted world heritage status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in Bahrain in July, with more than 30 government staff present for the decision.
The rocks in the mountains in Mpumalanga are thought to be one of the oldest places on Earth – between 3.2 and 3.6 billion years old.
World Heritage sites are subject to United Nations’ restrictions on property development and mining. Both the departments of arts and culture and the department of environmental affairs successfully pushed for the mountains to be added as a site.Mantashe noted in the letter that 10% of SA was protected for conservation, and claims that only about 1% of the land is allocated to mining. He wrote: “The department wishes to express its concerns about the conservation sector’s approach in strictly prohibiting mining as this is becoming very popular. The major concern is that declaration of land as a ‘no-go area’ for mining stretches over vast hectares of land, thereby sterilising mining resources.”
Mining company Pan African Resources, which provides nearly all the jobs in Barberton, also unsuccessfully objected to some parts of mountainous site receiving world heritage status by meeting and writing to Unesco. They have had no response to the letters.
Pan African Resources CEO Cobus Loots said: “It is unfortunate, however, that areas are proclaimed as such without consideration for economic activity and job creation, which is desperately needed in the region.”
Although, Loots said, some parts of the area did deserve conservation status.
Geologist Roelf le Roux said he supported conservation because of the ancient rocks and what they tell scientists about Earth’s formation. “We are passionate about the area and conserving it.”
But he said the rocks containing gold were much younger rocks and did not need to be conserved. He said he believed about 30% of the area should have been excluded from conservation. There was way more than 1,000 tons of gold in the mountains and centuries of mining had now been “neutralised”.
Gwede’s letter however said it was home to between 500 to 1,000 tons of gold.
“Our existence as a mine and future are fine. But all opportunities for all other companies are lost.”
ANC Youth leader in Barberton Siyabonga Malandule said: “We are looking for the benefits of minerals to take our people out of abject poverty. All of us depend on what we get from the mines. The UN has never done any surveys to ask what we think. And no one in the community is participating in that heritage site.”Environmental director at Herbert Smith Freehills SA, Mathew Burnell said: “While I agree that in certain cases cultural and environmental resources must be conserved and protected against development (of any kind), in most instances there can be some creative ways in which mining, conservation and tourism can work together to create long-term, sustainable projects that cross all of these industries.”
The Department of Mineral Resources responded: “Any decision to award a mining right would therefore have taken into account the need to balance the development of the country’s minerals and its associated economic benefits, with the need to preserve the environment for current and future generations.
“Engagements between the ministers of mineral resources and environmental affairs in this regard should therefore be understood in this context. Attempts to infer otherwise are mischievous.”
Molewa’s spokesman, Albi Modise, said: “There are no differences at all between the environmental affairs minister and minister Mantashe.”
The Department of Arts and Culture replied that they will not comment.
Catherine Horsfield, from the Centre for Environmental Rights, said only a tiny percentage of SA is legally protected from mining.
“Currently, only around 8.9% of South Africa’s land is formally protected under the Protected Areas Act, and hence legally protected from mining. The prioritisation of mining over conservation is particularly striking in Mpumalanga. Excluding the Kruger National Park, only 6.1% of Mpumalanga is formally protected,” she said.