By Kamcilla Pillay
Although concern has been expressed that a coal mine right on the border of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game park will increase rhino poaching, the opposite may be true, says an academic.
University of KwaZulu-Natal geology studies head Professor Mike Watkeys said the mining, though unequivocally opposed by green activists, could help ease some of the region’s economic woes.
Environmental activists have gone as far as starting an online petition to stop the development, and by Wednesday afternoon, it had received more than 3 800 signatures.
“You just need to take a drive in the area (around the park) to see what a dire need there is for work. Working at the mines could even curb other damaging activities such as poaching for income.”
He said that living in abject poverty had forced people to participate in illegal activities such as poaching to feed their families.
They often did the “dirty work”, like sawing off rhino horns, usually for a pittance – compared to what the horn, used in traditional medicines, was worth in Vietnam and China.
He said anthracite, the kind of coal that would be mined, should the project be approved, was so coveted around the world that mining the area could be lucrative.
“Anthracite burns cleaner than other types of coal and is fairly smokeless, perfect for indoor fireplaces.”
Watkeys said wildlife, as had been seen at similar mining projects, seemed to pay no heed to mining activities.
“Only tourists, because of the gaping hole in the ground if strip mining is used, might be affected by the presence of the mine.
“The metal mines in Phalaborwa (in Limpopo) spill into the Kruger National Park, yet elephants frequent the particular area, walking around the open pits quite casually.”
The mines Watkeys was referring to employ strip mining. This mining involves making a large hole in the ground, where the coal is removed.
The waste is sometimes thrown back into the pit, topsoil is replaced and the area is rehabilitated as mining proceeds.
In most cases, however, the pit remains open and no rehabilitation takes place.
New roads and a coal washing plant would have to be built. Blasting and the generation of waste dumps from the plant would follow.
Watkeys said underground mining could be easier on the eye, but there was still a danger of underground fires – especially where coal was concerned.
He said a big challenge would be in preventing acid mine drainage into the area’s water supply, which had happened in many other mines, even in KZN.
He said water would probably be drawn from the Umfolozi River for the mining process.
“This could be disastrous for those who live downstream, especially in the significantly drier winter months.”
“The concern always is whether a company will adhere to environmental laws or not. Do they care enough to plan ahead?
“You can’t make an omelette without breaking any eggs. The key is examine all the factors and then make a balanced decision.”