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Mining interests ‘stalling’ SA plans to protect more of the ocean

Ocean scientists say Marine Protected Areas not only protect fish from over-exploitation, but can also help to slow the effects of climate change. Photo: Steve Benjamin

A global ocean protection group has expressed concern that plans to fast-track the expansion of Marine Protected Areas off the South African coast appear to have stalled. 

Tony Carnie |  Daily Maverick | 16 April 2018

Plans to enlarge South Africa’s protected ocean reserve network have come to a halt, allegedly due to pressure from the oil, gas and extractive mining sector.

This is the claim from Ocean Unite, a Washington DC based global ocean protection group headed by former University of Cape Town international environmental law graduate Karen Sack.

Sack, co-author of a 2013 scientific report which urged the United Nations to establish a new Department for Oceans and a new Interpol-style navy to police the high seas, has voiced disappointment that plans to fast-track the expansion of Marine Protected Areas(MPAs) off the South African coast appear to have stalled.

Sack said only 0.4% of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) currently enjoyed legal protection. In 2014 the government had announced plans to expand this area of protected seas to 5% by 2016, increasing to a total of 10% by 2020.

Unfortunately, this process has stalled with stakeholders raising concerns that this hiatus is owing to undue influence from the extractive mining sector which is seen as one of the main drivers for unlocking South Africa’s Ocean Economy”.

Sack did not identify any mining companies by name, but said it was significant that the Department of Energy had placed 98% of South Africa’s EEZ under acreage lease for oil and gas exploration or production rights, and there was also talk of new mining opportunities for phosphate extraction and other seabed minerals.

Encouragingly, the drive to achieve a 10% (and more) MPA target appears well supported at the most senior levels in Department of Environmental Affairs and aligns with South Africa’s National Development Plan outcomes and international commitments at the United Nations. South Africa has recently assumed the role of Chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and there is a timely opportunity for South Africa to lead the way to establishing MPA expansion as a key blue economy ocean governance goal within the African region.

Marine parks are about more than just a haven for the species that live in them. These national parks at sea are critical climate change fighting tools and help support food security. The ocean is a massive carbon sink and science is now demonstrating that marine reserves slow the effects of climate change, rebuild biodiversity, and help build resilience. Governments can affirm their international commitments to combating climate change, securing jobs and food through the creation of marine reserves,” Sack said in a statement.

The Department of Energy has not responded to requests for comment on Sack’s claims about “undue influence” from mining interests.

However, former Ezemvelo KZN Wldlife senior marine scientist Dr Jean Harris said South African marine protection strategy currently ranked poorly compared to other nations.

When South Africa’s current Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) were surveyed alongside 39 developed countries they ranked 34th out of 40, with 0.4% current marine protection, compared to an average of 11.2% for the other countries. When South Africa was surveyed together with 129 developing countries it ranked 90th out of 130 – an average of 5.8% compared to South Africa’s measly 0.4%,” said Dr Harris, who now heads the WildOceans programme of the Wildlands Conservation Trust.

She added that “0.4% is hopelessly inadequate to maintain sustainable benefits in a growing ocean economy. A minimum target agreed to as a global standard is 10% marine protection, with South Africa committing to achieving this by 2020.

As an interim step, the Department of Environmental Affairs published intention to gazette 22 new/expanded MPAs to achieve a 5% target. This will also see benefits to fisheries, including protection of nursery and spawning areas, resource recovery and the management of essential fish habitat.”

By contrast, several other developing nations had announced much more ambitious MPA targets over the past year.

For example, she said, Brazil announced plans in March to create four new MPAs covering an area of more than 900,000 km2 – larger than France, England, Belgium, Netherlands and Switzerland combined.

In 2017, Mexico announced it would protect nearly 92,000 km2 of the ocean from fishing and resource extraction, while Chile had announced plans to protect over 1 million km2 of Chilean waters – more than 40% of its seas.

This Latin American ocean protection leadership follows clear science that shows the importance of these national parks at sea to build resilience as well as revitalise the abundance and diversity of marine fish stocks.”

Closer to home, Harris said the Seychelles had also announced plans to protect 210,000 km2 of ocean and set a further goal of setting aside 16% of its waters for marine protection.

South Africa currently has a network of 24 coastal MPAs, covering only 0.4% of the continental EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), and one sub-Antarctic MPA (Marion/Prince Edward Islands).

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Tiny Canada town defeats oil firm in court fight over drinking water

‘We are relieved that our right to protect our drinking water is finally recognised,’ said the mayor of Ristigouche Sud-Est. Photograph: Alex Ortega/Getty Images/EyeEm

Company sued Quebec township of 157 people after it created a no-drill zone, fearing for its water supply

Ashifa Kassam | The Guardian | 3 March 2018 

A small municipality in the Canadian province of Quebec that was facing a million-dollar lawsuit from an oil and gas exploration company has won its court battle, bringing an end to a four-year ordeal that began when residents took steps to protect their water supply.

“Reason and law prevailed today,” François Boulay, the mayor of Ristigouche Sud-Est, a township of 157 people on Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, said in a statement. “We are relieved that our right to protect our drinking water is finally recognised.”

The clash traces its roots to 2011, when the province granted a Montreal-based company, Gastem, drilling permits to search for oil and gas in the eastern part of the province. Construction began on a drilling platform in the township’s territory.

Amid concerns from Ristigouche Sud-Est residents over how the drilling would affect municipal water sources, the town passed a bylaw in 2013 that set out a 2km (1.2-mile) no-drill zone around its water supply.

Gastem shot back with a lawsuit that claimed residents had created an illegal bylaw to prevent the project from moving forward. The company’s initial C$1.5m ($1.2m) claim for damages was later reduced to C$984,676 – a figure that was more than three times the township’s annual budget.

After years of mounting anxiety among residents, a judge at the superior court of Quebec ruled this week that Ristigouche Sud-Est was within its rights to protect its water supply.

“Far from being adopted in an untimely and hasty manner, the bylaw was the result of a serious effort to address the concerns and demands of Ristigouche’s citizens,” Judge Nicole Tremblay wrote in her decision. “Public interest, the collective well-being of the community and the safety of residents must be weighed for all projects introduced into a municipality.”

In the absence of any existing provincial laws to protect water sources, the municipality had the right to create its own, the judge added. She ordered the company to cover half of the municipality’s legal fees as well as provide an additional C$10,000 to cover other costs incurred as a result of the lawsuit.

Gastem, which has 30 days to appeal the ruling, did not respond to a request for comment.

As Ristigouche Sud-Est waged the years-long legal battle, support poured in from across Canada. A crowdfunding campaign, launched in 2014 as the township grappled with the idea of legal fees that could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, has raised more than C$342,000 to date.

Municipal officials estimated that the court battle cost about C$370,000 in legal fees and said any funds remaining would be donated to similar causes.

“Today, we raise our glass of potable water to the health of Quebec’s water and to all of those who supported us,” said Boulay, the mayor. “Thanks to all of you, we were able to defend ourselves – and win.”

He cautioned that the battle was far from over. The township has joined forces with more than 350 other municipalities in the province to take aim at a 2014 law that set out a protected perimeter of 500 metres around potable water sources. The municipalities are calling on provincial authorities to expand this protected, no-drill zone to two kilometres.

Jean-François Girard, the lawyer representing the township, described this week’s ruling as a victory, given that the lawsuit was seemingly solely aimed at punishing the municipality for taking a stand. “You have to think about it, the tax base in Ristigouche consists of 84 people,” he told Radio-Canada.

The ruling that emerged could set an important precedent for municipalities as they seek to secure a healthy environment for their residents, he said. “This will force companies that want to sue municipalities to think twice if they don’t have legal grounds.”

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