Tag Archives: South Africa

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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Alarm at seabed destruction from SA phosphate mining

Don Pinnock | First Thing | 7 November 2017

If you imagine fish as birds of the ocean, they fly through forests and over fields which grow in the rich soil of the continental shelf. Just as on land, it’s Earth teeming with roots and creatures that form the base of the sea’s food web and upon which its health depends. Around South Africa’s coasts, that could soon change writes DON PINNOCK.

The Department of Mineral Resources has granted three prospecting rights over vast areas of the sea floor that could signal the start of a mining process to grind up the seabed to extract phosphate. The resulting sediment would be dumped back into the water column as liquid “dust”, posing a threat to ocean ecosystems, fish and fisheries. What it would do to the seabed is almost unimaginable.

The licences cover 150,000km2 within South Africa’s western and southern Exclusive Economic Zone and were awarded to Green Flash Trading 251, Green Flash Trading 257 and Diamond Fields International.

A map shows the three marine prospecting rights on the sea floor..

Studies commissioned by the Safeguard our Seabed Coalition (SOSC), an alliance of non-governmental organisations, has warned that marine phosphate mining “would have severe and irreversible impacts on marine ecosystems and fishery resources and associated jobs, livelihood and food security benefits sustained by our fishing industry”.

The proposed fishing and mining areas

Bulk marine sediment mining uses a suction hopper dredge which gouges the sediment to a depth of three metres. It’s dredge head, which is about 11 metres wide with cutting teeth and high-pressure water jets, is dragged across the sea floor, crushing hard sediment and sucking it – and everything else in the way – up a tube. Once the phosphate has been filtered out, all excess water and fine particulate is flushed back into the sea, creating a sediment plume.

Mining would take place on the continental shelf in what is known as the benthic zone, the area just above and below the seabed. Apart from anchoring aquatic plants, it’s home to sea stars, barnacles, mussels, anemones, urchins, snails, crustaceans, molluscs, worms, ground fish and other organisms that make their home on or in the sea floor, at depths where light still penetrates.

Much of the food supply is in the form of “marine snow”, small particles of decaying organic matter that slowly descend through the water column and accumulate on the ocean bed.

According to Saul Roux, a legal campaigner at the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), the impact of mining will include:

  • Destruction of seabed ecosystems which are the building blocks of marine ecosystems;
  • The release of hazardous substances such as radioactive materials, methane, hydrogen sulphide and heavy metals locked in the seabed;
  • Destruction of spawning, breeding and feeding habitats for fish species, many of which are commercially important;
  • Reduced light penetration and therefore photosynthesis of marine plants;
  • Burial and smothering of marine organisms in the mining block and surrounding areas; and
  • Habitat destruction and ecosystem changes in mined areas which could be permanent, as recovery would take centuries.The CER has flagged serious gaps in South Africa’s legal, governance and institutional frameworks able to manage such bulk marine sediment mining. This would mean, says Roux, that the phosphate mining operations would be “unregulated and not subject to state monitoring or enforcement of its compliance with licences and environmental laws”. This would facilitate severe and irreversible damage to marine environments and fisheries.Only 0.4% of South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone lies within marine protected areas (MPAs). The government, through Operation Phakisa, has committed to safeguard at least 5% of this zone in a network of 22 offshore MPAs. These have not yet been established and, says Roux, would not be big enough to protect biodiversity from resource exploitation, especially along the West Coast. Even if MPAs are declared, there is considerable doubt about the government’s ability to police them. The Tsitsikamma MPAwas rezoned for fishing in 2016 and in Table Bay fishing has been taking place in the Paulsberg MPA.Marine mining technologiesworldwide have caused massive environmental disasters, both through human error or equipment failure. The Deepwater Horizonspill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Exon Valdez spill off Canada are among many many examples. Although a prospecting right doesn’t grant a legal entitlement to mine, it provides an expectation that mining will be allowed. The phosphate licensing follows a number of other indications that the government plans to develop a bulk seabed mining industry.

Photo: The bigger picture – offshore oil and gas activities as at 2016. Source: Petroleum Agency SA

In 2015 the Departments of International Relations & Co-operation as well as Mineral Resources announced the development of a Seabed Mining Roadmap aimed at developing this industry. Its media releases allude to the latter’s intentions to develop seabed mining in South Africa’s EEZ.

CER has pointed out that South Africa’s EEZ is already under considerable threat from marine petroleum extraction, with 98% already granted for exploration and production. It has called for appropriate governance frameworks for offshore oil/gas exploration and production as well as for seismic activities.

In response to the Seabed Mining Roadmap, The Safeguard our Seabed coalition has called for a moratorium on bulk marine sediment mining until a strategic environmental assessment has been done and a network of marine protected areas declared.

A report commissioned by the SOSC highlights the fact that there is no need to undertake marine phosphate mining as there are more socio-economically and environmentally friendly ways to obtain it sustainably. These include the recovery of phosphates from human and animal waste and a more efficient application of phosphate fertiliser to soils.

Despite the environmental and economic risks and after almost three years of advocacy, government has not responded to calls by the SOSC for an environmental assessment of marine phosphate mining. Neither has it taken any steps towards establishing a moratorium pending a strategic inquiry into this highly destructive process. This seems to an indicate determination to forge ahead at all costs. 

Illustrative photo: Maddie Dimaggio/(Unsplash).

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Phosphate Mining Firms Set Sights on Southern Africa’s Sea Floor

Most attempts at seabed phosphate mining have sputtered in the face of moratoriums and other roadblocks. Graphic courtesy of Centre for Environmental Rights

Most attempts at seabed phosphate mining have sputtered in the face of moratoriums and other roadblocks. Graphic courtesy of Centre for Environmental Rights

Mark Olalde | Inter Press Service | November 17 2016

A persistent fear of diminishing phosphorus reserves has pushed mining companies to search far and wide for new sources. Companies identified phosphate deposits on the ocean floor and are fighting for mining rights around the world.

Countries in southern Africa have the potential to set an international precedent by allowing the first offshore mining operations. South Africa specifically is one of the first countries on the continent to begin legislating its marine economy to promote sustainable development, and questions surround mining’s place in this new economy.

From April 2007 to August 2008, the price of phosphate, a necessary ingredient in fertilizer, increased nearly 950 percent, in part due to the idea that phosphate production had peaked and would begin diminishing. Before prices came back down, prospectors had already begun looking for deep sea phosphate reserves around the world.

Since then, the fledgling seabed phosphate industry has found minimal success. While several operations are proposed in the Pacific islands, New Zealand and Mexico rejected attempts at offshore phosphate mining in their territory.

This means southern African reserves – created in part by currents carrying phosphate-rich water from Antarctica – are the new center of debate.

Namibia owns identified seabed phosphate deposits, and the country has recently flip-flopped about whether to allow mining. A moratorium was in place since 2013, but in September the environmental minister made the controversial decision to grant the necessary licenses. Since then, public outcry forced him to set those aside.

The former general project manager of Namibian Marine Phosphate (Pty) Ltd, a company that applied to mine in Namibia, told IPS that environmental groups and fisheries proved to be a loud and organised opposition. He predicted the debate in South Africa would be just as difficult for mining companies to win with no precedent for such mining.

Adnan Awad, director of the non-profit International Ocean Institute’s African region, said,

“There is generally this anticipation that South African processes for mining and for the policy around some of these activities are setting a bit of a precedent and a bit of a model for how it can be pursued in other areas.”

Three companies, Green Flash Trading 251 (Pty) Ltd, Green Flash 257 (Pty) Ltd and Diamond Fields International Ltd., hold prospecting rights covering about 150,000 square kilometers, roughly 10 percent, of the country’s marine exclusive economic zone.

Diamond Fields International’s prospecting right along 47,468 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean shares space with areas of oil exploration and production. Source: Diamond Fields International Ltd. background information document.

Diamond Fields International’s prospecting right along 47,468 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean shares space with areas of oil exploration and production. Source: Diamond Fields International Ltd. background information document.

The law firm Steyn Kinnear Inc. represents both Green Flash 251 and Green Flash 257. “Currently it does not seem as if there is going to be any progress, and there is definitely not going to be any mining right application,” Wynand Venter, an attorney at the firm, said, calling the project “uneconomical.”

Venter said the Green Flash companies received drill samples, which showed current prices could not sustain seabed phosphate mining.

This leaves Diamond Fields as the only remaining player in South African waters. The company announced in a January 2014 press release that it received a 47,468 square kilometer prospecting right to search for phosphate.

According to information the company published summarising its environmental management plan, prospecting would use seismic testing to determine the benthic, or seafloor, geology. If mining commenced, it would take place on the seafloor between 180 and 500 meters below the surface.

“A vital and indisputable link exists between phosphate rock and world food supply,” the company stated, citing dwindling phosphate reserves.

Diamond Fields did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Environmentalists argue that not only would phosphate mining destroy marine ecosystems, but it would also lead to continued overuse of fertilizers and associated pollution. They call for increased research into phosphate recapture technology instead of mining.

“We could actually be solving the problem of too much phosphates in our water and recapturing it. Instead we’re going to destroy our ocean ecosystems,” John Duncan of WWF-SA said.

The act of offshore mining requires a vessel called a trailing suction hopper dredger, which takes up seafloor sediment and sends waste back into the water column.

A southern right whale swims off the coast of the Western Cape province near Hermanus, a town renowned for its whale watching. South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources granted three prospecting rights covering about 150,000 square kilometers, or 10 percent, of the country’s exclusive economic zone. Credit: Mark Olalde/IPS

A southern right whale swims off the coast of the Western Cape province near Hermanus, a town renowned for its whale watching. South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources granted three prospecting rights covering about 150,000 square kilometers, or 10 percent, of the country’s exclusive economic zone. Credit: Mark Olalde/IPS

“It amounts to a kind of bulldozer that operates on the seabed and excavates sediment down to a depth of two or three meters. Where it operates, it’s like opencast mining on land. It removes the entire substrate. That substrate become unavailable to fisheries for many years, if not forever,” Johann Augustyn, secretary of the South African Deep-Sea Trawling Industry Association, said.

In addition to direct habitat destruction, environmentalists argue the plume of sediment released into the ocean could spread out to smother additional areas and harm wildlife.

Mining opponents also worry offshore mining would negatively impact food production and economic growth.

Several thousand subsistence farmers live along South Africa’s coast, and the country’s large-scale fishing industry produces around 600,000 metric tonnes of catch per year.

“[Mining] may lead to large areas becoming deserts for the fish populations that were there. If they don’t die off, they won’t find food there, and they’ll probably migrate out of those areas,” Augustyn said.

While the fishing and coastal tourism industries account for slightly more than 1.4 billion dollars of GDP, the potential economic benefits from marine mining remain unclear. There are no published estimates for job creation, but Namibian Marine Phosphate’s proposal said it would lead to 176 new jobs, not all of them local.

“The benefits are not coming back to the greater South African community,” Awad said. “African countries generally have been quite poor at negotiating the benefits through multinational companies’ exploitation of coastal resources.”

South Africa is one of only three African nations – along with Namibia and Seychelles – implementing marine spatial planning. This growing movement toward organised marine economies balances competing uses such as oil exploration, marine protected areas and fisheries. Earlier this year, the Department of Environmental Affairs, DEA, published a draft Marine Spatial Planning Bill, the first step toward creating marine-specific legislation.

According to government predictions, a properly managed marine economy could add more than 12.5 billion dollars to South Africa’s GDP by 2033. What part mining will play in that remains to be seen.

“Internationally the off-shore exploration for hard minerals is on the increase and it is to be expected that the exploitation of South Africa’s non-living marine resources will also increase,” the DEA’s draft framework said.

Neither the Department of Mineral Resources nor the DEA responded to repeated requests for comment.

Mark Olalde’s mining investigations are financially supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Fund for Environmental Journalism and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Additional support for this story was provided by #MineAlert and Code for Africa.

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Fishing companies and NGOs call for moratorium on bulk sediment seabed mining in South Africa


Kim Cloete | Mining Weekly | 13 October 2016

The Responsible Fisheries Alliance (RFA), which comprises five major fishing companies and two nongovernmental organisations, is calling for a moratorium on all new and existing prospecting and mining applications related to bulk sediment seabed mining.

This follows the release of a new report commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), which found that prospecting rights granted to three phosphate mining companies over the past five years are in an area that overlaps with a significant part of South Africa’s largest fisheries.

Therefore, RFA members The World Wide Fund for Nature –South Africa and BirdLife South Africa, together with Irvin & Johnson, the Oceana Group, Sea Harvest, Viking Fishing and Pioneer Fishing, have made the call to halt the mining of phosphate minerals, which are dredged from the ocean floor and used for fertiliser.

The RFA believes that, in the absence of sufficient research on the potential impacts of bulk sediment seabed mining, there is no option but a moratorium. It also highlights that a lack of information on the environmental impact of bulk seabed mineral extraction has prompted authorities to enforce moratoria on the practice in Namibia, Australia and New Zealand.

The RFA has, therefore, urged government to follow international best practice and to adopt a precautionary approach in South Africa, adding that seabed mining should not be allowed until the government has done an in-depth study and analysis of the overlap between fishery grounds and prospecting application areas. Environmental assessments also need to be undertaken.

Bulk sediment seabed mining involves dredging and removing sediment on the sea floor, which could permanently destroy marine habitats and the breeding, spawning and feeding areas of fish stocks.

Research undertaken by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT‘s) Environmental Policy Research Unit, under the aegis of the CER, has found that the prospecting areas and proposed drill sites coincide with 77% of the offshore hake trawl footprint and one of the primary fishing grounds of the small pelagic fishery.

South Africa’s fishing industry has a wholesale value of between R6-billion and R8-billion. In 2015, exports of fish products generated R5.3-billion in revenue for the country.

The commercial fishing industry creates about 27 000 direct and 100 000 indirect jobs in South Africa. In contrast, the CER says bulk marine sediment mining would create only 40 to 50 jobs per mining vessel, of which many are temporary. 

Similarly, a proposed marine phosphate mining project in Namibia – Sandpiper – which aimed to dredge 5.5-million tons of sediment a year, would have only provided about 135 permanent jobs.

While prospecting licence holders argue that there is an impending shortage of phosphate for agricultural processes, the RFA says an additional study by UCT indicates that there is no shortage in South Africa.

“There is good reason to believe that the phosphate mined [will be] a huge cost to South African oceans [and] will simply be exported for profit,” said coalition spokesperson Saul Roux.

“The health of our country, people and environment and, therefore, our economy, depends on the health of the ocean. The potential risks of bulk marine sediment mining to our marine ecosystems and renewable industries, such as fishing, are simply too great. The proposal to dredge our seabed should not be allowed to proceed unchecked,” said Roux.

The group made its call during National Marine Week, which ran from October 10 to 14. 

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Coalition lobbying for ban on experimental marine mining in South Africa


The Safeguard Our Seabed coalition says phosphate mining prospecting rights overlap with threatened ecosystems and fishing grounds.

Heather Dunmore | Business Day Live | October 10, 2016 

PHOSPHATE mining of the seabed, known as bulk marine sediment mining, has never been done and is a major concern for leading marine scientists worldwide. SA is about to become the testing ground.

Despite objections, three rights have been granted by the Department of Mineral Resources to prospect for marine phosphates, predominantly used for fertiliser.

This extremely destructive form of mining requires dredging up the top 3m of the seabed, destroying critical, delicate and insufficiently understood sea life in its wake.

“Two prospecting rights were granted in 2012 and one in 2014; the three extend over 150,000km² or 10% of SA’s marine environment, known as our exclusive economic zone,” says Saul Roux, a legal campaigner for the Cape Town-based nonprofit Centre for Environmental Rights.

Roux has been appointed as part of a WWF Nedbank Green Trust project called Safeguarding Our Seabed, which has among its objectives ensuring a moratorium on bulk marine sediment mining, which he describes as “the height of irresponsibility”.

He has a master’s degree in biodiversity and conservation and is completing his PhD.

“There is already immense pressure on our oceans, with 98% of our exclusive economic zone leased for offshore oil and gas exploration or production, and only 0.4% officially protected,” says Roux.

“This is considerably below our commitment of 10% according to the Convention of Biological Diversity, of which we are signatories.”

The marine phosphate prospecting rights overlap with SA’s major fishing grounds, its critically endangered seabed and nine proposed protected areas.

The benthic zone — the ecological region at the seabed or sediment level, and the sub-surface layers — are highly productive ecosystems that constitute the building blocks of larger marine systems where many species breed, spawn and feed.

The prospecting rights extend offshore from the northern reaches of the West Coast, down to Cape Town and up to Mossel Bay. The areas are located between 200m and 2,000m depth contours, with the shallowest at 5m.

‘We are highly concerned about the type of technology used for bulk marine sediment mining, which is similar to strip-mining the sea floor, with giant dredge vessels scooping up a 3m layer from the seabed and causing the direct destruction of seabed habitats,” says Roux.

The dredging also releases hazardous substances that are normally locked into the seabed, including radioactive materials, methane, heavy metals and hydrogen sulphide. This can destroy wildlife and cause many commercial fish stocks including hake, to be not fit for consumption.

Roux says after the sediment layer is scooped up, it is suctioned on board a vessel in which the larger phosphate-bearing sediment is separated. Significant quantities of freshwater are required for this.

The excess water and fine particulates are poured back into the ocean, creating a giant sediment plume that buries and smothers seabed ecosystems and disturbs the marine environment by affecting water quality, photosynthesis and plankton.

The noise from the mining process will also affect and potentially damage marine mammals. Research from across the world indicates that the impacts of the dredging are potentially irreversible.

Three private companies have acquired the three prospecting rights, each about 50,000km².

South African companies Green Flash Trading 251 and Green Flash Trading 257 each acquired a right. The two companies are virtually identical, seemingly set up separately to create the impression that the owners do not have a monopoly. They have no experience in marine mining and it appears they were established solely for marine phosphate prospecting.

Diamond Fields International, a Canadian mining company with marine exploration and mining rights in other jurisdictions, also has a right to prospect SA’s coast.

“These rights were granted by regional managers with no experience of dealing with offshore applications of this kind. Our existing mining laws are wholly inadequate for dealing with seabed mining,” says Roux.

“The current Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act does not deal with offshore mining and there is no capacity for compliance monitoring and enforcement or to properly assess applications in terms of environmental and socioeconomic impact,” he says.

“They granted the rights without sufficient knowledge of how marine ecosystems work and despite the fact that they overlap with massive fishing grounds and critically endangered ecosystems.”

Roux says that in 2013, when the Centre for Environmental Rights applied for access to the information and the policy documents on seabed mining that guided the department’s decision to grant the exploration rights, access was denied.

There was no response to an appeal against the denial.

Other countries facing marine phosphate-mining applications have either denied them or placed a moratorium or permanent ban on bulk marine sediment mining. In Australia, the government in the Northern Territory imposed a moratorium three years ago, while further environmental and risk assessments are conducted. Namibia placed a moratorium on marine phosphate mining in 2013.

In 2014, New Zealand denied applications for marine phosphate mining while in 2016 Mexico’s federal environmental authority denied a licence for the Don Diego marine phosphate mining project.

“With WWF Nedbank Green Trust funding, which came into effect in 2015, we are now working towards securing a moratorium on bulk marine sediment mining in SA through the Safeguard Our Seabed coalition, which we helped to establish,” says Roux.

This includes 11 member organisations including commercial and small-scale fishing, organised labour, environmental and environmental justice organisations.

The coalition has been engaging with stakeholders in Namibia and other countries that confront similar seabed mining proposals.

In March last year, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, in partnership with the Department of Mineral Resources, the International Seabed Authority and the South African Council for Geoscience hosted a seminar on seabed mining.

Mineral Resources Deputy Minister Godfrey Oliphant told the seminar that “the world demand for minerals continues to increase and some terrestrial resources are becoming depleted”.

He added that “African countries had to share in the potential benefits arising from seabed mineral exploitation”.

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Portion of seabed bordering South Africa earmarked for mining, experts alarmed

Seabed. File photo. Gallo Images/iStockphoto

Seabed. File photo. Gallo Images/iStockphoto

Bobby Jordan | Times Live | 31 May, 2016

As much as 10% of the seabed bordering South Africa has been earmarked for mining, alarming fishing and environmental experts.

The proposed mining activity has drawn opposition from the World Wide Fund for Nature, one of several organisations represented at a seabed mining seminar last week in Cape Town.

The government has issued three licences for marine prospecting for phosphates covering 150,000km² of seabed in an almost uninterrupted stretch from the Groen River mouth on the West Coast to Mossel Bay.

The Department of Mineral Resources now faces a groundswell of opposition from a civil society grouping led by the Centre for Environmental Rights, which claims that marine sediment mining in bulk has yet to be approved anywhere in the world.

It is a “world first” South Africa should strive to avoid, the centre’s Saul Roux told the seminar.

Seabed mining involves extracting minerals buried in sediments on the seabed. Dredge hoppers are used to suck up sediment and pump it onto vessels. The hoppers have cutting teeth and water jets that crush hard sediment. They can remove more than 100000m3 of sediment daily.

A proposed marine phosphate mining project in Namibia, the Sandpiper Project, planned to mine and remove 5.5 million tons of sediment a year. Namibia’s government has placed a moratorium on seabed mining to better assess environmental impacts.

Phosphate is a key ingredient of agricultural fertiliser but is relatively in short supply.

Opponents of seabed mining believe the ocean is the wrong place in which to look for new supplies because, they say, seabed mining technology is largely untested and might have devastating environmental effects.

John Duncan, marine manager of the World Wide Fund for Nature SA, told The Times that the organisation had objected to the environmental management plan submitted by two South African licence applicants, Green Flash Trading 251 and Green Flash Trading 257, which were granted prospecting rights in 2014.

“[The Department of Mineral Resources] granted them the [prospecting] right without showing us the amended environmental management plan.”

He said the granting of prospecting rights suggested that the government was in favour of seabed mining, which he found worrying.

Johann Augustyn, of the SA Deep-Sea Trawling Industry Association, said the prospecting area overlapped some of the most productive fishing grounds. He cautioned that short-term benefits from mining should be weighed against long-term side effects.

“We are highly concerned that the areas designated for phosphates exploration entirely encompass our most important fishing grounds and we consider seabed mining of the type being proposed completely incompatible with fishing, and to be an environmentally destructive activity that cannot even be economically justified,” he said.

“We have, therefore, teamed up with the Centre for Environmental Rights and several other partners to form this alliance to fight it. South Africa does not need to extract phosphates from the seabed because the land-based sources are adequate for hundreds of years.

“There is a developing technology to extract it from sewage on a large scale, which should be explored as a long-term option.”

Green Flash Trading could not be reached for comment. The firm’s directors include former Billiton manager John Daly.

Responding to queries four years ago shortly after submitting its prospecting plan, Wynand Venter, then legal representative of Green Flash Trading, said the businessmen involved had years of experience in mining and were qualified to run the proposed project.

He said the company was committed to working with the Department of Mineral Resources and the World Wide Fund for Nature and “undertook to address all the concerns raised and avoid environmental degradation”. The department said it was preparing a response to The Times.

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South Africa: The few benefits of seabed mining cannot outweigh the costs

south africa coast seabed mine

On My Mind: How to ruin a resource

Saul Roux* | Financial Mail | March 10 2016

THE mineral resources department (DMR) recently granted three prospecting rights for marine phosphate covering about 10% of South Africa’s offshore environment. However, there are a number of investment risks that should be a deterrent to aspirant marine phosphate mining companies wishing to mine SA’s seafloor.

These include regulatory and policy uncertainty; resistance from civil society and other industries; and a strong environmental management legal regime. There are precedents of government establishing moratoria for activities with harmful impacts; and a network of marine protected areas (which would restrict marine sediment mining) has been proposed.

Furthermore, the market price of phosphate has fallen since 2014, which would result in a lower return on investment. With these financial risks, holders of prospecting rights could be sitting on stranded assets.

Government policy on seabed mining should be based on proper socioeconomic analysis, where costs and benefits are weighed up and trade-offs are properly informed.

In granting prospecting rights, the DMR has failed to consider the socioeconomic impact. It has disregarded the impact of seabed mining on the fishing industry, which comes with far greater employment and food security benefits.

SA’s commercial fishing industry is a socioeconomic giant. It employs about 27,000 people directly and 100,000 indirectly. In the Western Cape, where the prospecting rights are concentrated, the fishing industry contributes 2% to gross geographic product.

The DMR’s failure to assess and balance socioeconomic interests is apparent in the location of the prospecting rights. The prospecting areas directly overlap fisheries, including SA’s only Marine Stewardship Council accredited fishery, which employs 12,000 people and generates R4bn in annual revenue.

The prospecting areas directly overlap with hake longline, tuna pole, west coast rock lobster, small pelagics and chokka squid fishing areas. Together, these five fishing sectors provide up to 23,000 jobs.

Reports published by the agriculture, forestry & fisheries department demonstrate that the fishing industry provides “high quality employment”. The jobs created are local opportunities protected by policy designed to ensure fishing rights are allocated to local companies. Conversely, seabed mining is unlikely to provide significant jobs or community benefit.

Seabed mining will likely have a detrimental impact on other sectors that rely on marine environments, such as tourism.

Seabed mining becomes viable only with economies of scale. Miners will need to dredge vast quantities of sediment at great cost. The financial feasibility of marine phosphate mining, accordingly, is dependent on large scale ecological destruction, making it hard to understand the economics of it.

What would the potential socioeconomic contribution of commercial-scale seabed mining be? The Sandpiper Project, a proposed marine phosphate mining project in Namibia, provides a case for comparison. The project planned to dredge up to 5.5Mt of sediment a year. How many jobs would this irreversible destruction of marine habitats provide? The project’s feasibility study says it will support about 150 full-time jobs.

This proves that a project of this scale’s contribution to jobs would be marginal. It is unlikely that these jobs would be local, because of the specialist nature of seabed mining.

The estimated life span of a seabed mining operation is 35 years. The few benefits cannot outweigh the interests of existing, renewable industries that support thousands of local jobs and produce high-protein food.

Government wants to create a million jobs in the ocean economy. Threatening hundreds of thousands of existing jobs supported by fishing and tourism is not a good start.

Roux is a legal campaigner at the Centre for Environmental Rights

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