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What is Protect The West Coast (PTWC)?

Mining is becoming rampant on the beaches and offshore regions of the pristine West Coast of South Africa, which is causing devastating environmental damage, restricting public coastal access and adversely affecting local communities. While this has been going on for several decades, the area is currently under increasing siege by a strew of multinational mining companies that seem to have the unequivocal backing, or at least tacit approval, of the South African government despite widespread concerns about this mining’s effect on the environment. There are numerous new mining applications in the pipeline and a proposal for a massive shipping port in Port Nolloth to support the industry. The Not-For-Profit Company (NPC), Protect The West Coast (PTWC) was formed in November 2020 to showcase to the world exactly what is happening along this fragile, remote stretch of coastline. Through information and activism, PTWC is on a mission to prevent these mining companies from further destroying this precious, biodiverse region and to preserve it for future generations. It is vitally important that the people that live and work on the west coast, see alternatives to mining like tourism, conservation, small scale commercial fishing and sport as a viable and sustainable long term solution to putting food on their tables. By showcasing to the world what is happening on the west coast, it is the intention of Protect The West Coast to hold both the miners and the government more accountable for their actions. It is important that miners do not deviate from their prescribed legally binding environmental responsibilities and that the government is made to fully adhere to its responsibilities on oversight.

Who is behind PTWC?

The driving force behind Protect The West Coast is Cape Town big wave surfer and West Coast regular Mike Schlebach, erstwhile co-founder of the sustainable outdoor brand Sealand and aspiring environmental activist. Mike has been joined by a raft of concerned surfers and other beach lovers, including big wave surfing world champion Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker, big wave legend Frank Solomon, and world-renowned surf photographers Alan Van Gysen, Anthony Fox and Sacha Specker. The PTWC Executive Committee is composed of several like-minded individuals, business professionals, journalists, legal experts and eco-activists. PTWC is also supported through grass-roots campaigns by a growing number of volunteers and supporters.

Where are these mines on the West Coast (and what is the total extent of the mining areas, including those earmarked for future mining)?

The initial main focus of Protect The West Coast is a series of mines and proposed mines in the area stretching north of the Olifants Estuary on the South African Cape West Coast from Elands Bay to Port Nolloth, as well as adjacent offshore areas earmarked for seaward mining prospecting. These include:

  • The Tormin Mineral Sands Mine extension about 19km north of the Olifants River Estuary and 25km west of the town of Lutzville.
  • A prospecting right application for valuable heavy minerals on the northern banks of the Olifants estuary, extending along the sea and upriver for about 15 km.
  • An application for offshore prospecting activities 1km seaward off the coast between Elands Bay and Strandfontein to the immediate south.
  • An application to undertake offshore diamond prospecting activities between Kleinsee and Hondeklip Bay to the north.
  • The earmarking of a massive harbour to support the mining industry at Boegoe Baai on the arid Namaqualand coastline near Port Nolloth.

Who owns these mining companies?

Mineral Sand Resources (Pty) Ltd (MSR) is an Australian-owned mining company that owns and operates the Tormin Mineral Sands Mine and is also behind the application to extend these operations, as well as to prospect in the Olifants River Estuary. International diamond conglomerate De Beers is the applicant in the offshore diamond prospecting activities between Kleinsee and Hondeklip Bay and a South African firm, Belton Park Trading, is the applicant in the offshore prospecting activities 1km seaward off the coast between Elands Bay and Strandfontein. The Boegoe Baai harbour development in Port Nolloth is likely to be a joint venture between national and local government and the private sector, potentially including investors from China and other international interests.

What are they mining?

The Tormin Mineral Sands Mine holds the rights to mine valuable heavy minerals (VHM) on the beaches of the West Coast. Mineral sands are old beach, river, or dune sands that contain concentrations of the important minerals rutile, ilmenite, zircon, and monazite. The MSR operations mines high grade garnet concentrate high grade zircon/rutile concentrate, high grade ilmenite concentrate and medium grade ilmenite concentrate, all of which have a variety of profitable industrial and commercial applications, from abrasive powders to sanitary ware and even toothpaste. De Beers of course are mining for the highly lucrative adamantine mineral known as diamonds. The Belton Park application is mainly also for diamonds, but includes prospecting for potential VHM, gemstones, precious metals, and ferrous and base metals.

How is this mining a threat to the environment? How do their operations work and what natural landscapes, fauna and flora are most under threat?

Tormin Sands For the beach mining of valuable heavy minerals, initial prospecting involves small scale sample drilling to determine the mining potential of a designated area, in this case the 10 beaches north of the existing Tormin Mine. Once an area is deemed feasible and approved for mining, the sand mining involves a variety of surface mining methods, including hydraulic mining, open cut mining and suction dredging. Beach mining is allowed between the low-water mark and the dunes, although a 10m buffer area from the toe of the dune to the start of mining is required. However, this means the beaches and any marine life that lives in or on these areas will likely be destroyed and the ecology of the area will be irreparably altered forever. Mining on beaches and in the nearshore zone can result in imbalances in sediments, cliff collapses and the deposition of terrestrial material into the water column that can affect filter feeders and other pelagic species, undermining the fishing industry. Belton Trading Offshore prospecting operations use echo sounders to survey the seabed and drills and bulk sampling ‘crawlers’ to sample the sediment and seabed. For the latter, sediments are then pumped to the surface for shipboard processing. The potential impacts of these operations are mainly on marine fauna, where crawlers will damage and disturb the seabed, alter the sediment structure and localised disturbance of marine fauna due to noise and lighting. Oil spills also pose a risk and would have immediate detrimental effects on water quality. Commercial and small-scale fishing will be impacted by the disruption of fishing operations, loss of access to fishing grounds and disturbance of local fish populations, which may impact livelihoods and a loss of income due to the decreased fishing effort. De Beers De Beers propose to undertake bulk sampling activities using specialized vessels over a total footprint of approximately 48 000m2 in the sea concession 6C, located off the West Coast, between Kleinsee in the north and Hondeklip Bay in the south. Two possible methods considered for the bulk sampling are the vertical method, which utilises a tool mounted on a drill string or the horizontal method, which uses a seabed crawler. According to an assessment by consulting company, SLR, the cumulative impact of the bulk sampling process is envisioned to be of very low significance. However, the sampling method will generate sediment plumes which will inhibit phytoplankton’s photosynthetic capability and pelagic visual predators due to poor visibility. Egg and/or larval development impairment and reduction of benthic bivalve filter-feeding efficiencies will also be impacted. Secondly there is risk that sediment with heavy metals or contaminants are remobilised. The fishing industry could also be impacted by bulking sampling in terms of movement and time, which according to SLR is a low impact. Once an area of the seabed within the concession has been identified as suitable for mining, various ship-borne mining methods are implemented at depths of up to 150 metres. Traditionally a giant pipe is used to suck up to 60 tonnes of sediment an hour, which is then washed and sifted through aboard the mining ship using racks and drums to crush the larger rocks, from which the diamonds are then extracted. The remaining sediment and rock is then discarded back into the ocean by the ‘floating mine’ vessel. Apart from the collateral damage to sea life such as octopus and seals, which have been known to be sucked up into the dredging pipe, little is known about the further long-term effects of this kind of offshore mining. However ecologists and environmental activists have expressed concern that it is highly damaging to the ocean and believe that more studies should be undertaken, before such mining is allowed to continue on a large scale in such a sensitive deep water ecosystem. Boegoe Baai Port Finally, while not a mining operation per se, the Boegoe Baai port development at Port Nolloth will certainly irreparably transform this part of the West Coast and result in the permanent destruction of parts of the area’s coastline. The whole area is a biodiversity hotspot with the largest concentration of succulent plants in the world. Cold, nutrient rich waters upwelling along the West Coast fuel high rates of phytoplankton growth that sustain the highly productive Benguela ecosystem. These interconnected ecosystems are a haven for marine life such as whales, dolphins, seals, fish, birds, land-mammals, reptiles, plant and unique insect and invertebrate habitats, which are all now under threat.

What other threats do these mines present?

The Tormin Mineral Sands Mine and extension poses the greatest threat to permanently disrupt the ecology of the fragile West Coast biosphere. For a start this will include expanding the infrastructure area of 64 hectares adjacent to the existing processing plant to accommodate additional processing plants, stockpile areas, industrial yards, parking and laydown areas. An estimate of the total extent of the coastline that would potentially be impacted by mining activities if all MSR’s applications are approved would be approximately 52 kilometres. While mining will not take place on all the coastal land, rocky shores and beaches – mining, and associated activities, such as haul and access roads, infrastructure development and stockpiling material, will disturb and in places destroy the environment. This will affect access to these pristine beaches and coastal areas that fall within a critical biodiversity area (CBA). In addition, two farms adjacent to the Olifants estuary, the third most important estuary in South Africa in terms of wildlife and biodiversity, are also part of this long-term mining plan. These mining activities also generate air pollution from the large numbers of trucks on gravel roads often without protective covering. Another concern is impact on groundwater resources, which affects local farmers. The potential curbing of the right of access to these areas can inhibit recreational and tourism-related activities, such as surfing, hiking, trail running, mountain biking, rock angling and diving. The potential loss of archaeological and cultural sites and fossils is even more concerning and has yet to be fully addressed or explored.

Don’t these mining companies have to rehabilitate the land once they have finished mining it?

Yes, but some don’t and the amounts held by the Department for rehabilitation purposes are woefully inadequate. This is despite the fact that beach mining rehabilitation is a prerequisite mandated by government – via Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations promulgated under the National Environmental Management Act – for these mining companies to obtain permission to mine these sites. Rehabilitation requirements include the relocation of topsoil and plant translocation among other restoration processes. But as this is poorly enforced, in the past some mining companies have barely adhered to these requirements. Some claim bankruptcy before completing the rehabilitation obligations on site, onselling to a smaller mining company that can’t uphold the same rehabilitation responsibilities or costs or keep the mine on a care and maintenance plan until the obligatory rehabilitation steps have been taken, which is eventually neglected. Tormin Mine owner MSR has pledged to rehabilitate the areas it mines to the fullest of its obligations. However, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), which has filed a series of appeals against the Tormin mine operations and applications, holds that MSR has not offered any clarity on how it plans to address the lasting impact of its activities and and there is significant evidence that this will have a long-term effect beyond three years after the closure of the mine.

Isn't the environment protected in South Africa's constitution? Why is the government not doing anything to police this rehabilitation or protect our coast by not allowing this kind of mining?

Section 24 of the SA Constitution reads: “Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.” Enforcement of the conditions of any authorisation or licence granted to a mine, is only as good as the resources allocated to do the job, to ensure that the enforcement of those conditions is properly carried out. Those resources are limited and an enormous part of ensuring that mining companies adhere to the conditions of their licences and authorisations is up to concerned and active members of the public and civil society to create awareness around these issues and to raise the alarm when necessary.

What do these mining companies need to do to get permission to mine? What is the difference between a prospecting application and a mining application?

In summary mining, as an activity in the broadest sense, requires permission from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE). Mining companies are required – depending on the type of mining that is to be done and the activities ancillary to the mining operation – to make an application to the DMRE for permission to do so. Prospecting is defined as intentionally searching for any mineral and is a precursor to actually mining the minerals. Ordinarily, a mining company will first prospect to establish what minerals are available and in what quantities and then decide on whether it is commercially viable to mine. Both prospecting and mining require application for authorisation to do so.

Doesn’t mining create jobs in this economically challenged part of South Africa? Won’t stopping the mining mean job losses? How can people there earn a living without this kind of investment in the region?

Mining can create employment and can contribute financially to local communities if that is the intention and conditions are placed upon the mining company to adhere to. The reality on the ground, however, is that communities adjacent to mining operations in South Africa are often the most negatively affected upon by the mining operations. In addition to this, much of the mineral wealth extracted from the natural resources is removed from the area and shipped overseas, so their positive impact is limited and is often to the longer-term detriment of the residents of the Cape West Coast. Despite the creation of short-term, low-skill jobs, mining significantly and adversely affects ecosystems which has a detrimental knock-on effect to the broader West Coast environment, economy and society. For a start, much of the very limited employment provided by mining to local communities is unskilled manual labour, and opportunities for upward mobility into higher positions are extremely limited for the area’s population, many of whom live in poverty. Despite more than 50 years of activity in the region there has also been little to no easily identifiable investment or skills development by the government or the private sector for the local people. Directly and indirectly the long-term impact of mining on the environment in the region has a net negative effect, inhibiting its residents from even surviving from subsistence fishing or farming, due to reduced sea life and degraded land. Instead of relying on mining as the only means to employ local communities and inject economic growth, low-impact alternatives such as cultural, eco-tourism and small scale farming and fishing should rather be explored, and investment made in upskilling the local communities to service these industries, or support provided for them to pursue entrepreneurism and to open their own businesses.

How is PTWC planning to stop or at least slow down or restrict this mining?

Protect The West Coast’s primary founding mission is to cast a bright spotlight on all mining activities on the Cape West Coast and to do our utmost to stop them wherever possible. We plan to do this through a sustained campaign of information, including media coverage – via social media, web and print outlets and other means – as well as real-world activations and petitions. We seek to partner with like-minded organisations and we are also committed to providing the public with all of the information, tools and guidance needed for civil society to take effective action through said petitions, as well as lodge appeals and register as an Interested and Affected Party (IAP) to push against these mining applications and activities, for example. We aim to also put pressure on the Department of Environmental Affairs as well as other relevant government departments to develop a long term strategy for the Cape West Coast that holds current mining operations strictly to their rehabilitation and operational obligations as well as demonstrates a plan to develop lower impact industries that keep the environment and communities’ long term prosperity in mind.

What can be done by civil society to contribute to this effort?

Concerned citizens can:

  • Lodge appeals against mining applications. Details of how this is done will be posted on our website when new applications come up.
  • Register as an Interested and Affected Party (IAP). Details of how this is done will be posted on our website when new applications come up.
  • Engage and apply pressure on government officials responsible for mining on the West Coast.

How can I help or contribute to the cause as an individual or brand/company? Can we follow you on social media, donate or support Protect The West Coast?

We would be grateful for your support! As an individual you can:

  • Donate. Your donation allows us to support community initiatives that actively work towards protecting South Africa's beautiful West Coast from reckless mining activities that are sure to destroy the natural ecosystems. https://www.protectthewestcoast.org/donate
  • Get Social. Tell your friends and family about what's at stake. Share our website, follow us and our partners via your social media networks, follow our Instagram page, like is on Facebook and help spread the message far and wide.
As a company or brand you can:
  • Do all of the above and encourage your employees to do the same.

Is PTWC working with any similar or like-minded organisations in the region?

PTWC hopes to build on appeals such as these and to combine all of the efforts of current activist organisations, including the Western Cape First Nations Collective, as well as journalists, researchers and academics. If you would like to join the cause as a partner organisation please email, please email Hannah Freed for more information on admin@protectthewestcoast.org

Is PTWC only focused on mining or will other forms of conservation and environmental stewardship fall under its mandate in the future?

As our resources are limited, PTWC will initially be focusing most of its efforts on its founding mandate to fight mining. However there are many other pressing environmental issues on the Cape West Coast, including the degradation of the wetlands at Verlorenvlei in Elands Bay that we will hopefully also become involved in. We aim to provide a platform that will allow other environmental initiatives along the coastline to connect with other relevant stakeholders as well as get their voices heard. Ultimately we want to put pressure on the government to come up with a long term strategy for the Cape West Coast that doesn’t allow for piecemeal mining applications to be approved, but rather protects and celebrates the ecological and cultural importance of the coastline.

Do you have any merchandise?

Not at present but we hope to be producing some branded merchandise in the near future.