Mining Affected Communities: We need more than on-paper Social and Labour Plans

(Photo: An informal settlement close to the Lonmin mine, where 34 people were killed when police opened fire on protesting mine workers)

Mining within communities is viewed as a conduit for further development of the community. It creates an expectation of an improved standard of living and gives the community a sense of hope for better and sustainable living. This hope is often hindered by the breakdown in communication with respect to the implementation and the sustainability of the perceived progression of development. Was the Marikana massacre not the perfect example of a fatal breakdown in communication between the miners, their union representatives and Lonmin?

In looking at the socio-economic situation of the clients that approach civil society on a daily basis with cries of injustice in their communities, the land beneath their feet is the wealthiest. As a result, most of the communities affected by mining are those with very little economic freedom. But, after the granting of the mining permit, there is often even less economic freedom and often dire consequences for communities.

To ascertain whether there is mineral deposit on a piece of land, an application must be made for a prospecting right. No two people can hold a prospecting right, mining right, mining permit or retention permit for the same mineral and land at the same time. Communities on land on which there is a land claim are therefore in a state of uncertainty about who owns the mineral rights. Could mine companies be capitalising on the chaos?

Let’s assume, in this instance, that all the necessary land acquisition processes and procedures have been meticulously complied with. In order to obtain a mining right in South Africa, you have to have complied with the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA). The Social and Labour Plan (SLP) is an important document that the Department of Mineral Resources has to assess to establish the benefit that will extend to the community in granting the permit.

Being a legally binding document, the SLP ought to be enforceable in a community; yet why is it that graduates in rural communities in which there is mining activity cannot complete their in-service training with such a mine? Or, the local councillor has neither a seat nor a say in the meetings held by the mining company? Is this a lack of representation in a democratic country?

The community of Mahlabathini in KwaZulu Natal is currently affected by coal mining activity and a “smokescreen” SLP. The traditional authorities of the area have isolated the local councillor for political reasons, resulting in her having no knowledge of the decisions taken that affect her community. Community members that worked at the mine and have since been retrenched have not been given any severance packages. The Municipality has cut off the water supply in the community; yet the mine has adequate water supply to remain fully operational. The trucks driving to and from the mine have run over livestock and children, with no compensation to the bereaved families.

With a mining permit being rewenable every 5 years, we must wonder why this would be renewed when the community has not benefitted from the mining activity as per the SLP – and in fact, has suffered considerably.

A report by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) in March 2017 confirms that SLP’s are a requirement that is rarely enforced by mining companies. It is important to take cognisance of the fact that enforcement and accountability will not always lie with the same office. Budget may be allocated for the social-economic development of a community; however, community members give proxy to a representative who is their voice and is responsible for ensuring the upkeep of their communities’ best interests.

One cannot point a finger at the mining company alone, or the representatives of the community, for not being accountable where necessary. However, tension is bound to rise where there is no transparency. Accountability and transparency become fundamental in the socio-economic enforcement of rights in affected communities.

A more concerted effort and vigour by all the role-players is needed to question, challenge and call to book those in positions of power when decisions are made that affect communities.

The richness of the land has moved from below the feet the community to the hands of the decision-makers.

Nokukhanya Nkatha – ­2017 Bertha Justice Fellow

The Annual Bertha Convening is supported by the Bertha Foundation. We would like to thank them for their support of the next generation of young human rights lawyers. Read more about the Bertha Foundation and Bertha Justice Fellows here: http://berthafoundation.org/

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LRC submissions: #BindingTreaty at IGWG 2017

STOP THE PLUNDER: AFRICA IS NOT FOR SALE

The Legal Resources Centre, as part of the Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power and, separately, the Treaty Alliance, was in Geneva during the final week of October 2017 for the third session of the open-ended intergovernmental working group (IGWG) on the elaboration of a binding treaty on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights.

The Global Campaign and Treaty Alliance are working collectively to advocate for a strong Binding Treaty to Stop Corporate Abuse and to prevent and remedy human rights abuses by transnational corporations and other companies.

The Binding Treaty process has been going on for many years. This was the crucial third session of the Inter-Governmental Working Group, where the draft elements of the Treaty were submitted by Ecuador, as the chair, for discussion. The submissions made during this session are on those elements.

The EU and others tried to force an end to this process by arguing that the resolution that constituted the Working Group provided for 3 sessions only and a new resolution must be sought to continue the work. The Treaty Alliance and allies worked hard on lobbying against this backlash and supporting South Africa, who is pushing for the process to continue. The outcome of the meeting, after tense negotiations on Friday last week, was that the chair must informally consult on how to take the process forward.

The Alliance and allies are pushing for a draft zero of the Binding Treaty to be presented and discussed at the 4th IGWG meeting at the end of next year.

The LRC made the following submissions during the sessions: 

Oral Submission – Subject 1: General framework

Thank you Chairperson and congratulations on your appointment. My name is Lucien Limacher. I am from the Legal Resources Centre from the Johannesburg office in South Africa.

I am viewing the draft elements document from a viewpoint of respecting, protecting and promoting the core environmental and sustainability principles widely accepted and fundamental to the survival and development of vulnerable communities who face, often unwanted, development projects imposed by TNCs, OBEs and states.

At Preamble: In terms of the preamble, there are two core international environmental laws or policies that are currently not mentioned within the draft elements document, which play a critical role on the impact TNCs and OBEs have on human right violations. The first pertains to the lack of reference to the various international treaties on climate change; we cannot ignore the anthropocentric impact of TNCs and OBEs have on climate change and of course then on human rights. The second international environmental issue relates to the failure to acknowledge the Development Sustainable Goals that were agreed upon in terms of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development read with the Rio Declaration and the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development. It is critical that TNCs and OBEs follow a sustainable development pattern that does not impact the livelihood of communities. As such the treaty should reflect in the preamble the above two aspects.

At Principles: Taking the above context into consideration, the same problem can be expanded on under the principles section wherein the draft elements document failed to take cognisance of the following critical environmental principles that impact the human rights discourse:

  • The first principle that must be included is the Cradle-to-Grave principle;
  • The second principle that must be included is Prior Environmental Impact Assessment Principle (this must go along with the human rights impact assessment mention in the draft element document);
  • The third principle that must be included is the Public Trust Principle;
  • The fourth principle that must be included is the Polluter Pays Principle; and
  • Lastly, the fifth principle that must be included is the Sustainable Use and Equity Principle.

Lastly, at Purpose: Within this section, it was mention that adequate remediation is to be used as an effective remedying tool. It is this submission that remediation must include rehabilitation of the environment if the environment has been degraded by an activity of a TNC or an OBE.

Thank you.

Oral Submission – Subject 2: Scope of Application

Thank you Mr Chairperson Rapporteur

The Legal Resources Centre is a public interest law firm based in South Africa. We represent individuals and communities in protecting their rights against the impact of often unwanted and imposed development projects in the extractives and other sectors.

We endorse the principle of the primary responsibility of States to protect and promote the human rights of its citizens against all transnational corporations and other businesses enterprises who abuse these. We cannot afford another narrow instrument that creates yet more loopholes for impunity to thrive. But we also cannot pretend that States do not operate in the context of the corporate capture of their law and policy making processes and its implementation. This is pervasive on the African continent, a continent regarded as the new frontier for extractivism and large scale agri-business.

While we strongly endorse explicit measures to be included in the treaty to guard against corporate capture suggested by colleagues earlier, we fear that these may not be sufficient to break the stronghold of corporate capture over the States mandated to protect and promote the human rights of their citizens. In order to make meaningful progress, this process must acknowledge the importance of placing relative power in the hands of the peoples, communities and individuals whose rights are affected by the actions of TNCs and OBEs.

They must be central to the decision-making processes that authorize projects and their implementation. The inclusion in decision-making of affected individuals provides a further safeguard against corporate capture. The principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent, already entrenched in international law and increasingly recognized as imperative to the success of international voluntary standards, must be included in the treaty as a step towards not only providing remedies to human rights abuses, but indeed preventing those abuses from occurring. There is growing consensus in this room that prevention of abuse is indeed what we are collectively pursuing.

FPIC creates a meaningful seat at the table for those directly affected by the actions of TNCs and OBEs and at the same time strengthens the hands of States to act decisively in the interest of their people in the face of corporate interests. Even better, it ensures that rural women, who continue to bear the brunt of the impacts of TNCs and OBEs, are recognized as actors in their own development paths, rather than mere victims.

We thank you.

Lucien Limacher at the UN BindingTreaty negotiations

Oral Submission – Subject 4: Preventive Measures

Good afternoon Chairman Rapporteur. My name is Lucien Limacher from the Legal Resources Centre, South Africa.

One of the Legal Resources Centre’s missions is to seek cre­ative and effec­tive solu­tions by using a range of strate­gies. These, amongst others, include impact lit­i­ga­tion, law reform, par­tic­i­pa­tion in part­ner­ships and devel­op­ment processes, edu­ca­tion, and net­work­ing within South Africa, the African con­ti­nent and at the inter­na­tional level.

In capturing this spirit above, this section, Preventive measures, under the draft elements document can be the start of a creative and effective tool to stop the corporate impunity currently impacting affected communities and the environment.

Taking my colleague’s statement made yesterday that, “we cannot pretend that States do not operate in the context of the corporate capture of their law- and policy-making processes and their implementation,” it is fitting at this juncture that the following three points are made relating to the section on preventive measure:

The first point relates to the phrase, “all concerned TNCs and OBEs shall adopt a vigilance plan consisting of due diligence procedures to prevent human rights violation abuses.” Although a binding vigilance plan is welcomed it does not go far enough in preventing human and peoples’ rights including community rights that revolve around environmental pollution, degradation and even destruction of livelihoods. It is therefore proposed that the draft elements document incorporates, over and above a binding vigilance plan, an article or clause that allows for a procedure for public comment, consultation and, where relevant, consent or agreement with the plan at this early stage of a human rights risk assessment exercise or vigilance plan.

This brings me to the second point namely elaboration in the draft elements document to incorporate unequivocally the right to free prior informed consent (“FPIC”). The words “states shall promote adequate consultation” must, in the case of directly affected communities, include, “free prior informed consent to be obtained from affected communities.” Failing to recognise FPIC will leave affected communities by the wayside and allow the status quo to continue and over shadow universal human rights and to degrade the environment. FPIC and the right to development is recognised in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, it is emphasised in the UN resolution A/HRC/RES/26/9 and in the Declaration on the Right to Development, adopted by the General Assembly through its resolution 41/128 on 4 December 1986.

Lastly, the third point refers to the human rights impact assessment. As mentioned in the Legal Resources Centre submission under general frameworks, it is critical than when a human rights impact assessment is undertaken that a similar impact assessment is carried out regarding the environment.

I thank you.

Oral Submission – Subject 9: Mechanisms for Promotion, Implementation and Monitoring

The Legal Resources Centre firstly responds to a comment made by a panelist on the topic of Jurisdiction this morning that corporate violations happen only in countries with “fragile democracies”. We strongly reject that suggestion. Evidence suggests that there is hardly a country in the world that is not the location of human rights violations by corporates. Perhaps our disagreement lies in what the panelist regards as human rights abuses. The purpose of this legally binding treaty is not only to end the grossest of human rights violation, but also those violations that, through corporate capture, have become normalized and even legalized in several countries. For examples, look no further than the land and resource grabbing and environmental degradation pervasive on the African continent.

The LRC notes that civil society and even states from across the world have persistently raised the principle and right of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (or FPIC) to be included in this treaty in this forum. As we move towards negotiating a draft text in 2018, we wish to elaborate on how FPIC should act as a mechanism for the promotion, implementation and monitoring of the human rights of affected communities. FPIC refers both to a substantive right under international-, regional – and indigenous customary law as well as a process designed to ensure satisfactory development outcomes.

To realise this right, the affected community’s decision whether to allow development that will affect their rights, should be made free from any obligation, duty, force or coercion. Secondly, the community has the right to make the development choice prior to any similar decisions made by government, finance institutions or investors. In the words of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the community’s right to FPIC is not realised if they are presented with a project as a fait accompli. Thirdly, the community must be able to make an informed decision. That means that they should be provided sufficient information to understand the nature and scope of the project, including its projected environmental, social, cultural and economic impacts. Such information should be objective and based on a principle of full disclosure. The community should be afforded enough time to digest and debate the information.

Finally, consent means that the community’s decision may be to reject the proposed development. Consent is not mere consultation. The community can say no. Because the right to say no places the community in a position to negotiate, it is also a process. FPIC is not designed only to stop undesirable projects, but also to provide communities with better bargaining positions when they do consider allowing proposed developments on their land or resources.

FPIC should not be relegated to a risk-management exercise. Rather, FPIC should be the basis upon which the relationship between the affected community and the company is built. The role of the State in enforcing this right is crucial, but not a prerequisite for building more equitable negotiating and bargaining positions between the affected communities and the developers.

Thank you.

Oral Submission: Subject 10: Victims

The Legal Resources Centre is a 4 decades old public interest law firm based in South Africa.

My colleagues and I are community lawyers who have represented communities against corporates and mining companies for 4 decades between us. We base our arguments on our experience, community instructions and numerous court cases.

We are adopting this slightly pompous introduction in reply to the expert corporate lawyer on the panel yesterday who introduced himself and rooted his knowledge and experience in taking instructions from corporate TNCs for a decade.

Communities in the south know themselves far better than TNCs, they know their histories and they will take responsibility for their destinies and that of their children.  Our communities have knowledge and they have agency.  They are not victims. Faceless TNCs in the capitals, their directors and their shareholders, their legal and financial advisors and financiers may never know what it means to be cared for in a community context.

We have time for just one story, but please know that there are many. This is the story of the Xolobeni community.

Ms Nonhle Mbuthuma Forslund is one of the great women leaders of the Xolobeni community, Pondoland South Africa, a community that has held out for more than a decade against an Australian mining company TEM … a titanium mine that would destroy the community and the livelihoods of the families on their ancestral land.  The struggle against a mine that has also lead to the callous murder of the community leader Bazooka Radebe 18 months ago.  The murder remains unresolved.  Nonhle cannot be here today because a bureaucrat in the Swiss Consulate in South Africa rejected her visa application three times over… partly because her village does not have street numbers and electricity bills.  But in fact she has much more …. She belongs.  She belongs to her community and the community’s land.  They know their history, they have an indigenous legal system and they remain committed to choosing their own development path in terms of pace and scale. Nonhle’s community went to court saying that law from below gives them the right to say no and we should support her with a binding instrument at the level of international law.

Yesterday, the Southern African Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal[1] Jurors’ report, was released. The Xolobeni and Marikana communities together with 17 other communities gave evidence before a jury consisting of peoples’ jurors. They have respect for law from below. The expert corporate lawyers should take note of what the report says (and we can provide them with copies), for example:

  1. With economic gain as the prime motivation, anything that hinders that objective is treated by states and TNCs as an obstacle that must be subdued or eliminated. The pursuit of gains and profits for the TNCs and as revenue for governments place the communities and the environment at great risks.
  2. The constant refrain “NOT without our consent,” demonstrates a peoples-rooted development.
  3. It is important to explore legal mechanisms making the national governments and the TNCs accountable at domestic, regional and national level. It is vital for States to recognise progressive and participatory indigenous customary law.  We must engage in the discussion of treaty law and state domestic law that can be self-executing and monitored by communities as principal actors, in co-operation with civil society.  The evidence presented to the peoples’ tribunal shows that state and corporate law continues to mistreat the poor.

Chair Rapporteur, whoever tries to stop or delay this process today, and those who have not even showed up, shall have that reality on their conscience.

We thank you.


For more on the Binding Treaty: https://www.escr-net.org/corporateaccountability/hrbusinesstreaty

Twitter: Follow Treaty Alliance @treatyalliance and the hashtags #BindingTreaty #StopCorporateAbuse

 

 

Should fracking happen in South Africa?

Photo: No Fracking Signs at Prince Albert – by Danie van der Merwe (Flikr)

The threat of fracking has been imminent in South Africa for almost a decade. But South Africa is just not ready for fracking. There are many detrimental effects of this mining activity on communities and the environment.  The regulatory requirements to mediate these effects are also not present. Allowing fracking to take place in South Africa would simply be disastrous.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a technique used to extract gas from deep underground, which involves digging wells up to four kilometres deep. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected at high pressure to crack shale rock formations and release the gas, which is then brought to the surface.

History of Fracking in South Africa

Fracking is not a new practice and dates back to the 1860s in the United States but started being used commercially in 2009. Currently, almost 95 percent of US states use fracking techniques. In South Africa, formal interest in fracking began in 2008; the potential areas of interest being in the Karoo and parts of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). Since then, there have been a number of applications for exploration rights from companies such as Bundu Oil and Gas, Shell SA and Falcon Gas and Oil.

The threat of litigation around the imperfections of this process, and around the absolute lack of investigation into the technology and its impacts, resulted in the Minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu, declaring a moratorium on the issue of exploration licences in April 2011. The Department of Minerals and Resources (DMR) was instructed to set up a task team to explore the implications of fracking, the feasibility of the gas extraction, as well as its impact on the environment.

At that time, no timeline was given for when research would be conducted. The Minister commissioned a report from a group of different government agencies to inform her about whether fracking should go ahead or not. The problem with the task team responsible for the report was that it excluded representatives from key government departments. Only certain voices were heard in the report. This omission does not reflect administrative justice, a right to which we are entitled under the Constitution.

In September 2012, a little over a year later, the moratorium was lifted. Cabinet endorsed recommendations of the report on the lifting of the moratorium and mandated the Minister of the DMR to hold a series of public consultations with interested and affected stakeholders to provide further details.

Possible pollution events associated with fracking

Fracking typically requires 1000-2000 large truckloads of water, which means thousands of wells will require truckloads of water to be transported to the fracking site at significant environmental cost. Most of South Africa’s surface fresh water (98%) has already been allocated to existing users. This raises the question of how the fracking industry will source the millions of litres of water it will need to undertake its operations.

Fracking entails the pumping of toxic chemicals at high pressure, with water and sand, into underground shale rock formations. Some of the fracking liquid returns to the surface after use, and has to be disposed of without causing harm to the environment. The fracking liquid often consists of both toxic and radioactive sludge, which must be transported to hazardous waste management sites.

The most serious environmental concern related to fracking is that of ground water contamination. The potential risk to ground water comes from two sources: the injected water (water and chemicals) and the released natural gas. The water used in drilling shale gas is fused with sand and chemicals (corrosive inhibitors, surfactants, iron control chemicals, biocides, friction reducers and scale inhibitors). When these are injected down the well, there is a strong possibility of polluting underground water. Freshwater reserves can also be contaminated when the fluid is spilt at the site of the wells or in other accidental spills.

Fracking can release gas and / or vapour into the atmosphere. These emissions are either of original additive chemicals, entrained contaminants from the shale formation or the methane released by the fracking process. There is an ongoing debate about the relative leakage of methane into the atmosphere from the exploitation of shale gas in comparison to the emission rate from conventional gas. This is potentially important because a high leakage rate might mean that methane released into the atmosphere from shale gas extraction could have a higher net greenhouse gas footprint, than, for example, coal. Fracking operations should, therefore, seek to minimize all emissions into the atmosphere and monitoring processes need to be actively enforced.

Lastly, shale gas development involves continuous activity conducted over a sustained period of time (this can vary considerably, but is often several years) over the entire course of a day, seven days a week. The noise of compressors, generators and drilling, extensive truck movements, intrusive un-natural lighting overnight and the release of bad smelling chemicals can have significant negative health and well-being impacts on nearby communities, especially in the context of quiet rural and semi-rural areas that also relatively densely populated.

Do we have the regulatory requirements to undertake fracking?

What are the regulatory conditions that currently exist that would affect fracking? The Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) is the central statute that governs applications for and the granting of rights and permits to conduct shale gas extraction. The requirement for the submission and approval of an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) for an exploration and production right allows for the potential environmental impacts of shale gas extraction to be investigated prior to such activities being conducted.

If waste will be generated by any activity, an assessment as to whether the National Environmental Management Water Act (NEMWA) applies to the activity will need to be made and, if required, any requisite waste management licenses applied for and obtained prior to starting any activity requiring the management of the waste.

Should any company succeed with exploration, a water use license in terms of the National Water Act is to be secured through applications for individual or integrated water use licenses. Various factors will have to be considered for the granting of the licence – one of which is the availability of resources.

How effective are these measures to mitigate the impacts of fracking?

Should the South African government decide to issue exploration and production rights for shale gas fracking, the least we can expect is an appropriate regulatory regime that is implemented, monitored and enforced. The current fracking regulations and the current pollution control laws do not achieve this.

We do not have the capacity or will at local – and national government level to do the basics of waste management, such as collecting solid waste, preventing dumping, closing down illegal mining operations and controlling sewage and industrial pollution. We simply will not be able to handle the extra burden of fracking waste once fracking activities begin.

Fracking can be extremely water-intensive, depending on the precise techniques used. This may pose risks in the KZN Midlands, and other parts of the country which are currently experiencing drought conditions.

In theory, it seems that South Africa’s pollution control laws do allow for mining; however, due to the nature of fracking, the current pollution control laws may not be sufficient to deal with the detrimental and long-term effects of fracking.

The environmental impacts of conventional mining in South Africa have never been regulated effectively. To the extent that appropriate regulations do exist, their implementation has been ineffective. As a result, mining has had, and continues to have, significant negative impacts on the environment. Many of these impacts, such as acid mine drainage, cannot be easily remedied and will continue to impose heavy financial, health and environmental costs on society for the foreseeable future.

I would argue then, that with the current regulatory environment, as well as the potential harm caused by fracking, the government will need to rethink its regulatory regime before allowing fracking to happen.

by: Shaun Bergover, candidate attorney

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Realising Rights bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Legal Resources Centre. The Legal Resources Centre is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the bloggers.

Zama zamas: Trying to make ends meet in the face of the apocalypse

Reports of deaths and injuries to informal miners (known as zama zamas) have a way of dividing people, with organisations like the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) calling for an intensified crackdown on unlawful mining operations and the arrest of “illegal miners”, while others like the Legal Resources Centre are calling for the better regulation of informal mining to protect miners from environmental and social dangers.

While the debate rages in the media space, informal miners continue to die. The Mines Rescue Services (MRS), a non-profit organisation assisting to recover and rescue mine workers, reported that 22 bodies of informal miners were recovered in 2015 while, so far this year, they have recovered 24 bodies.

The Legal Resources Centre has been working with mining-affected communities and activists in Ermelo, Mpumalanga, where abandoned coal mines cover a large portion of some areas. Activists are rightly concerned about the working conditions in the mines and the environmental damage the coal seam is causing in the area.

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The coal seams can clearly be seen in this picture – Ermelo April 2016

I was part of a team of LRC staff meeting four activists who wanted to show us the conditions that prevail in that area and the ends that miners will go to in order to make a living. Zama zama loosely means “trying to make ends meet”.

Upon arrival on a windy April day, we were shocked by what we saw. There was strong heat and smoke coming from the coal seams that had been on fire for months, the activists told us. These blistering fires are blazing through cavities of abandoned coalfields on the outskirts of Goldview Colliery. The earth we walked on was filled with sinkholes caused by the burning layers of coal beneath the surface.

As we came closer, the ecological damage the fires are causing became obvious. Trees and other plants were damaged; the land is rendered redundant, desert-like. Nothing can grow here.

There was no avoiding inhaling the smoke. Coughing, we imagined the long-term effects for people living here, exposed to it daily. The activists tell of rivers and boreholes that are polluted by acids coming from the mines – poisonous for people, fish and wildlife. It’s perilous terrain for anyone or any animal, who risk falling into open pits and shafts.

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Damage to the landscape is hazardous to animals and people – Ermelo April 2016

With coal seams blazing on one side, scores of zama zamas mine the abandoned shaft on the other. They are community members from Ermelo and surroundings.

We ventured down the mine, squeezing past the main entrance designed for a wheel-barrow. It was very dark. Miners had torches; we used our phones for light. Though we could not get an exact sense of how many people were inside, we speculated there were around 50 people down the shaft.

There are many pathways but some had collapsed. Despite the obvious dangers, the miners chatted and joked with us and we learned about certain rules they abide by as they work; one of the most important being the “no smoking” rule. Smoking can spark underground fires because of the remaining flammable chemicals the previous formal mining company had used. They abandoned the mine, taking little responsibility for the degradation they caused, nor rehabilitating the area.

We went deeper into the mine. We could feel the heat coming from the blazing coal seams on the other side. This situation is dangerous and miners are exposed to it every day of their lives.

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The coal seam is on fire and smoke can be seen coming out from underground shafts – Ermelo April 2016

One activist amongst the four is a former zama-zama and he told us that many people in Ermelo do not have much of a choice than to risk their lives underground. Reports also points out that several miners have lost their lives in the past few years in the same mine. On 3 July 2015, in the Highvelder newspaper, it was reported that several illegal miners have perished in the mine over the past few years and authorities seem at loss to prevent these activities.

Many people in the area live in terrible circumstances. Unemployment rates are high. The miners confirmed that the little money they earn by selling coal to local communities is their only source of income. “There are no jobs; that is why you see us here”, says one zama-zama.

A couple of hours later, we leave the mine shaft. We were all experiencing back pains. We were then led to an informal settlement in the Gert Sibande District Municipality, not very far from the abandoned mines. We spoke to two community members.

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The conditions in abandoned mines pose a threat to the lives of the informal miners – Ermelo April 2016

A mother of an 11-year-old, Busisiwe Mkhwananzi, told us that she had to move from where she used to live because of the fire that used to spark up inside her house.

The sparks are caused by the chemicals under the ground. That, with the electric cables which run beneath, sparks fire more especially during rainy weather conditions.

“The problems of mines in our area had been reported to authorities, including the ward councillor, but nothing has been done about it so far”, she said. Busisiwe was told to leave the area by representatives of her ward councillor because it was no longer safe for her and her daughter to continue staying there.

“They never gave me any alternative housing or perhaps show me a site where I could build and start a new life”, she said.

There is widespread concern of methane gas and other toxic gases being released through surface cracks as informal mining continues. There have been reports that houses have caught alight due to these flammable gases been released into homes that are built on top of old coal seams.

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Coal extracted informally is the life-blood of the informal settlements in Ermelo, but the abandoned mines pose a threat to human health and the environment – April 2016

We also spoke to Sphiwe Mjuza. She is frustrated by the conditions they live under, which are dangerous and could lead to loss of life. “We are always on guard; constantly monitoring our children when they are playing because any danger can happen unexpectedly. We also fear that elderly people living in this area will not be able to escape in the face of imminent danger”, Mjuza said.

The abandoned coal mines and the continuation of informal mining not only affect miners when they are exposed to collapses and the inhalation of smoke, but also pose significant health and environmental hazards to the Ermelo community at large. This is a community stuck between a rock and hard place and the situation calls for action so that no more lives are lost.

By: Lucky Mabasa

Lucky Mabasa is a communications intern at the Legal Resource Centre.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Realising Rights bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Legal Resources Centre. The Legal Resources Centre is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the bloggers.