South Africa Locks Onto Coal Despite Water Risks, Grim Market Trends

Juliette Ndosi and her son, Tobi, live near the site of a proposed underground mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal province. Photo/Keith Schneider
Juliette Ndosi and her son, Tobi, live near the site of a proposed underground mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal province. Photo/Keith Schneider

VRYHEID, South Africa — The chilly highland valleys of northern KwaZulu-Natal province, where coal mining and agriculture have coexisted since the late 19th century, have never been a geography of unfolding uncertainty, mystery, and menace like they are today.

South Africa’s allegiance to coal mining and coal-fired power generation in an era of rising concern about water supply and quality, and weakening national and global demand, is causing a furor in the country’s mining sector, affecting the financial community, and tearing holes in President Jacob Zuma’s veil of privilege and scandal.

The national turmoil, and a number of distinct regional conditions are tilting the balance of benefits and risks against new coal development in this area, say many residents. A deep two-year drought, the worst ever experienced in northern KwaZulu-Natal, emptied the drinking water reservoirs of Vryheid and nearby Paulpietersburg late last year. Thousands of town residents line up every morning to fill buckets with fresh water transported by tanker trucks from sources as far away as Pongola, a farm town set by the river of the same name that is 132 kilometers (82 miles) east of here.

More Mystery
Outside the hill towns, where springs and deep wells are still active, one coal company is drawing nearer to gaining a license to mine a new coal seam near Paulpietersburg. At least nine other companies have been quietly nosing around the steep slopes of the area’s tabletop mountains for unmined reserves. Markets for new reserves are thought to include coal-fired power stations in neighboring Mpumalanga province, and for export. Richards Bay, South Africa’s primary export shipping terminal, is 214 kilometers east (133 miles).

Senior managers of the South Africa Department of Mineral Resources declined to be interviewed for this article. The department’s weak public involvement mechanisms and Web site make it difficult for the citizens to follow new licensing applications. Farmers, acutely anxious that pollution from new coal mines could contaminate their water, have responded by establishing a new advocacy group, the Pongola River Catchment Protection Association, to keep abreast of mining activity on the ground, and to oppose new mineral development. On an overcast day earlier this year Mattie Beukes, a retired sugar cane grower, and Johann Boonzaaier, who manages the big water supply and transport network for Pongola’s sugar cane plantations, toured the quiet highland valleys to talk with farmers and civic officials. Their goal was to gain intelligence about any new coal mining activity. The fact-finding trip turned up no fresh evidence of new mines, but the region around Utrecht and Vryheid is alive with mining proposals not yet acted on.

Acid mine wastes drain from an abandoned coal mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Photo/Keith Schneider
Acid mine wastes drain from an abandoned coal mine in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Photo/Keith Schneider

“What we think about is how mining affects our water supply,” said Boonzaaier, the chief executive of the Impala Water Users Association, which supplies water to 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) of sugar cane plantations in a dry valley closer to the Indian Ocean. “Any mine pollution from here, on the highlands, could flow to our water downstream.”

More Threat
Coal mining also mixes with another threat in this region. Like a cold fog, the sense of regional apprehension settling over the KwaZulu-Natal highlands grew more gloomy two years ago when Nico and Marcia Lens were murdered at their grain and cattle farm tucked into a highland slope outside Paulpietersburg. The unsolved murders of the 62-year-old farmer and his 52-year-old wife draw agriculture and energy together in an unexpected way. The Lens’ empty and unsold white farmhouse, which lingers barely visible beneath untrimmed trees at the end of a long dirt drive, lies close to the 2,000-hectare (4,942- acres) underground coal mine that Tholie Logistics, a small Johannesburg mineral company, proposes to develop.

The murders and mining applications have put farmers and other residents of this region on high alert for their personal security, and the safety of the land.

“No one knows why it happened. They were good people,” said Beukes, who started a new career last year as a land and water conservationist. “People are a little nervous. Things are happening here that make you worry. New coal mining in this area. It’s not a good use for the land.”

That sentiment is gaining more credibility in KwaZulu-Natal and across contemporary South Africa. Though there are a small group of out-of-work miners, some government officials, and a handful of mining executives that view new coal production in KwaZulu-Natal as a boost to job growth and local treasuries, that it is by no means a consensus opinion. In interviews with farmers and local residents, white and black, people objected to new mining.

— Keith Schneider

Read the full report at Circle of Blue here.

See all of the reports from South Africa at the Choke Point: South Africa page at Circle of Blue.

South Africa’s Impending Crop Failure

Nduku Msimanga, a tractor driver on the Horn family sugar plantation in Pongola, fills a water storage tank and waits for a break in South Africa's ferocious drought. Photo/Keith Schneider
Nduku Msimanga, a tractor driver on the Horn family sugar plantation in Pongola, fills a water storage tank and waits for a break in South Africa’s ferocious drought. Photo/Keith Schneider

PONGOLA, South Africa — On the last Friday of January, payday on the sugar cane farms of northern KwaZulu-Natal province, a hot sun beat down on the red clay of Cobus Horn’s equipment yard. Nduku Msimanga, taut and muscled as a welterweight boxer, waited there with three other tractor drivers to receive unusually meager pay stubs.

Msimanga, who is 33 years old, supports two teenage boys, a seven-year-old girl, and his wife on the wages he earns on the Horn family’s sugar cane farm just outside Pongola. He’s worked on the Horn farm since he was 23. His pay, usually about 5,000 rand a month ($US 300 at current exchange rates), is tiny by western standards but above average on South African farms.

This year Msimanga’s pay stubs are half that, a reflection of just how deeply South Africa’s worst drought in 34 years is attacking the country’s nearly $US 9 billion farm economy. The drought is also an ecological force multiplier that is aggravating virulent trends in joblessness, crime, and social stability.

It could hardly have developed at a worse moment in this thunderously beautiful, water-parched, and economically reeling nation of 55 million residents at the bottom of Africa. Since December, following an abrupt shake-up in President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet and sliding commodity prices, the South African rand dropped in value to its lowest level ever. It is now worth barely more than 6 U.S. cents. The business confidence index fell to its worst-ever rating. Agronomists project that South Africa could sustain the biggest crop failure in its history. Grain harvests, usually formidable enough to support big export markets, are likely to be half the normal total, prompting expensive imports. Food price increases are anticipated to reach 25 percent. Hundreds of farm workers are being laid off (called “retrenched” here) in KwaZulu-Natal and the four other provinces declared drought disaster areas, where most of the country’s major row crops are produced.

Cobus Horn and his family in Pongola. Photo/Keith Schneider
Cobus Horn and his family in Pongola. Photo/Keith Schneider

The layoffs and reductions in hours are aggravating the country’s terrible joblessness. South Africa’s 35,000 big commercial farms account for more than 650,000 jobs, seven percent of the country’s working adults. That’s more than South Africa’s mines employ, according to Statistics SA. At least 1 million other South Africans work full or part-time on the 1.3 million small and subsistence farms. As heat and dry weather kill crops, workers are being forced from the fields. More than one in three working age adults are now unemployed.

The endowment of optimism and progress that South Africans embraced at the start of the new multi-racial elections and the formal end of Apartheid in 1994 has dissolved into a period of deepening national economic and social stress. Continue reading “South Africa’s Impending Crop Failure”

Earth Day 2015 Marks Convergence of Inspiring Trends

The Caldera River rolls out of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Chiriqui Province, and is evidence of the country's allegiance to sustaining its ample forests and fresh water. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Caldera River rolls out of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Chiriqui Province, and is evidence of the country’s allegiance to sustaining its ample forests and fresh water. Photo/Keith Schneider

Earth Day, first celebrated 45 years ago in the United States, is now a grown-up international convergence that joins a reckoning with ecological deterioration to the panorama of human activity devoted to improving the planet’s condition. What’s inspiring about Earth Day is that the same principles of responsibility, collective action, pollution prevention, and natural resource conservation that informed the first Earth Day in 1970 have proven to be the durable foundation of 1) ecological repairs on every continent, and 2) social movements that are fostering public pressure and government action to solve the tough threats that remain.

My personal Earth Day history encompasses nearly all of the modern environmental movement and its myriad transitions. I was 14 years old on April 22, 1970, an eighth grader in Highlands Junior High School in White Plains, New York. Earth Day was such a big national event that the White Plains Public School administrators called a school holiday to allow students to participate in organized activities, most of them focused on some sort of clean-up. I organized a few of my friends to join me in painting the White Plains train station, and dragging old tires and appliances out of the Bronx River, which flowed past the station. Our work attracted notice from The New York Times, which reported on our work in the second to last paragraph of a front-page article on Earth Day in the April 23, 1970 edition of the newspaper.

The path I chose to embed my life in environmentalism was through journalism and story-telling. As a student at Haverford College in the late 1970s I studied chemistry and biology, literature and history, which provided the research skills required of environmental reporting and knowledge of the arcane language of two of the galvanizing threats of that era: managing toxic and nuclear wastes. Very soon after the start of my career the Love Canal toxic waste site was discovered in upstate New York, and half the radioactive core of a nuclear reactor melted during an accident in March 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant on the Susquehanna River, downriver from my first newspaper job in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Over the decades the risks that attracted the country’s attention, and the focus of my own reporting, steadily evolved. Water and air pollution. Conserving wild lands, wild habitats, and wild species. Activism to curb pesticide use in food production. The advent of genetic engineering in agriculture. Disastrous oil spills. The push-back from property rights groups and conservative activists about government authority to regulate wetlands, private lands, and business. Ocean pollution and the decline of coral reefs and fisheries. Suburban sprawl as an environmental problem and smart growth urban redevelopment as its cure. Climate change. Fracking. The global confrontation between rising demand for energy and food in the era of declining freshwater resources.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose journalism and advocacy served to elevate global activism to solve climate change. Photo/ J. Carl Ganter
Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, whose journalism and advocacy served to elevate global activism to solve climate change. Photo/ J. Carl Ganter

There’s no end to the reasons for pessimism about our planet’s condition. In Asia, rising coal consumption in China and India warms the atmosphere and is causing eight-year-olds in China to develop lung cancer. In South America, gold mining and forest cutting are wrecking the Amazon. In North America, unconventional fuels production is torturing the forests and water of northern Alberta Canada, contaminating drinking water and causing earthquakes in the United States, and pouring explosive fuels into flimsy rail cars for transport to coastal refineries. The planet’s population continues to grow 80 million people annually.

Yet what keeps me and so many other people devoted to the principles of Earth Day is the progress that’s been made, and the convergence of powerful trends motivating big changes in how we operate.
Continue reading “Earth Day 2015 Marks Convergence of Inspiring Trends”

Stanley Heckadon-Moreno is Panama’s Great Conservationist and Patriot

Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, one of Latin America’s most influential and successful conservationists, is a national leader in Panama's work to safeguard clean rivers and protect thousands of square miles of magnificent tropical forests. Photo/Keith Schneider
Stanley Heckadon-Moreno, one of Latin America’s most influential and successful conservationists, is a national leader in Panama’s work to safeguard clean rivers and protect thousands of square miles of magnificent tropical forests. Photo/Keith Schneider

COLON, Panama – Across the expanse of a half-century-long career as an ecologist, reformer, and skilled raconteur, Stanley Heckadon-Moreno saw his native Panama engulfed by one spasm of political transition after another.

A weak democracy and resentment of American ownership of the Panama Canal in the 1960s begat the corrupt military dictatorship of the 1980s. A damaging American invasion in 1989 gave rise to a decade of hardship and confusion in the 1990s.

Even the transfer of canal ownership to Panama on the last day of the 20th century, which initiated the most economically buoyant era in the country’s 112-year history, produced a bout of national vertigo. Uncertain at first, government and business leaders took time to prove to themselves and a doubting world that they harbor the skills to manage a 21st century democracy, and an essential maritime main street.

“For a long time, the bankers, the builders, the government administrators, they all reached one conclusion,” said Heckadon, who’s served since 2000 as a staff scientist and manager of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Galeta Point Marine Laboratory, on the Caribbean entrance to the canal. “They said, ‘We don’t need no damn forests. It’s a waste. Trees? Forget the trees. We want development.’ Sea to sea along the Panama Canal. They wanted it to be like the Rhine River. One industry after the other.”

Yet through all of the political convulsions and government advocacy for new development, Heckadon persisted with a message of restraint and a knowing, personal approach that could be as tough as teak or as flexible as bamboo. Much of Panama’s public domain, and a good share of the nation’s land preservation and water conservation ethic can be traced to his work.
Panama’s Land and Water Steward

As one of Latin America’s most influential and successful conservationists Heckadon is directly responsible for safeguarding Panama’s largest rivers, and permanently protecting thousands of square miles of magnificent tropical forests. Indirectly, his considerable role in securing Panama’s natural wealth is steadily producing a durable — and largely non-polluting — new economy that is based on maritime transit, logistics, trade, banking, housing, and tourism.

“Stanley is the voice of environmental conscience for Panama,” said Matthew C. Larsen, director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “His deep understanding of the human activities that affect the abundant natural resources of the nation have made him a highly respected and articulate source of information and perspective on how we can sustainably manage our landscapes.”

The 131,000-hectare (324,000-acre) Chagres National Park was established in 1985 to secure the headwaters of the Chagres River, the freshwater source for the Panama Canal and for most of Panama’s people. Photo/Keith Schneider
The 131,000-hectare (324,000-acre) Chagres National Park was established in 1985 to secure the headwaters of the Chagres River, the freshwater source for the Panama Canal and for most of Panama’s people. Photo/Keith Schneider


Heckadon’s Work Is Seen Everywhere

The 90-kilometer (56-mile) drive from Heckadon’s home in Panama City to his sun-splashed office at the marine laboratory crosses the 289,200-hectare (665,000-acre) Panama Canal watershed. The unmarked hills and green forests are the crowning achievements of his career and a showcase of Panama’s allegiance to its fresh water and tropical geography.

If each of the protected tracts of land that Heckadon established were graphically illustrated, say with bright flags planted in the forests and on the summits of the Canal Zone highlands, the route would be aflutter with color. Continue reading “Stanley Heckadon-Moreno is Panama’s Great Conservationist and Patriot”

Panama’s Water-Rich Eden Confronts Snake’s Temptation

North of Panama City, Lago Alajuela drains parts of Parque Nacional Chagres, a biopreserve that is home to over 50 species of birds and a rich harvest of tilapia. Photo/Keith Schneider
North of Panama City, Lago Alajuela drains parts of Parque Nacional Chagres, a biopreserve that is home to over 50 species of birds and a rich harvest of tilapia. Photo/Keith Schneider

PANAMA CITY, Panama – Quebrada Ancha, a community that settled in Panama’s thick forest 50 years ago, lies at the northern end of Lago Alajuela, a freshwater lake built by the United States at the end of the Great Depression to control floods in the Panama Canal Zone.

It takes 20 minutes in a fast 40-foot dugout boat to get there. In early morning’s luminous light and cooling breeze the trip is a passage across a water-rich green paradise. Fish eagles dive for tilapia. Hummingbirds swarm in the tangled branches of small trees. Grapefruits and oranges, papayas and mangos, coconuts and bananas ripen in a geography of wild bounty.

The long path through the forest to the community’s center is like striding down a tropical produce section.  Sugarcane and ginger and breadfruit, pineapple and marañon Curaçao, which looks like an apple and tastes like a pear, grow abundantly in the forest. Honey is collected from wild bees that nest in the village’s hives. Fresh fish is abundant.

A number of Quebrada Ancha’s adults were children when they arrived in 1976 with their families from central Panama; refugees forced out of their homes by the backwaters of the 260-megawatt Bayano Dam. Quebrada Ancha’s phenomenal natural riches now support about 100 adults and children, and attract foreigners who visit with increasing frequency.

Children of the Ancha community in Panama greet visitors in native costumes. Photo/Keith Schneider
Children of Quebrada Ancha in Panama greet visitors in native costumes. Photo/Keith Schneider

Coffee, Not Forest Clearing
In a shift that is representative of Panama itself, the residents of Quebrada Ancha see in their largely unspoiled territory potentially useful new ways to thrive in the 21st century.

For instance, instead of burning forests for new farm lands, a practice that drains nutrients from the soil, the village cultivates shaded and permanent hillside plots. In some they raise coffee bushes that in 2014 produced 75,000 pounds of coffee beans for sale to roasters in Panama City, about an hour away. A portion of the harvest also is dried in the sun, roasted over open fires, and available in the village for $9 a pound. Quebrada Ancha’s location on a high bank above the lake, set amid a grove of shade trees, is a delightful perch for savoring the strong and delicious village brand.
Continue reading “Panama’s Water-Rich Eden Confronts Snake’s Temptation”