MAC/20: Mines and Communities

South Africa to Take Pulse of Its Environment

Published by MAC on 2004-10-12


A new South African environmental organisation will take stock of the country's appalling legacy - starting with Rio Tinto's copper mining and smelting complex at Palabora (Phalaborwa), in which the British company is partnered with Anglo American.

South Africa to Take Pulse of Its Environment

Story by Ed Stoddard, PlanetArk (Reuters)

October 12, 2004

PHALABORWA, South Africa - They may share a border but South Africa's Kruger National Park and the copper mines around the town of Phalaborwa are worlds apart.

A helicopter flight along the fenced boundary reveals a jarring juxtaposition: pristine wilderness abutting spewing smokestacks and gaping gashes in the earth.

This difference is one reason why a major green initiative is being launched here - the South African Environmental Observation Network, or SAEON.

SAEON aims to monitor long-term ecological change, especially in heavily stressed areas, and act as an early warning system for policy makers to avert crises. "Drought, floods, pollution, changes in land use, soil degradation, invasive species and loss of species are recurrent phenomena (in South Africa)," Science and Technology Minister Mosibudi Mangena said at SAEON's launch in Phalaborwa.

"Long-term environmental measurement ... is essential if we are to effectively deal with these environmental changes and disasters, and the attendant collapse of social systems in southern Africa," he said.

Headquarters complete with a laboratory have been made available for the project in the Kruger Park.

It will see teams of scientists conduct long-term research on environmental change and make recommendations for sustainable use of resources.

The Phalaborwa region is an area of ecological contrasts - making it an ideal location to study long-term trends. Many of the mines in the region are expected to close in the coming years and scientists are keen to study first hand how the land recovers from such activities. Commercial and subsistence farming are being carried out in the area near ragged shantytowns and plush golf courses.

Flying low in a helicopter shows the Kruger Park on one side, thickly covered in gnarled thorn trees, and an ugly wasteland on the other. Hippos wallow in a river while a pair of elephants run for cover in the shadow of a monstrous slag heap.

Arcing away from the park and over huge mine pits, the helicopter flies over a dusty township dotted with corrugated iron shacks.

Cattle graze on the barren landscape, largely stripped of trees - the major fuel source for the rural poor.

Taking the Pulse

SAEON aims to take the pulse of South Africa's many diverse ecosystems, with a further six to eight headquarters or "nodes" planned over the next decade.

Priority areas are a marine observation network to monitor declining fish stocks and one in the country's arid west to examine climate change and possible desertification.

"We know fish stocks are declining ... because of overexploitation," said Kim Prochazka, a marine biologist with the International Ocean Institute of Southern Africa. She said some of the region's fish stocks are estimated to be five to 20 percent of what scientists think was their starting numbers but long-term data is required to really assess what is going on.

SAEON will also be used to avert other disasters. Massive floods which pounded Mozambique in 2000 and 2001 were blamed in part on poor land use in neighboring countries which resulted in erosion.

SAEON chairman Albert van Jaarsveld said he hoped the teams of scientists involved would study land degradation and come up with land use proposals that would not contribute to flooding.

"We hope this network enhances our early warning capability and that it allows us to come up with rapid answers to urgent questions (regarding environmental use) from policy makers and even industry," he said.

SAEON is being funded in part by South Africa's department of science and technology but it hopes to attract cash and resources from institutions eager to take part in its emerging research network.

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