Victory for campaign against uranium mining project in South Africa's Karoo region

| 24th April 2018

Early morning in the Karoo, South Africa

Wikimedia Commons
An Australian firm which planned to mine in the iconic Karoo region of South Africa has been forced to leave after costly delays in the licensing process. DR. STEFAN CRAMER hopes its exit - combined with the environmental efforts of the new South African government - may enable the Karoo to finally realise its full potential in sustainable agriculture and renewable energies

This development would have wiped out years of painstaking recovery of the semi-arid plains and threaten the very existence of several rural communities.

The residents of Karoo in South Africa were shocked to learn that more than 700,000 hectares of Karoo farmlands had been earmarked for uranium mining by the Australian company Peninsula Energy - as reported by The Ecologist in April 2016.

This development would have wiped out years of painstaking recovery of the semi-arid plains and threaten the very existence of several rural communities.

The Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) was the first one to alert the public to this unnoticed and poorly documented undertaking.

Poor environmental assessment

A few NGOs like the Southern Cape Land Committee and Earthlife Africa joined a growing list of local farmers, government departments and activists in opposing these plans.

The environmental documentation of the potential impacts of uranium mining was of such poor quality that Peninsula Energy had to downsize its potential footprint in the Karoo to only 12 percent of the original land request. A systemic information drive alerted the Karoo residents of this threat to their livelihood and health.

The impacts of uranium mining all over the world are well documented with particular examples from the  Ore Mountains in Germany and the Czech Republic, the Colorado Plateau in the US and other jurisdictions. 

Then the emergence of the tiny Nananthus plant that grows in dry areas of the Karoo, demonstrated the flaws in the environmental impact assessments and sent the botanists of the Australian company back to the field.

Costly business

This was just another delay in the licensing process - but it turned out to be costly for the operators and effective for the farmers now getting better organised. It bought them time to submit a substantial critique of uranium mining in the Karoo, drafted by a group of respected scientists and engineers. 

Technical problems at the company's mine in Wyoming, the depressed price of uranium in the world market, and endless delays forced Peninsula Energy to reassess. By October 2017 they had spent close to US$10 million in consultant and legal fees with little to show for it. 

At the end of March 2018 they decided to sell their rights and expertise in the Karoo Uranium Project. It is doubtful, however, that they will find a willing buyer after this experience. 

Environmental legacy

Even as the Australians are leaving, there is considerable work to be done to clean up the environmental legacy inherited from previous owners.

Two sites at Ryst Kuil and at Rietkuil just outside of Beaufort West require urgent environmental remediation. Radioactive material there is littering the Karoo. Dust storms can carry the radioactive particles to great height and distance. 

The company also bought large properties at the different mine sites. These 273,700 hectares of Karoo farm land currently owned by the Australians and their local counterparts could be used for urgently needed land restitution projects.

This land had been under-developed as it was earmarked for mining. With more energy in the grid and more water in the ground, a case for sustainable farming in these parts of the Karoo can be made. 

It is no coincidence that March 2018 signalled an energy burst for the Karoo: The new government will finally sign 27 new renewable energy projects. This will unleash an investment of R56-billion into the economy and create some 60,000 new jobs, about 80 percent of them in the Karoo.

But many of these projects do not benefit the Karoo residents directly, as they are owned and operated by outsiders. It will be critical to develop projects that are truly owned by Karoo communities. The challenge is how to make small Karoo towns like Graaff-Reinet “100 percent renewable” in such a way that poor people benefit first.

This Author

Dr Stefan Cramer is a retired hydrogeologist with extensive international experience. He currently works as an advisor to the Southern African Faith Communities' Environment Institute (SAFCEI) in South Africa’s Karoo. His mission is to assist local communities with the problems of fracking and uranium mining and to promote sustainable development solutions.