An integrated approach to conserve biodiversity and landscapes
By Samson Mulonga
There’s copper in them thar hills, diamonds in that thar desert, guano on them thar wave smashed Atlantic coast islands, uranium, minerals, semi-precious stones, meteorite fragments, lots of base metals (most conveniently observed in Windhoek’s Ministry of Mines and Energy museum), you name it – Namibia seems to have it somewhere thar.
And when you’ve got that sort of buried treasure chest, you get miners. All over thar!
Namibia’s history, economy and mining are a high-drama and fascinating combination. The country has an abundant legacy of sand-swamped ghost towns; odd, rusting rather melancholy relics of machinery in wind-lashed hostile territory only a miner (or an MET conservationist) would call home; and the collapsing remains of a hospital that once hosted the first X-ray machine in the southern hemisphere, not to mention its wine cellars, because wine was considered medicinal. All of this was built by mining wealth.
Also here was one of the world’s largest and most pristine wilderness national parks, the Sperrgebiet, (literally Forbidden Area), which was off-limits to the general public and its voraciously indiscriminate cows for nearly 100 years to keep their thieving hands off the diamonds, which were once so plentiful that they could be harvested from the sand surface by the reflecting gleam they gave off when the moon was full. As an unintentional result of this “Get orf my land approach,” mining accidentally preserved an extraordinary and globally unique living library of biodiversity – one of the largest PAs in the world with its vast surface area of 26 000 km².
Mining in the early days was tough. Indeed, a few South African prisoners on death row who were given the choice of mining in some areas of Namibia or death, opted for death. Nobody thought (or knew) about biodiversity in the diamond rush days. Excusable. The word only came into existence in 1968 and it took at least another decade before anybody paid it much attention at all.
Happily married, the diamond and tourism industries will keep our nation’s resources secure and make us all the richer for it.
But now biodiversity and conservation are familiar terms and are much in the public eye; as are Protected Areas (PAs). PAs in Namibia constitute about 17 per cent of the land surface. They are cornerstones of biodiversity conservation, but are not immune to mining activities. Prospecting and mining licenses are therefore still issued to potential investors and developers, and with these come considerable, sometimes adverse, environmental impacts.
Scars left by old mining activities are still visible today in some areas in Namibia and uncontrolled prospecting and mining activities can still seriously undermine the character, ecology and tourism potential of parks, resulting in lost opportunity costs for developing potential.
To reconcile the objectives of mineral exploitation and environmental protection, it is important that the impacts of prospecting or mining activities are clearly understood, and that commitments are made and strategies developed to protect fragile environments that can be maimed irreversibly and mitigate impacts.
Since Namibia’s Independence in 1990, Government has developed tools and policies to counteract and further prevent uncontrolled damage to the environment caused by mining. Article 95 of the Namibian Constitution stipulates that the State shall ensure:
“…the maintenance of ecosystems, essential ecological processes and biological diversity, and the utilisation of living natural resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of Namibians, both present and future.”
This provision in the Constitution mandates Government to put legislation in place to maintain and protect the environment for the benefit of the citizens of Namibia. Namibia has developed sound legislation and policies in this regard, including the Mineral Resource Act, the National Heritage Act, Environmental Management, Policy for Prospecting and Mining in Protected Areas and National Monuments, Tourism Policy as well as Marine Resources Act and many other forms of legislation that put the emphasis on regulations of exploitation of natural resources. The MET is currently developing the Protected Areas and Wildlife Management Bill, which has comprehensive sections relating to prospecting and mining in PAs.
Government, through the Minerals Prospecting and Mining Rights Committee (MPMRC), regulates prospecting and mining activities. The MPMRC, which includes different stakeholders including the MET, considers mining licence applications that will normally include: a feasibility study, environmental impact assessment, financial statements and other safeguards, and makes recommendations to the Minister of Mines and Energy.
To this end the MET began working on the Mining in Protected Areas Policy, which is already at an advanced stage. The Policy makes provision for excluding mining from biodiversity hotspots, archaeological and palaeontological sites and highly sensitive and fragile areas. Furthermore, associated rehabilitation and restoration guidelines for disturbed areas will be developed. The policy also makes provision for a Rehabilitation and Environmental Fund. This fund will require every mining company operating within a PA to pay a deposit that can then be used to rehabilitate disturbed areas to the satisfaction of the relevant authorities.
It is also vital in today’s planning to weigh the benefits of using the land for either mining or tourism depending on the amount of ore, location and tourism value of the area.
Apart from the policy, a number of initiatives to address this challenge have been introduced collaboratively between conservation and mining authorities, and the mining industry. The Ministry of Mines and Energy initiated the development of the Strategic Environmental Assessment of the Central Namib area also known as the Uranium Province. A Strategic Environmental Management Plan (SEMP) was developed and is currently being implemented by a multi-stakeholder technical committee.
In 2011 a national level conference was held in Swakopmund to discuss strategies and a policy framework for addressing the challenges of mining in PAs. At the conference the Minister of Environment and Tourism reiterated that:
“It is important to discuss how to reconcile development objectives of mineral exploitation and environmental protection for the country’s long-term socioeconomic growth and stability. How do we continue our drive for economic development while at the same time ensuring that we conserve our biodiversity and our unspoilt landscapes? These are the elements of sustainable development. Carefully coordinated planning on how to make the best use of our resources is therefore necessary. Clearly, an integrated approach is required here, so that development of one resource will not jeopardise the potential of another.”
The landscape level assessment of the vulnerability of the Central Namib to mining impacts was carried out from 2011 to 2012 (see page ….. for the story on this assessment). This study led to the development of the Geo-Spatial Tool for the area, which clearly highlights sensitive areas and impacts of the intended development. A technical committee is now being formed to roll out a national-level assessment of vulnerable and sensitive areas with an associated Geo-Spatial Tool. This will be used by MPMRC as a decision-making tool when issuing prospecting and mining licences.
Most big mining companies in Namibia are already implementing their environmental programmes such as rehabilitation and restoration programmes. NAMDEB in the Sperrgebiet National Park runs a comprehensive programme aimed at reducing and minimising the impacts of mining on the environment while also rehabilitating former mining sites. According to Dr Antje Burke, who has been a consultant for NAMDEB, ‘rehabilitation and mining should run in parallel’, meaning that rehabilitation should be integrated into the whole mining process from the planning stage. Strategies employed by Namdeb in their programmes include the removal of infrastructure, control and cleaning up of pollution, landscaping and biodiversity restoration. The company has recorded encouraging successes with some of the rehabilitated areas being returned to their natural state.
Rehabilitation and restoration of mined areas is important, as it allows for alternative land uses of the exploited area. For example, once mineral resources are depleted, the same area can be used for tourism purposes. However, for the area to become suitable for alternative land uses, the rehabilitation process should be intensive to put the area into a suitable state. In PAs, biodiversity conservation and tourism are the two main land uses and intensive rehabilitation should be done to return the area to its original state as much as possible, thereby minimising visible damage. However, buildings that might be of historical interest or that qualify to be declared as national monuments (50 years old or older) due to certain special attributes, could be left behind for development into viable tourism attractions or facilities, for example a mining museum or ghost towns in the Sperrgebiet National Park.
It is also vital in today’s planning to weigh the benefits of using the land for either mining or tourism depending on the amount of ore, location and tourism value of the area. This will assist in avoiding negative impacts on land that could generate substantial income from tourism compared to the short-term boom-and-bust profits of mining. The future is looking bright as all sectors pull together to work towards a common goal.
Diamonds are a diamond mine. Tourism is a gold mine. The former provides …..% of national GDP, the latter is the fourth-largest income earner. Happily married, the two industries will keep our nation’s resources secure and make us all the richer for it.
This article was originally published in the 2013 Conservation and the Environment in Namibia magazine.