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Monday Jan 28, 2013

Pilanesberg flooding plan angers environmentalists

It has been hailed as a revolutionary tourism venture for South Africa.

But now an uncertain future hangs over a pioneering project to unite the Pilanesberg national park and the Madikwe game reserve through a wildlife corridor that could ultimately extend into Botswana.

The view of Madikwe Game Reserve in North West from the Buffalo Ridge Safari Lodge, one of only two community-owned lodges in the malaria-free reserve.

Mining outfit Platmin plans to flood a pit in an area earmarked for the proposed Heritage Park wildlife corridor - a project between government, the reserves, landowners and local communities - when it ceases its operations.

This has angered environmental activists like the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE), who believe the narrowing of the corridor will affect the project's tourism and conservation potential.

It maintains that the Department of Mineral Resources should never have given Platmin the go-ahead to amend its EMP closure objectives for its Pilanesberg platinum mine and is appealing against the department's decision.

Platmin will flood the Tuschenkomst open pit, which falls within the corridor, instead of backfilling and rehabilitating it. This will cause the corridor to shrink to 1km, and only 200m would be vegetated in certain areas. The FSE said this was not wide enough to allow the movement of migrating dangerous animals.

In Platmin's EMP, it acknowledged the pit's flooding would reduce the "functionality" of the corridor.

"The open pit, together with the rehabilitated waste rock dump, may result in a bottleneck within the heritage park corridor for dangerous game. The rehabilitation of the waste rock dump will need to be undertaken to maximise accessibility by wildlife."

Moremi Lesejane, the manager of park expansion at the North West Parks and Tourism Board, told the Saturday Star: "We're still working on the corridor but we do have fears with the current mine activity ... that the footprint area of the corridor will be hampered. It will sort of suspend the connection between Pilansberg and Lebatlane, which is one of the growth points for the Heritage Park for about 15 years. We're still expecting after rehab, the corridor will be 1km or so, which is a small space for the bigger animals."

The ultimate aim of the Heritage Park is to achieve one expansive "Big Five" reserve of around one million hectares boasting the free movement of wildlife and serving as a prime ecotourism destination with the benefits ploughed into local communities and wildlife conservation.

Several years ago, Platmin signed an agreement with North West Parks and Tourism Board,

Ioffering to collaborate with the relevant authorities to establish the open corridor.

"The original corridor contemplated by the authority was only 1.5km wide," it maintains. "Thus this debate is somewhat academic."

Platmin remained committed to reassessing options for creating a suitable game corridor and said the flooded pit would "provide an extremely valuable water resource in a water deprived region" and the contoured waste dumps could form part of the features within the corridor.

Speaking for landowners concerned about mining activities in the buffer of the Pilanesberg and Heritage Park, environmental scientist Dr Shan Holmes said Platmin and other mining companies had failed to assess the "cumulative environmental and other impacts" of mining in the area.

Sun International also told the newspaper it wanted to ensure that the "sense of place" of the Pilanesberg was not disturbed. "Particular issues which we believe could have a serious impact on the area including the wildlife corridor include air quality (mining dust) and traffic pollution and congestion from the substantial increase in heavy vehicles on provincial roads, which carry many tourists daily.

"Perhaps most important, a number of experts have indicated that an already weather-threatened water supply into the area would be compromised by mining activity, which requires massive water consumption, even if potable water is recycled from mining activities."

It said 50 000 people were economically dependent on Sun City and it wanted to ensure "the sustainable management of a critical and potentially endangered resource such as the water supply" into the area and the continued success of wildlife operations.

Lesejane worried that the plethora of mining applications could potentially damage tourism. "The mine activities coming out of the area will affect the sense of place and the quality of the product of tourism, which is what we want to create in the area.

"We hope after mining we can revert the land back to conservation if the mines adhere to their rehabilitation programmes. But one can only refer to other experiences in the country of whether mines ever do full rehabilitation."

But Mariette Liefferink, FSE chief executive, said its objective was not to stop mining but "to see a win-win situation with local communities, the tourism and conservation sector."

Pretoria News Weekend


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