In the heart of the Free State, South Africa, farmers are growing sugar beet and other biofuel crops where prospectors once dug for gold. In the gold mining town Virginia, located in the Lejweleputswa District, they are creating carbon sinks and renewable energy where coal-fired electricity was once used to pry precious metals from the earth.
The search is on across the mining sector for a new future for vulnerable mining communities. Harmony Gold’s ZAR47 million pilot project sees the cultivation of plants such as giant king grass, sweet sorghum and sugar beet on mining-affected land and tailings. ‘The land is not suitable for food production,’ states the company in its 2014 annual report.
‘Non-edible crops will be planted on Harmony-owned land for the production of energy such as biogas and biochar. Biochar is charcoal made from the conversion of biomass, using heat by means of pyrolysis [which is a thermo-chemical decomposition of organic material], into carbon in the form of a final product that is used in agriculture to improve land quality.
‘The aim of the project is to use mine-impacted land as part of the provincial rehabilitation initiative to create economic opportunities for local communities. As part of this process, we will convert electrical and polyfuel heating of elution water at our gold plants to biogas heating.’
Furthermore, Harmony is implementing three solar photovoltaic projects on its land and has looked into the feasibility of intro-ducing aquaculture, with downstream processing activities that could include packaging and canning. All this could translate into much-needed skills transfer and employment for local communities.
The gold miner’s approach shows a new way of thinking. It’s a far cry from when mining companies would simply board up the mine and leave once their operations became unviable. Today’s responsible mining takes into account what happens to the natural environment that has been affected by the mining activities, and the people – the mineworkers, who helped extract the minerals from the earth, and their dependants – once the mining operations close.
In South Africa, the Mineral and Petroleum Resource Development Act of 2002 demands a mine-closure plan with the proposed rehabilitation of the mined land and a social-closure plan for employees, with financial provision for this, before any mining right is granted.
Anglo American developed a mine-closure toolbox, to be used with its specially developed socio-economic assessment toolbox, available to the industry as a whole.
The group’s approach is based on the view that ‘one size does not fit all’ because every closure plan needs to be site specific. Mark Cutifani, CEO of Anglo American, says in the foreword to the toolbox: ‘Every community and region has its own needs and these may well change over time. Our plans must adapt accordingly. The latest version of the toolbox increases our focus on community engagement and on the importance of designing, planning and operating a mine with closure in mind, right from the outset.’
Today’s responsible mining takes into account what happens to the planet and the people once the mining operations close
Ralph Heath, MD of Golder Associates Africa, a global employee-owned consulting, design and construction firm that specialises in earth, environment and energy, says: ‘Mining companies have become more focused on leaving local communities better off than they were before mining started.
‘When we start working on a project, the first question is “how do you want to leave this site once the mining is over?”. From there, we work our way back and consider how all aspects of the mining operation can support this goal. A lot of the important work on a mine site happens before the actual mine opens, with the end target of leaving a strong legacy in sight.
‘A thorough environmental and social impact assessment helps communicate the advantages of a mining operation to a local community.
‘It also helps mining companies understand the impact they have on communities – and supports them in mitigating negative effects and reinforcing positive ones.’
The worst-case scenario in which a mine closure is not planned and executed properly, could leave the mining community vulnerable and even worse off. It’s therefore vital to invest in community development during the ‘life-of-mine’ period, well before the mining operations are winding down. The mine infrastructure and CSI programmes should be designed to minimise the host community’s excessive dependency on the mine.
Most mining companies already spend millions, some even billions of rands on CSI, making the mining sector by far the largest contributor to CSI in South Africa. Much of this is channelled through their social and labour plans (SLPs), which are approved, and their compliance monitored by the Department of Mineral Resources.
The SLP outlines a company’s commitment towards improving the basic infrastructure (housing, school and clinics) in the host and labour-sending communities, as well as health, education, income-generating and enterprise-development projects.
Decent housing is high on the agenda. The amended Mining Charter has set targets to promote home ownership for mine employees and to upgrade hostels. Gold miners Sibanye Gold, Harmony Gold, AngloGold Ashanti and Gold Fields issued a statement in March 2015, outlining where and how their recent collective spend of more than ZAR1 billion was used to improve housing and worker accommodation.
In September 2014, a platinum mine housing project in Rustenburg, North West province, was hailed as historic. The new homes are not only situated on prime land in the upmarket Waterfall Hills Estate, but they will also accommodate various levels of mine employees – from the lowest-paid worker to those at managerial level. Royal Bafokeng Platinum in partnership with the National Union of Mineworkers handed over the first 422 houses to workers, who had previously lived mainly in backyard rooms and hostels.
Social amenities and a further 2 100 houses, ranging in size from 80 m2 to 360 m2, will be built at a cost of ZAR2.8 billion.
In late 2012, in response to the Marikana tragedy, the South African government announced plans to ‘change the face of mining’
In late 2012, in response to the Marikana tragedy, the South African government announced plans to ‘change the face of mining’ by improving the living conditions of mining communities.
It has earmarked a total of ZAR18 billion for the upgrade of distressed mining towns in the Free State, Mpumalanga, Gauteng, North West and Limpopo, as well as in the poorest labour-sending areas in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Mining companies will provide approximately a third of this amount.
Khanyisile Kweyama, vice-president of the Chamber of Mines, has welcomed the plans. ‘We believe that the industry can better assist government when infrastructure and basic services planning is a shared responsibility, so that we begin to see the critical mass change in so far as addressing human settlement and other community needs,’ she says.
Meanwhile, the country’s presidency said it was drawing lessons from Australia, Chile and Zambia.
An official statement released at the end of June 2015, summarised the efforts of the inter-ministerial committee for the revitali-sation of distressed mining communities, stating that much progress has been made.
‘We have undertaken a socio-economic diagnostic study of the 15 prioritised mining towns and 12 prioritised labour-sending areas,’ said President Jacob Zuma.
This is in a bid to ‘better understand the extent of the challenges in each town, and to determine the most appropriate actions to address these’.
A total of 66 public sector housing projects are being implemented in the 15 towns. In Marikana, two such projects are about to deliver more than 500 units, built on land donated by platinum miner Lonmin. Local municipalities have purchased 592 ha of land, predominantly in the Fetakgomo and Rustenburg areas, with a further 5 646 ha identified for acquisition for human settlement projects. The presidential plan for distressed mining towns also intends to boost the economy in those areas through industrial projects.
These include: an agri-hub for agriculture production and processing facility for communities in Bojanala, Madibeng and Marikana; an agro-processing special economic zone (SEZ) in the labour-sending area of OR Tambo District municipality; a platinum group metals SEZ in Bojanala and Greater Tubatse local municipalities; and a multi-sectorial business park to promote sustainable manufacturing investments at the Vulindlela Industrial Park revitalisation initiative in King Sabata Dalindyebo municipality.
All this could help diversify the local economy and reduce community dependency on mines. Some projects have already shown success, for example the large-scale mariculture farming at the decommissioned De Beers diamond mines in Namaqualand, Northern Cape, which has matured into a viable oyster-rearing business and abalone project.
In the same area, there are various initiatives under way involving solar and wind energy as well as tourism on mining-impacted land.
In Africa, post-mining initiatives are generally still in their infancy, such as the biofuel crop pilot in the Free State. One day they may well be able to equip local communities for life after the mines have closed.