Is mining the ultimate purpose of life?

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The discovery of minerals can be more of a curse than a blessing for rural communities with a history of living on – and off – the land of their ancestors.

Since the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act separated the ownership of minerals from the ownership of the surface soil, communities in South Africa’s former Bantustans have faced a series of mining developments that have destroyed lives and livelihoods.

The Bench-Marks Foundation recently mounted a study of life before, during and after mining in one sample community – the relocated community of Magobading in Limpopo – to gauge the impact of the industry; and to answer the question whether extraction is a benefit or a curse to those most directly affected.

Lead Researcher David van Wyk presented results of the research project at a conference in Johannesburg presented by the International Alliance on Natural Resources in Africa.

You can read his presentation here: Bench Marks presentation.

“The Bench Marks Foundation has demonstrated… that corporations perceive that communities, land and resources are there for them to oppress, exploit, dispossess, alienate and marginalise and to arrogate the substance of these communities to the interests of the corporation,” Van Wyk said.

That is the reality that Bench Marks and a host of other non-government and community-based organisations are trying to challenge.

The Bapo Ba Mogale community of North West, near Brits, recently launched a High Court application for a review of a transaction between Lonmin plc and the Bapo Traditional Council because they fear it is another case of unreasonable corporate exploitation.

Their application, which has been launched, but is at an early stage of the inevitable exchange of affidavits before it actually goes to court, outlines a process in which the mining giant negotiated secretly with traditional leaders and then asked the community to give blind approval to a package of deals that remained sealed.

It also underlined the inherent imbalance between the fiscal, social and political power of a London-based corporation which, until recently, counted Cyril Ramaphosa amongst its directors, and a rural community hobbled by unemployment, under-development and extreme poverty.

Van Wyk highlighted another fundamental imbalance, which is that the property clause in the 1996 Constitution does not make appropriate provision for the expropriation of community land.

Most communal land is held in trust for tribal communities by the state. When a mine seeks access to land on which these communities live, trade and farm, the state is required in principle to ensure a process of broad consultation and to approve the ultimate transaction as fair to the people affected.

But the reliance on the “commercial value” of land in the calculation of compensation does not account for the value to communities of their history, their sacred places, their ancestral graves and their subsistence lifestyles.

“How do you determine the value in rands of these things,” Van Wyk asked.

The Bench Marks report also underlined the failure of the law to account for the relationships that people have with their land, their environment and their resources.

One example cited in the Bench Marks report is the fact that Environmental Impact Assessments look at the environmental role and status of water sources, but not the importance of a sacred fountain in the life of a small rural community facing displacement.

The Bench Marks research bolsters the perception that the underlying assumption in all negotiations for mining access to people’s land is that the strategic national value of mining trumps the parochial interests of poor rural people.

That is likely to be the reality for as long as there is no mechanism to balance potential mining revenue against the value to a community of 1000 or 100 000 of their local history, their social networks, their bonds to the land they farm, the water sources they have used for generations, the medicines they harvest from the land around them and the independence to build their own lives.

opinion-grey Brendan Boyle is a senior researcher at the Centre for Law and Society based at the University of Cape Town
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