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Growing urgency to take on power to change our world
By Bobby Peek - 24 December 2020.
This was a year of confusion, blurred boundaries between home, work and public space – for those lucky to maintain employment – and of the harsh visualisation of the deep inequality in South Africa. The inequality not only between those of us lucky to have income and those who are unemployed (now more than 30% of the population according Statistics South Africa [Stats SA]), but also those millions who are said to have some type of work – most often casual and precarious, and which has no protection. According to Stats SA, in 2015, more than half of South Africans (55.5%), or 30 million people, lived below the national poverty line of R992 per month. I do not even want to contemplate what we are going to hear from them at the end of this year.
But the very depressing unemployment statistics are not as a result of the pandemic as many would believe. The pandemic has only served to highlight how severe the situation is, and how deep the chasm between the rich and poor worldwide really is. Aside from its devastating health impacts, Covid-19 and the consequent lockdown responses from governments had a brutal effect on the poor when economies shut down, but at the same time – amidst the gloom clouding over the entire world – the 1% holding the reins of power, continued to flourish. Poverty, however, has its roots far beyond 2020; in the colonialism forced upon us, which was entrenched by apartheid and which democracy has worsened by perpetuating elitist policies as a panacea for all the troubles in our land. This included policies in support of the extractive industry, it’s dirty energy model, its inhumane, slave-like forced labour practices, and its obliteration of the earth through poisoned lands, water and air. These policies are all now manifesting itself in climate change and climate injustice, where the poor is affected the most by global warming caused by the rich, both in the North and South, as the advantaged seek to continue to hold and grow their wealth at the cost of the lives of the poor and their lands. Challenging to reverse this injustice and build an equitable, democratic and caring society is what our fight for environmental justice is.
The brutality of mining is all too well known globally, and in South Africa. Ask the millions of families who have lost loved ones to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, asbestosis, black lung disease and silicosis. Grandmothers suddenly become mothers again. In most traditional societies and even in the nuclei modern family, grandparents play a key role in nurturing grandchildren. Even more than their children, grandchildren become their legacy. Perhaps it’s a second chance at doing it better, having learnt from the parenting mistakes with their own children. MaFikile Ntshangase, of Somkhele, mother and grandmother, will not see her legacy blossom. She was shot down in her house on Thursday, 22nd November, where she lived with her grandchild. MaFikile was opposed to the Tendele mining operations that want to mine the land her family’s house is on. Bridget Pitt writes that when Ntshangase was killed, ‘she became yet another martyr in the increasingly ruthless global fight to force rural communities to allow mining on their doorsteps.’ This is the ‘development’ that we have inherited from centuries of colonialism forced on us as legendary Uruguayan and anti-capitalist writer Eduardo Galeano eloquently wrote about in the ‘Open Veins of Latin America’, painting a literal masterpiece of how colonialism and capitalism extracted the blood of the Americas – both of the people and their land.
The world has changed in 2020 but the fundamental principles of extraction at all cost maintains. This is starkly illustrated in the aftermath of the Engen explosion on 4th December, which was felt as far as Durban North, more than 20 kilometres away. The Engen oil refinery, owned by Petronas, the Malaysian state oil company and local South African extractive giant Phembani, and is operated on the same principles of colonialist, apartheid and democratic extractivism, makes as much profit as possible for as little cost as possible while killing neighbours and workers with their toxic pollution. Ask the people of Merebank, Wentworth and the Bluff and they will give you the blow-by-blow history. Engen’s response to community concerns on the explosion is nothing but contemptuous and emboldened by years of abuse of local people and their environment. Their response about the impact of Engen’s operations on the rights of workers, community members and children is: ‘As an organisation, we take allegations of this nature extremely seriously and can assure you that these allegations are both unfounded and untrue.’ Ask the maimed workers, the unemployed, the 52% of children with respiratory problems, the leukaemia sufferers and families who lost young children to various cancers such as lupus, and you will hear a different story. Ask the professors at the Nelson Mandela Medical School and various international university research institutions, and their researchers will paint a different picture. But Engen continues to evade accountability and lives comfortably with its impunity which is facilitated by a crumbling state and supportive politicians.
Although there is much more to say about the sad state of affairs in South Africa in 2020, the year has also been marked by a growing urgency amongst people that they have to take on power to change their world. After years of calls for a basic income grant (BIG), President Cyril Ramaphosa established the Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant in response to the pandemic. Yes, there is much about it that can be criticised, but as civil society we need to take this as a victory and rally around the likes of Black Sash and others who are leading the charge on the BIG.
The moves towards a just transition continue to be pushed by various quarters and President Ramaphosa has finally appointed the Presidential Climate Change Coordinating Committee. Some have questioned the composition of the committee*. The Commission’s work will only be a success, if indeed the positive steps taken by Environment Minister Barbara Creecy to pursue criminal prosecution of Eskom in respect of air pollution by Eskom’s Kendal Power Station, and ensuring that it is taken to the logical conclusion of holding people accountable and getting Eskom to become transparent, and democratic – void of self-interest and political influence – and become a renewable energy giant answerable to the people of South Africa and not vested interests.
Finally, during the pandemic, we have been cut off from working, talking and planning face to face with people on the fencelines of destructive industries. We had to find a new way of working. The face to face approach of working with people and building movement through ongoing dialogue ended abruptly. Or so we thought. But working with people to respond to the crisis on the ground, found social justice organisers building stronger ties. The movement for just transition, for a new world order has grown and solidified. Through the medium of Zoom and other online sites, despite its many challenges, we have managed to continue our work.
On this note and an overheating computer – because of Zoom – I bid farewell to 2020 and prepare to meet the universe with hope and energy in 2021.
*disclaimer: Bobby Peek is among those appointed to the Presidential Climate Change Coordinating Committee
This article was published in the Mercury and Pretoria News. A stand-alone version of the opinion piece is available here.
Fikile Ntshangase - Another Environmental Activist Violently Silenced
by: Tsepang Molefe and Robby Mokgalaka
09 November 2020 - We pen this reflection with a hollowness deep inside out beings. Some of the groundWorkers met MaFikile, other only heard her stories, but as we write this sadness overwhelms us.
I still remember my first encounter with Fikile Ntshangase, it was two years back at a gathering in Somkhele where Minister Gwede Mantashe as part of his mining roadshow visited the area and also made an unwelcomed attempt to avoid engaging directly with the community. Inside a fully packed marquee the heat was oppressive and the community’s years of frustration and anger seemed to have reached a boiling point at that moment in time. But what drew the media attention was Ntshangase and the two water bottles in her arms. “These samples are from my water tank at home, look”. She said. At close inspection, visible to the naked eye, the water had tiny coal dust particles. Ntshangase was not only speaking from a lived experience but she had brought the evidence for all to see. Here was a representation of everyday life struggle that was true and real. For her this was environmental and climate injustice, an experience now because of a coal company. Not an experience in the future.
On Thursday 22nd of October, Ntshangase was brutally assassinated by unknown men at her home in the village of Phondweni, in Somkhele the north of KwaZulu-Natal. She was gunned down in the presence of her grandchild. She was a former teacher and the vice-chair of MCEJO (Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation) a community organisation that is resisting the expansion of the Tendele Coal mine. A few days before the attack she had complained to some of her fellow activists of her dogs barking constantly at night.
On Friday 23rd, various civil society organisations issued a joint statement on the incident, and by that evening it had made headline news. On Tuesday, the 27th October groundWork, Friends of the Earth South Africa addressed a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa and Police Minister Bheki Cele requesting for a “ speedy and urgent investigation to arrest and put on trial those responsible for the murder of Mama Fikile Ntshangase”. As I write this more than a week later, groundWork has yet to receive an acknowledgement of the correspondence. Eventually we had to hand-deliver the correspondence to the KwaZulu Natal Provincial Commissioner, on Tuesday, 3rd November.
The murder of MaFikile was foretold. In August 2018, the South African Human Rights Commission released a scathing report, titled “National Hearing on the Underlying Socio-economic Challenges of Mining-affected Communities in South Africa, stating that the government is responsible for the harm done to mining-affected communities because of its “failure to monitor compliance, poor enforcement, and a severe lack of coordination’. This report also focused on the Somkhele area.
This was followed by another report in 2019 by the Human Rights Watch, the Centre for Environmental Rights, Earthjustice, and groundWork published calling on all National Government Agencies, including the Office of the President to “ensure that law enforcement authorities impartially, promptly, and thoroughly investigate any allegations or incidents of attacks, threats and harassment against community rights defenders and the wider community, for exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and protest, and adopt a plan that would address the failure to adequately investigate such cases”. . Sadly we reflect and come to the painful realisation that the country was warned, and yet we allowed the death of MaFikile to be the inevitable outcome.
When the Tendele coal mine arrived in Somkhele in 2007, the community believed that their lives were going to change for better, little did they know about the truth on how mines treat communities. When families were relocated to make way for the mine, small and poor quality houses were built for them with small yards, making it difficult for them to do small scale farming a very important source of livelihood. The situation drove them to desperate poverty. Lack of water, which most of it was used by the mine to wash coal, compounded their desperation. But it didn't end there, graves were relocated by the mine with insufficient compensations made to the families. It became even more heartbreaking when some graves were not marked, which made it hard for families to identify where their loved ones had been laid to rest. As such, this made it difficult for families to perform their rituals to their ancestors, according to their beliefs, this would affect their lives as their future relied on their connections with their ancestors.
Around 2013, the Somkhele community started protesting against the mine and the local traditional leadership about their problems related to the mine. In 2016, the same year Bazooka Rhadebe was assassinated, one of the Somkhele activists’ car was burnt down when he protested against the mine.The mine also employed a counter-strategy by making half payment to the families who had signed and agreed to be relocated and promised to pay them the balance soon as the other resisting families agree. This was a mechanism designed to divide the people, incite and perpetuate violence in the community. After this move by the mine, people who challenged the mine started receiving threats and intimidations through phone calls and SMSes. In April this year, one activist was held at gunpoint in his house in front of his family. In the same month, another family who refused to sign the relocation agreement was riddled with about nineteen (19) bullets at night, fortunately no one died.
The situation in Somkhele needs to be closely monitored and observed as it seems to be increasingly volatile. Activists have previously complained about threats and violence they face to suppress or silence them. At her memorial service in Somkhele, she was remembered as an active educator and a firm and fierce environmental activist who stood by her people and their rights until her last breath.
It has now become even more clear that mining in communities like Somkhele does not only bring with it water supply shortages, water and air pollution, land and soil destruction but also violence, death, and abuse.
Just like Ken Saro-Wiwa and his friends died at the hands of Sonny Abacha and Shell in the Niger Delta, ‘Bazooka’ Radebe who was killed in Xolebeni, in the Eastern Cape, and Berta Caceres of Honduras lost her life in defence of her family and nighbourhood, Ntshangase’s life will serve to reinforce community resistance and inspire other communities around the country too.
MaFikile today is with the ancestors, not only from this area, but with the many who have died because they have tried to defend their land, livelihoods and their environments. Global Witness, an organisation which monitors Human Rights, Land and Environmental defenders globally, gives us the sad hard evidence that MaFikile was not alone. In July they released their Annual Report, which stated that in 2019, 212 people were murdered globally for peacefully defending their homes and standing up to the destruction of nature. This is four people every week.
The question that was asked as the memorial, “why are pro-mining advocates never murdered” is what needs to be answered by the State and the people.
Tsepang Molefe is the Media, Information, and Publications Manager, and Robby Mokgalaka is the Coal Campaign Manager at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA.
This opinion piece appeared in The Mercury, Cape Times, and Pretoria News.
Gas extraction poses serious risk to environment and society
Gas is falsely marketed as a clean energy source, but increased gas extraction will contribute to significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions and acceleration of climate change while polluting air and water and taking us deeper into poverty.
By Avena Jacklin
12 October 2020 - In TEPSA (Total), and Rhino Oil and Gas Exploration SA’s recent applications for prospecting rights, gas reserves are being touted as the potential new energy source to provide ‘clean’, ‘reliable’ and ‘cheap’ electricity while mitigating greenhouse gas emissions relative to the coal sector. The Department of Mineral Resource and Energy’s Emergency Power Procurement Plan is inviting an additional 2000MW mainly from gas to power projects such as Karpowerships and Richard’s Bay Gas-to-Power referring to gas as being clean and transitionary to renewables. This false marketing and promotion of gas by corporates and energy ministries is inviting an array of deadly risk to countries of the South who will ultimately pay the price of contamination from extraction, depletion of precious water systems and loss of biodiversity while bearing the brunt of climate change impacts due to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. These impacts will be borne by the most vulnerable in our society. Gas extraction, processing and distribution is by no means clean, cheap or reliable.
Natural gas is a non-renewable fossil fuel or upstream petroleum source formed from the remains of marine life that died over 300 million years ago. It is a hazardous and highly flammable substance that is largely composed of methane and other gases such as propane and butane. Human health impacts of these gases include asphyxiation, loss of consciousness, lack of co-ordination, fatigue, memory problems and even death by suffocation.
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. According to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, methane’s global warming potential is 84 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year timeframe, responsible for at least 25% of global heating. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) indicate that methane has a big impact on climate change which means that targeting it is an important tool in fighting a warming planet. Methane leaks contribute to 65% of total oil and gas related methane emissions and occur at various stages in the supply chain from extraction, processing and distribution. Surges in methane emissions have been linked with increased fracking activity in the US as a result of false claims of it being a ‘cleaner’ fuel than coal for use as a ‘bridging’ or ‘transitionary’ fuel.
Accidents in the oil and gas sector can release large amounts of methane in short periods of time, and accidents are often underreported. An Ohio gas well blowout in 2018 claimed uncertainty of the size of the leak which was exposed a year later from the analysis of satellite data. The Tropospheric Monitoring instrument (TROPOMI) revealed a methane emission rate of approximately 120 metric tons per hour, equal to the methane emissions of several European countries over an entire year. Studies indicate that oil and gas companies have had a far worse climate impact with methane emissions underestimated by up to 40%. US oil and gas plants were 60% higher than reported to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This is because current inventory methods do not include emissions that occur during abnormal operating conditions, during releases and accidents.
Inland fracking proposals are within the country’s Strategic Water Source Areas (SWSA). These are our water ‘factories’ that comprise large groundwater reserves with grasslands, healthy soil profiles and wetlands that help filter water entering our water systems, likened to the lifeblood of our biodiversity, communities and livelihoods. The extraction of gas through fracking uses vast quantities of water and toxic compounds to create frack fluid. Heavy metals and radioactive materials are released from the crushed shale into surface and groundwater. Underground water supplies become contaminated through the migration of gas and frack fluid. To understand the shear impact of fracking on a landscape, picture this: each square kilometer can contain 20 drill wells each consuming about 20 million liters of water every time a well is fractured. A well can be fractured multiple times with water being used for each round of fracturing.
The amount of exploration in the country does not equate to the gas allocation within the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). A new provision has now been made for emergency power procurement of 2000MW in addition to the 3000MW allocation for gas in the IRP, bringing the total 5000MW. Exploration is currently done in an ad hoc fashion letting in everyone who wishes to prospect from Rhino with interests in gas exploration in the Free State, KwaZulu Natal and the Karoo, to offshore prospecting from Total, Sasol and ENI. This is done in the interest of short-term industrial gains but no mid- to long- term plan to sustain jobs or deal with liability of oil and gas infrastructure that will no longer be needed. Jobs in the oil and gas sector are in the form of temporary construction boom jobs and mainly specialized jobs for foreigners, with profits from investments leaving the country. Oil and gas is subject to booms and busts. According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a third of fossil fuel investments risk failure by 2030 and will result in stranded assets.
These impacts have mobilized groups such as SAFCEI, FrackFree SA, SCLC, VEJA, groundWork and JA! to resist oil and gas developments and prevent further impoverishment of communities from such developments. The bulk of the burden and liability of accidents and incidents will be borne not just by people living in the affected areas, but by entire nations. The recent oil spill in Mauritius has also highlighted critical risk factors associated with the oil and gas industry and necessitates the withdrawal from fossil fuels usage and the move to renewable energy. It seriously raises the question of liability and the cost to people, the environment and economy. Polluting companies are not held to account. By allowing an increase in oil and gas developments, governments are not protecting, but exposing, people and the planet to more risk all along the supply chain. To add to our burden, the increase in GHGs greenhouse gases such as methane, increases the risk of global warming and climate change impacts that will affect our ecosystems and our ability to survive.
Avena Jacklin is a Climate and Energy campaigner at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA
This article appeared in The Mercury and Pretoria News.
Xolobeni: Recovering Democracy - Victory for people’s right to information
By David Hallowes
02 October 2020 - The people of the Umgungundlovu community in the Eastern Cape are taking on the Department of Mineral Resources & Energy (DMRE) and winning. Last month, they won the right for all affected communities to see corporate applications for mining rights. This judgement will go a long way in making sure communities affected and impacted by mining around the country are awarded fair and proper engagements on mining issues and their rights to access information on the subject. Two years ago, they won the right to say no to mining on their land at Xolobeni. These victories were secured in the courts but are the outcome of years of struggle by a highly motivated community. They recover something of the freedom that people thought they had won in 1994.
At that time, when people talked of state capture, they meant the way in which state institutions colluded with big mining corporations, notably Anglo American and Glencor. Together these state and private entities constituted the minerals energy complex (MEC), created by imperial capital in the early 20th Century.
They shaped South Africa’s development as a mining colony. They created an economy in which wealth and power were concentrated in the hands of very few people who required cheap labour and land secured through dispossession. To maintain such an unequal hierarchy, they reproduced patriarchal and authoritarian relations, held information behind a wall of secrecy and made decisions in discrete boardroom conversations.
In response, the ‘open democracy’ agenda was articulated through the anti-apartheid movement and partially realised in the Constitution of 1996. For organisations on the ground, access to information and decision making opened dramatically as government bodies and corporates assumed that the new regime required it.
A draft Open Democracy Bill was intended to give an expansive interpretation of people’s democratic rights under the Constitutional. It mandated ‘open meetings’ – promoting people’s access to and participation in government decision making, even in cabinet meetings – as well as open information based on the presumption that people have an automatic right to information held by government and, if it affects the exercise of their rights, also to corporate information.
The political transition, however, coincided with the global restructuring of industry under neo-liberal orders, to which the post-apartheid government acceded with the Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) economic policy. It was immediately obvious that the title of this policy was contradicted by the substance. Redistribution was choked off, jobs were shed and even growth failed.
And government soon acquired the instincts of the mining colony. Economic transformation was reduced to the creation of a black capitalist class enabled – by fair means or foul – by the privatisation of state services and assets. And corporate rights to secrecy were reasserted through the Competition Act.
By the late 1990s, ministers and bureaucrats were slashing the Open Democracy Bill. They cut the entire chapter on open meetings, excluded cabinet records from people’s right to know and removed the supports for people to enforce open democracy rights. Finally, under the Mbeki administration, Open Democracy was reduced to the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) of 2000 and it became clear that this title was Orwellian in its phrasing: like GEAR, it meant the opposite of what it said.
Rather than enabling automatic access to government information, it gives bureaucrats the power to decide what information people can have. Indeed, to effectively request the information, people need a lawyer.
The DMRE is particularly notorious as a black hole of information. PAIA request are routinely refused or simply ignored. As before, the department acts as if to protect mining corporations from the people and, incidentally, from environmental regulation.
The decisions won by the Umgungundlovu community recover something of the democratic promise. People’s right to information must now take precedence over the MEC preference for secrecy. And the decision that people have the right to say no to mining means that government cannot decide the matter without their participation.
It is instructive that Minister Gwede Mantashe immediately said he would appeal that decision. He said it would be the death of mining in South Africa. That seems a fairly clear admission that the interests of the industry are in contradiction with the interests of the people.
David Hallowes is a researcher at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA
This article appeared in The Mercury and Pretoria News.
Exporting Poison to the South
Report reveals EU allows wide distribution of banned pesticides - by Rico Euripidou
23 September 2020 - A research report by Swiss based NGO - Public Eye and Unearthed, Greenpeace UK’s investigation unit, (assisted by groundWork in South Africa) has revealed the extent to which the European Union allows the export of banned toxic agro-pesticides to countries in the global South. This research exposes the hypocrisy of allowing multinational agrochemical companies to flood low and middle income countries with substances deemed too dangerous for European agriculture. The Swiss based giant Syngenta plays a leading role.
Syngenta’s best-selling pesticide, paraquat, is so dangerous that just one sip can be lethal. Even small to medium amounts of paraquat can lead to fatal poisoning with known incidents of lung scarring and of multiple organ failure. Paraquat has been banned in Switzerland since 1989 and in the EU since 2007, on the grounds that it is too hazardous for European farmers even when wearing protective equipment.
Despite this, Syngenta continues to manufacture 28,000 tonnes in the EU and export it to countries with weaker regulations in South America, Asia and Africa, where it causes thousands of poisonings every year. Paraquat alone accounts for more than a third of Europe’s exports of banned pesticides.
The researchers obtained thousands of "export notifications", the paperwork required under European law to export their banned pesticides beyond the European Union to provide us with the most complete available record of this deadly trade. More than 81,000 tonnes of banned pesticides were approved for export. They are banned because of the unacceptable risks that they pose to human health and the environment. Three quarters of the 85 importing countries are low or middle income countries (LMICs), where the use of these substances presents the highest risks. Brazil, Ukraine, Morocco, Mexico and South Africa are among the top ten importers of pesticides "Banned in Europe".
A total of 41 banned pesticides were notified for export from the EU in 2018. The associated health or environmental risks listed in the notifications are dramatic to say the least: death from inhalation, birth defects, reproductive or hormonal disorders, or cancer. These substances also have the potential to contaminate drinking water sources and poison ecosystems.
Our “Rainbow Nation” stands out for the diversity of pesticides imported. Among these products – including cyanamide, paraquat, alachlor, and nine other toxic substances were banned in Europe because the health risks were considered too high for farmers, even with the necessary protective equipment.
In my view pesticides are typically applied by migrant low skilled farm or forestry workers living in temporary camps. They are typically poorly educated and unable to read pesticide labels and often don’t get proper training and the necessary protective equipment. This practice of allowing exports of pesticides too dangerous for use for EU farmers is akin to “environmental racism” because workers and communities will end up being disproportionately exposed to toxic pesticides where regulations and conditions of use are not as rigorous as the EU.
Despite this the wider trend is that pesticide sales to Africa are booming. For years, Africa represented just a fraction of the global pesticide market. But our continent has quickly developed a taste for agricultural pesticides, supported by initiatives such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Unfortunately, this growth in pesticide use does not come with the necessary protections. Weak or non-existent regulation combines with poor knowledge and minimal training, putting users at risk of widespread pesticide poisoning.
When confronted about this practice the corporations put forward arguments that their products are safe and they are committed to risk reduction. They say that they respect the laws of the countries in which they operate, and that each country has the sovereign right to decide which pesticides best meet the needs of its farmers even though the chemicals have been explicitly banned in the EU in order to protect human health or the environment.
Baskut Tuncak, the former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes says "If the EU, with all its resources, comes to the conclusion that these pesticides pose unacceptable risks and are too dangerous for use, then how could they be safely used in poorer countries when the necessary protections are typically unavailable, most importing countries are also unable to control and monitor the use of such dangerous substances.”
What is also well known is that corporations may say that they adhere to national laws, but they also work hard to change and shape these laws. The global evidence of hazardous pesticide is unequivocal - pesticide poisoning kills more than 200,000 people in developing countries each year. It is really shocking that authorities allow these substances to come through our borders, whilst banned elsewhere, but poor governance and weak laws have become a norm in this country.
Ironically, among the banned pesticides residues most frequently detected in EU imported foods are substances banned for use in the EU, these pesticides find their way back to EU dinner plates. Michael Fakhri, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food sums up the double standard nicely, “If a country bans the use of pesticides because they are deemed to be too dangerous, it should not allow its companies to export them, nor should it accept the import of food produced with these substances.”
Rico Euripidou trained as an Environmental Epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK. He is a environmental and public health specialist at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA
Total’s Oil and Gas: A Match Made in Hell
By Tsepang Molefe
01 September 2020 - Two years ago, a French court found French oil and gas major Total guilty of bribing a foreign public official in Iran. The crime is said to have happened between 1997 and 2004. For this very serious and familiar criminal offence between big corporates and government, the company was fined €500,000. A very soft slap on the wrist considering the profits the oil giant rakes in year in and year out.
In another similar case in the U.S. Total settled a $245.2 million fine in 2013. The charges were related (as you may have guessed) to corruption and bribery, to obtain valuable oil and gas concessions. According to the U.S. Justice Department, the charges were related to violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in connection with illegal payments made through third parties to a government official in Iran. The court found that Total mischaracterized the unlawful payments as "business development expenses" when they were, in fact, bribes designed to corruptly influence a foreign official.
By all historical facts and current developments, Total SA seems to be going the opposite direction, away from their ambition to become the responsible energy major, as they put it.
Early last year, president Cyril Ramaphosa, gleaming with excitement, officially announced to the nation Total E&P South Africa (TEPSA)’s South African offshore discovery. TEPSA, the South African arm of Total, said it had made a significant gas condensate discovery after drilling its Brulpadda prospects on Block 11B/12B in the Outeniqua Basin.
On the 12th of August minister of Minerals Gwede Mantashe acknowledged the arrival and offered a warm welcome to the Deepsea Stavanger in Cape Town, an oil and gas drill rig commissioned by Total. The 43,708-ton rig has left Mossel Bay and is currently on its way to spud the Luiperd well 110km south of Knysna.
“This is in the middle of vast breeding and feeding grounds for all kinds of marine creatures, which support our lives and livelihoods. The impacts of drilling waste, leaking wells or even a blowout will be felt by all South Africans, Mozambiquans and Namibians”. – Judy Bell, Frack-Free South Africa.
Furthermore, the public participation process did not include fishing communities and people living and working in the affected coastline.
“Total must not take advantage of the State of Disaster to fast track authorisations through lack of consultation and transparency. Total has failed to reveal the true results of its Brulpadda well findings and accidents reports of earlier drilling failures. It has failed to make financial provision for abandoned wells, blowouts and disasters, which would fall onto South Africa. It has failed to consider the needs and desirability in a transition to a low carbon economy and the impacts of fossil fuels on South Africa’s extremely high Green House Gas emissions.” - Avena Jacklin, Climate and Energy Justice Campaign Manager, groundWork.
President Ramaphosa this week committed to acting swiftly to significantly reduce carbon emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change. Oil and gas companies are responsible for 71% of global carbon dioxide emissions and risk losing $2.2trn on stranded assets by 2030. The repercussions of oil leaks and spills could devastate the Southern African fishing industry and our shores as we have witnessed in Mauritius. Total and its contracting vessels have not committed to covering the economic costs of clean-up operations and compensations for impacts on ecosystems and livelihoods. South Africa cannot afford the risk that Total brings to our country.
As the corruption and unethical behaviour of South African government officials continues to be uncovered, civil society and journalists raised alarm bells to corrupt procurement of floating gas to energy last week. According to Turkish gas company Karpowership, Sonnyboy Bapella Chief Directorate of Compliance of the Department of Environmental Affairs Fisheries (DEFF) and Forestry issued a verbal directive on the 26th of June to procure ‘emergency power’ when in fact the country’s energy consumption was low and there was no emergency. The wrong legislation was used to procure energy and energy procurement is not the responsibility of DEFF. We will have to keep a watchful eye on how energy is procured and who the true beneficiaries are of these projects. As the rot of corruption continues to spread and deepen one needs not to use imagination to predict how this story might end.
All this is happening at the backdrop of the finalization of the Upstream Petroleum Bill, apparently this piece of legislation will strike a much needed balance between the need to attract investment for the oil and gas sector and also making sure that oil and gas activities are not done at the cost of the environment and water resources.
So here is what we have, oil discoveries that are set to cause destruction on the environment, a multinational corporation with a tainted track record, and a government that has failed to decisively deal with corruption – it is a match made the hell.
Tsepang Molefe is the Media, Information, and Publications campaign manager at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA.
5-Point Plan to Assist the Most Vulnerable
By Niven Reddy
18 August 2020 - The COVID-19 crisis has affirmed the urgency to unify as a global community. At this moment in history, the world is realising how interconnected and reliant on one another we truly are. While this crisis has laid bare widespread systemic injustices in all facets of society, we now have the opportunity and a responsibility to align around a just recovery and invest in a better future for all.
I would like to outline a five-point plan to assist the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society most exposed to crises such as work and food security, access to health care, covid-19 and the impacts of climate change.
First, the prioritization of health for people and the planet. During the entire lockdown period, waste pickers have been saving our South African cities lots of money by doing free collection, segregation, and recycling yet we have not done enough to protect their health and livelihood during this time. We cannot afford to treat people as disposable second-class citizens, we need compassion for the planet and the people. We need to focus on a recovery that keeps the poor at the centre of our solutions, our environment and human rights cannot be compromised.
Second, there needs to be a shift and more investments put towards solutions, not bailouts. Deprioritize and divest from extractive industries and their boom and bust cycles. Instead of investing billions in bailing out failed state parastatals such as Eskom which threaten the financial stability of our country we should be investing in the future. Transition our workforce into sustainable economies while prioritising investments in community resiliency and not corporate interests.
Third, the replacement of single-use with sustainable systems. Single-use must be replaced with sustainable product delivery systems. The externalized costs from extraction to disposal must be eliminated. There isn’t a country that has sustainably managed single-use plastic because they cannot be managed. They mostly cannot be recycled or composted leaving the only option of being incinerated, landfilled or exporting the problem to another country to deal with. The only way to solve the plastic crisis is to stop the production and use of single-use plastic and transition to refill and reuse systems. Corporations need to redesign their delivery systems to become more sustainable. We need systems that work for the people, not against them.
Fourth, all of this must be complemented with an aggressive demand for corporate and government accountability. Corporate responsibility and accountability must be consistent in all jurisdictions where companies do business. Government policies must ensure countries manage their own waste. Policy must be informed by credible, third-party science.
There is a deep need to address the double standards that some global multinational companies play, materials with no way of being recycled should not be produced in the first place but they continue to flood our environment in the developing world. The worst part in all of this is that these companies then imply that we should invest in technology such as incineration and chemical recycling to deal with the problem. Technologies that cost a huge amount of money to deal with a problem that should not be created in the first place. Voluntary pledges from these companies will only address, we need our government to step up and put in place stronger policies that aim to completely phase out non-recyclable, single-use plastic.
Lastly, spaces must be created for meaningful engagements with impacted communities. There is a great need to support community efforts to hold dirty industry accountable for health and environmental impacts and ensure that our regulators measure and monitor emissions and health impacts and take decisive action to redress these impacts.
We find ourselves at a critical crossroads in our human history: we can continue perpetuating an unequal system that has brought upon us multiple humanitarian crises , or we can take the opportunity to redress these social and environmental injustices, to take care of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters and make decisions that address the root causes of our global problems.
The future is not disposable and neither are we!
Niven Reddy is a Campaign Researcher at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA.
This opinion piece also appeared as an article in The Mercury, Cape Times, and Pretoria News. You can access the original press clippings here.
Landfill Has Become a Permanent Problem for City
Every piece of waste legislation has been contravened by the site
By Musa Chamane - 05 August 2020
The New England landfill site can now be correctly referred to as a dumpsite as it has become a fixed or permanent problem for the city residents. In addition to being a hub for the city’s waste, it has seen its fair share of mismanagement, corruption, political squabbling, murders, violence, and fires that produce toxic fumes and unfairly affect the entire population of Pietermaritzburg.
In 2002 as a student at the then University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, I learnt that the New England Landfill site had approximately 7 years left in its lifespan. This means the site should by now have been closed, rehabilitated or repurposed around 2008 and replaced with a new site or an alternative approach to deal with the city’s waste adopted. Fast forward to 2020, the site is still in operation and its extended existence is proving to be catastrophic if not deadly for the city and the people of Pietermaritzburg.
The recent fire which is still ablaze is nothing new, as one community member said, ‘This is now an annual event”. Landfill fires are considered by waste experts as the least desirable outcome for environmental and public health, and sadly are the usual result from a very poorly operated waste management system. This open and uncontrolled burning of landfill sites and the waste therein poses many risks - they pose a significant threat to the environment and also to human health through the hazardous chemical compounds they emit to those exposed directly to the smoke and windblown ash during and after the fire.
These hazardous chemical compounds especially affect people with compromised immune systems and those with sensitive respiratory systems, as well as young children and the elderly. In the short term, exposure to smoke can cause headaches, nausea, and rashes. Over time, regular landfill fires exposures can increase the risk of chronic health impacts such as certain cancers and heart disease. This is because in the landfill smoke there are many harmful chemicals such as heavy metals, volatile organic substances and a particularly potent family of cancer causing chemicals called dioxins and furans. These particularly harmful chemicals have regularly been recorded in landfill fires (these are cancer causing chemicals formed when organic waste is burnt in the presence of PVC which makes up many common plastics), and are known to cause reproductive impairment and cancer in humans. Additionally, chemicals such as Arsenic, Mercury, PCBs, Lead, Carbon monoxide, Nitrogen oxides, Sulphur oxides, Hydrochloric acid – all harmful to human health are commonly recorded in landfill fires. Some of these chemical pollutants can also end up in the ash after the fire and therefore they can be inhaled as it gets blown on the wind. So therefore the combination of the smoke and the ash after the fire will deteriorate the quality of the ambient air quality in Pietermaritzburg.
SavePMB has advised exposed residents that environmental health is compromised and people in the vicinity of the fire must move out of their homes. We are in general agreement with this statement if people are directly exposed and are breathing in smoke – e.g. if the smoke is not coming into their homes then the risk is less, however if people’s homes are flooded in smoke and they experience difficulty breathing and have an acrid taste in their mouths then they should definitely evacuate from that place.
The ills that we see at this dump is as a result of deliberate negligence of the landfill and it has been reserved by corrupt politicians to further their interest. The dumpsite should be covered with soil daily and waste materials should be compacted. Dust suppressor truck should always be there to make sure that dust is supressed and can be utilised in case of fire hazard but that is not being practised because the site is run by political appointments. In South Africa we have over 100 landfills/dumpsites with waste pickers on site. There is no dumpsite that constantly burns like the Pietermaritzburg one. Medical waste drips and syringes, PPE masks, hospital gloves were recently observed by us on the dumping site even though we are aware that this is not a medical waste site - only domestic waste is allowed.
Back in 2011 R21 million was given by cooperative governance (COGTA) to the district to construct a materials recovery facility (MRF) in the city. An MRF is a waste sorting infrastructure which was would have diverted recyclable waste ending up on the landfill by more than 60% - most materials would have been recycled. This would have been a very good “forward looking plan” by the district and COGTA. The money was received, MRF plans were designed, sites identified, waste pickers were trained and organised into a cooperative all was going smoothly…. But as the system was about to be implemented, the district and local municipality had a fallout about the proposed MRF and as a result the MRF was never built because of some political squabbles. COGTA took back the unspent funds!
Similarly, the dumpsite licence was issued by someone other than the appropriate government department – in normal circumstances the licence for this dumpsite would have been revoked. Every piece of Waste legislation has been contravened by the poor management of the site, howeverthe site is still open. Communities of Hayfeilds, Sobantu, Lincoln Meade, Mkondeni, demands answers and that is why they have organised a protest against the landfill management.
Every Pietermaritzburger has had a dose of toxic fumes from the latest incident over the last 3 days and it’s a pity especially for those that are in hospital battling COVID 19 as we know that most victims suffer respiratory challenges. They’re battling to get oxygen into their system and the landfill smoke makes it worse. One Sobantu family had to be evacuated from their house due to prolonged exposure to smoke that lead to a baby failing to breath properly… and what about those poor folks that do not have alternative accommodation?
Musa Chamane is a Waste Campaign Manager at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA.
This opinion piece also appeared as an article in The Mercury. You can view the original press clipping here. You can view/download a standalone webpage of the item here.
Defending Communities and the Environment
By Robby Mokgalaka - 21 July 2020
Life in Somkhele - a rural village in northern part of KwaZulu-Natal - has not been the same since the opening of a coal mine in 2011. The mine has not only brought the continuous buzz of mining’s heavy machinery. It also brought with it, coal dust, potholes on roads, land destruction, water pollution and water flow disruption, unfair relocation settlements and forced removals, exhumations and relocation of graves, greed, and violence. And all of this has been met with constant and unshaken resistance from local activists.
During this time of lockdowns and Covid-19, Somkhele activists and members of the community are being targeted by the pro-mine group for opposing the relocation proposed by the Somkhele Coal Mine to make way for its expansion – demanding more land for their dirty operation.
Between March and April 2020, two Somkhele families (identity reserved) have been attacked for standing up against the coal mine and refusing to move. One family’s house was riddled with bullets through the windows in an attempt to kill them. groundWork together with CER facilitated a process for the family to assisted through the human rights defenders fund, to upgrade their home security in order to fend off further attacks.
The Human Rights Defenders campaign was established in 2019 to help human rights defenders in cases of emergency whereby there are threats or attacks directed to them. The establishment of the campaign was motivated by the collaborative research by groundWork, Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), Human Right Watch (HRW) and EarthJustice which produced the report, ‘We Know Our Lives Are in Danger’.
The report is the output of research that was carried out between 2013 and 2018 documenting the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape provinces. The report cites activists’ reports of intimidation, violence, damage to property, use of excessive force, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects in their communities. The outcome of the research confirmed that there were intimidations, threats and attacks perpetrated towards human rights defenders and made recommendations to all stakeholders.
During the launch of the report, the Open Society Foundation joined groundWork and CER in a discussion which led to the establishment of the Human Rights Defenders Fund aiming to provide financial need to human rights defenders for their own safety and security. Parallel to this process, CER and groundWork launched a campaign called, Asinaloyiko (We have no fear). The campaign was aimed at responding to the ‘SLAPP’ suits – Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, which a corporate bullying to environmental activists and NGO’s intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence until they abandon their criticism or opposition.
The assistance from environmental defenders’ funds does not begin and end with financial provision, but also employs other strategies for activists to defend themselves. For example, groundWork also assisted in the establishment of a community watchdog in Somkhele, this consists of environmental activists looking out for each other and alerting one another in case of any incidents occurring in their community. Activists are also provided with resources such as airtimes, data, and a Whatsapp group is created for communication to flow. This strategy is at its pilot stage and is monitored constantly with an aim of implementing elsewhere in communities where attacks are happening.
Robby Mokgalaka is a Coal Campaign Manager at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA
This opinion piece also appeared as an article in The Mercury. You can view/download a standalone webpage of the item here.
Protecting Our Health: There is Life After Coal
By Rico Euripidou
07 July 2020 - Public health professionals from around the world have called for a ban on coal. A resolution by the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA) demands that governments stop the opening of all new coal mines worldwide, accelerate closure of existing coal mines, accelerate the transition to clean renewable energy, and secure a just transition for affected workers and communities.
The WFPHA was established in May 1967 and is now composed of over 115 associations, mostly multidisciplinary national public health associations, including the Public Health Association of South Africa. Together they represent some 5 million public health professionals worldwide including doctors, nurses, health scientists and public health professionals who look after our health needs on a daily basis.
As the only worldwide professional society representing and serving public health, its mission is to promote and protect global public health. At the recent General Assembly on the 9th June 2020, the Federation announced a new environmental policy titled “A call to ban coal for Electricity Production”. The resolution describes the costly and detrimental health effects of coal use for electricity. It argues that the contribution of coal fired energy generation to climate change makes it lethal. And further establishes the case for agencies centered on promoting human health to facilitate its global ban. This strong message from 5 million health professionals is a wake-up call and means we should all take it quite seriously.
The policy document synthesises the scientific evidence which shows that coal harms human and environmental health at each stage of coal’s lifecycle - from mining, to disposal of contaminated water and tailings, to transportation and coal washing, combustion in coal fired power stations with associated air pollution, and final disposal of post‐combustion wastes.
The policy also provides estimates of the societal costs of coal. These are the “external costs” that are not accounted for by governments and polluting sectors of the economy. The Federation suggests that 95% of the externalized costs of coal consist of adverse health effects on the population. The estimated annual health costs add up to €54.7 billion in the ‘expanded’ European Union.
Overall, asthma costs the EU €17.7 billion directly and €9.8 billion via lost productivity annually. Cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, both heavily linked to coal pollution, costs €210 billion and €380 billion per year, respectively. Loss in IQ from mercury toxicity has been estimated at €9 billion annually. In the US, the health costs associated with coal have been estimated at 19 - 45 cents per kWh of electricity produced, which would be an estimated $230 billion in 2017. In Australia, the health costs from merely one coal producing valley are estimated at $2.6 billion per year and globally, the pollution from all fossil fuels are estimated to cost $540 billion per year, the majority of which is attributable to coal.
These annual health costs are staggering to comprehend in South African Rand terms - roughly 10 trillion Rand annually.
In a similar economic evaluation respected health economist Dr Michael Holland assessed the health impacts and associated economic costs of micro sized air pollution emissions from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations in 2017. In a report titled “Health impacts of coal-fired power plants in South Africa”, he concluded that Eskom's coal power stations create a substantial burden on human health, leading to 2 239 equivalent attributable deaths annually, as well as 2 781 cases of bronchitis in adults, and 9 533 episodes in children, together with other related respiratory related diseases in adults and children each year. These negative health impacts are likely to be most experienced by disadvantaged members of society.
He calculated that health costs from Eskom’s coal fired fleet costs us approximately R35-billion annually in terms of early deaths, chronic bronchitis, hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and a variety of minor conditions leading to restrictions on daily activity, including lost productivity. Dr Holland’s report excluded the significant impacts on air pollution from mining (such as coal dust), transport of coal and contamination of water.
The WFPHA urges governments to put an immediate halt on the opening of new coal mines worldwide, Enact immediate strategies to accelerate closure of existing coal mines, Accelerate the transition to alternative sources of energy, such as renewables, accompanied by promoting adoption of more efficient electrical appliances, and introducing steps to reduce total demand for energy and electricity, Create alternative employment options for communities currently reliant on the coal industry and develop policies and programs to secure a just transition for these affected communities to the new economic situation.
The Life After Coal Campaign (Centre for Environmental Rights, Earthlife Africa, groundWork) has called for the end of coal and the transition to a low carbon economy. The groundWork 2019 report titled Down to Zero states that the best option for people and the country is for a rapid transition to renewable energy. Associated with the impacts of coal are the climate change risks including droughts and floods that will further impact on people’s health. Rapidly reducing fossil fuel burning to zero emissions, along with restoring the land and increasing its carbon absorption and storage capacity will help restore our environment and people’s health.
Similarly, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres tweeted on the 29th June that:
“There is no good reason for any country to include coal in their #COVID19 recovery plans.... This is the time to invest in energy sources that don’t pollute, generate decent jobs and save money. Now is the time to end business as usual, build a global economy that is sustainable and fair, and put into practice our commitments to future generations".
Rico Euripidou is an Environmental Health Campaign Manager at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA. This opinion piece is available as a stand-alone article here.
You can view the original press clipping here.
A Cheap Shot and Very Bad Attempt at Blame Shifting
By Desmond D'Sa - 22 June 2020
South African Petrochemical giant Sasol is well known for their negligence and environmental abuse revealed their hypocrisy last week when they released a baseline assessment report of understanding the challenges around waste pollution at the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, specifically in the Amanzimtoti and Umbogintwini river.
Their report revealed that the main contributors to plastic waste pollution within the study area to be inadequate and ineffective waste management in communities, lack of environmental education within schools and among communities, a lack of the general public's contribution to clean-ups and litter booms and traps in various locations along the rivers.
To be polite, this is alarming given the fact that Sasol fails to recall that in 2018 their venture NATCOS which runs a storage facility in Isipingo had one of the biggest crude oil spills in the South Durban area in 2001 when SAPREF's pipeline leaked millions of liters on the Bluff and Wentworth. Sasol's oil entered the Isipingo Canal and the Isipingo lagoon, killing many species of marine life. NATCOS have had many crude oil leaks due to a lack of maintenance which has often been denied. Local health officials were informed and they contacted the management which resulted in the storage tanks been refurbished.
Sasol has a history of environmental degradation in the South coast and South Durban area. In 2000 the Sasol Chrome plant repeatedly gassed out learners and educators from the local schools and affected their health badly, as a result it was shutdown. It took a huge outcry from the local community and school management for the government to shut down the plant. Initial complaints from local communities about the constant gas smells which affected residents was ignored.
Sasol Fibers, a plant in Prospecton, South Durban that manufactured acrylic fiber use to release solvents, acrylonitrile and other nasty chemicals used in their production line into the surrounding canals that eventually flowed into the Indian Ocean at Isipingo beach. Eventually in 2002 after pressure from the workers who suffered hip replacements, respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular problems and surrounding communities, SASOL shut the plant and it was sold to overseas interest.
We wish to tell you that Sasol operations in Lake Charles, USA are different, but even there they have maintained their infamous reputation, denying the local African American community their right to access graveyards of their families. The communities were also not given a fair price for relocation and more recently the remaining residents were gassed out and their health was affected. Not forgetting Secunda which has Sasol's coal to liquid plant which has the distinction of being the single largest point-source of CO2 emissions on earth.
In all their cases Sasol has denied any wrongdoing and has the support of the South African and USA government hiding behind loopholes in the legislation not to comply. Sasol's recent forage of trying to get authorization for the offshore oil and gas exploration which will ultimately destroy our marine resources and negatively affect the thousands of people who rely on the ocean for an income, like the subsistence fishers and the tourism and recreational industries.
Sasol was built by the apartheid government and handed to white monopoly capital to enrich themselves. The company has a history of oppression of black labour, destroying the environment and affecting the health of communities in South Africa, and now wants to give us solutions that suit them.
Sasol's latest sponsored study is another example of the company wanting to continue the legacy of keeping the dying fossil fuel industry alive by pushing the recycling button and caring for the marine resources when we should be stopping the petrochemical production line for good. Their report is a cheap short and a very bad attempt at blame shifting. Our planet is calling for the end of the fossil fuel dynasty so the climate gets the necessary relief.
Any new investment into new fossil fuel projects given what we know must be understood as an investment into the death of our children and their children. If Sasol is serious as a member of the KwaZulu-Natal Marine Waste Network, it should relinquish all production that creates plastic waste that kills our marine resources and affected the health of society.
Desmond D'Sa is from groundWork partner the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance.
This opinion piece also appeared as an article in the Cape Times, Pretoria News, and The Mercury. You can view the original press clipping here. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.
Wanted: Socially just transition to sustainable energy
By Avena Jacklin
10 June 2020 - South Africa’s ability to transition to an affordable, clean and climate resilient energy system will have to address questions concerning the ownership of energy. The current system neither serves all people’s needs nor produces affordable clean energy for all. The road ahead is challenging and pitted with non-compliance, failing infrastructure, bailouts, rising debt and inadequate leadership potholes that are not repairable with mere plugging in here and there. Our energy system needs a rethink on a national scale and empowerment of people and workers on the ground, while addressing energy usage and needs in an inclusive and democratic manner.
The reality on the ground is that people cannot afford the energy that is being produced. As a result of the Covid-19 economic slide, Treasury expects a wage loss of between 5% and 15% this year pushing people further into poverty. With job losses, another 10% of people will find themselves there by year’s end. The question everyone should be asking is: “how do we make clean energy affordable for all?” We should be investing our resources in meeting people’s energy needs and buffering communities from future blows of pandemics and climate crises. Privatization of energy with foreign investment will not address the rising cost of energy for the poor.
Our heavy reliance on fossil fuels places us in the top fifteen countries responsible for two thirds of global carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide accumulates and lasts a long time in the atmosphere, causing global warming, drought, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, frequency and intensity of storms and related climate crises. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems, disproportionately affecting the poor. As a water-scarce country, we are extremely vulnerable to drought. This will drive up food prices, increase malnutrition and intensify inequality. Covid-19 has given us a glimpse into how fragile our systems are under duress and revealed the dire need to become resilient to the impacts of climate change. The transition to clean energy therefore has to happen as fast as possible to limit the risk to people and planet.
The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) limits renewable energy to force coal in. Polluting state-owned enterprise, Eskom, rooted in an apartheid past with crumbling infrastructure and corrupt political maneuvering has plummeted our country into debt of R450 billion and cannot continue to be propped up with more debt. The same goes for any new push for investment in fossil fuel gas infrastructure subject to booms and busts, that will leave us with stranded assets for future generations to pay the price. Globally, we are witnessing some divestment from coal and a growing struggle to push out fossil fuels entirely.
The draft Upstream Petroleum Resources Development Bill published for comment by Minister Gwede Mantashe attempts to lock-in fossil fuels by promoting the exploration and extraction of oil and gas. The Bill fails to make adequate provision for consultation with affected communities, particularly those unable to participate during lockdown restrictions. Without proper public participation on national energy policy and enabling peoples’ right to choose, a new era of segregation is emerging that is unjust, illegal and un-constitutional. Those currently in power are widening the chasm between the haves and have-nots, intensifying inequality in our society. Politicians and corporates collude to ride rough shod over people’s rights while smoking pipe dreams of building empires for their short-term benefits.
Several groups including the Centre for Environmental Rights, Earthlife Africa, Frack Free South Africa, Support Centre for Land Change, Oceans not Oil, Enviros, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and groundWork have continuously called for the Minister to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and invest in enabling a just and equitable transition to clean energy that benefits all. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUMSA) supports the transition to a renewable energy system with spokesperson Phakimile Hlubi-Majola saying that it is their members who are affected the most by fossil fuel pollution and climate change: “we are forced to breathe dirty air and drink poisonous water”. The union also supports the idea that the social solution to climate change is not private capitalism and see the need for a socially-owned renewable energy sector as a way to resist foreign multinational corporations capturing South Africa’s energy production. Monopolisation and privatisation excludes all sectors of our democracy and any possibility of social change of energy.
People need to transition from being consumers to both users and producers, that is, ‘prosumers’. This means understanding how we use energy and what it means to produce and supply energy as a collective to the grid. Part of a socially just transition to energy will include the repurposing of fossil fuels infrastructure, rehabilitation of land and water, creation of jobs in renewables, and less reliance on polluting minerals all along the energy cycle. Let people decide how this will work in their own backyards.
People are intricately linked to each other and the planet for survival. The pathological capitalist tendency of detachment from the natural world and losing our core values and human touch is what got us into trouble in the first place. Political parties in power can meaningfully engage with people affected by fossil fuel extraction and combustion, Covid-19 and the transition to cleaner energy. And not exclusively with those that have the resources to communicate virtually. Empowering people with knowledge and listening to people’s voices through constitutionally sound public participation processes that include the most vulnerable in our society will ensure that no one is left behind. Democracy is about dialogue with each other, understanding each other and jointly building a future together. It will take hard work, inclusion and equality to build a more resilient and socially just energy system that addresses peoples’ needs in a sustainable manner. And, through our recovery from Covid-19, to ensure that we are all protected from the next round of blows expected from the ravages of climate change.
Avena Jacklin is a Climate and Energy Campaigner at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA
This opinion piece also appeared as an article in The Mercury, Cape Times, and Pretoria News on 10 June 2020. The original press clipping can be viewed here. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.
Infodemic and Our Miseducation
By Tsepang Molefe
26 May 2020 -
If we speak meaningfully of viruses as possessing or being possessed by a drive or instinct, it is an instinct to replicate and multiply. As they multiply they take over more and more host organisms. It can hardly be their intention (so to speak) to kill their host. What they would like, rather, is an ever expanding population of hosts. Ultimately what a virus wants is to take over the world, that is to say, to take up residence in every warm-blooded body. The death of any individual host is therefore a form of collateral damage, a mistake or miscalculation
-J. M. Coetzee-
In light of the recent events, (still unfolding) there has been a surge of false information about the Corona virus and how we need to respond to it. As the virus spreads, more misinformation about it is shared it seems. While the irresponsible use of social media and other digital platforms is not something new, it’s impacts can cause devastating outcomes as it spreads false counter information and misleads people. The lockdown did not do this issue any favours, as people are locked inside their homes and using mostly their smartphones to access the rest of the world.
As the death toll and infections from the coronavirus outbreak continues to rise, the sharing and distribution of false health advice and untested prevention measures on mass has not in any way helped the situation. So much that the problem has caught the attention of the WHO (World Health Organisation). The WHO has moved on this by engaging with the landlords of the digital space, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter on how they can curb the spread of the infodemic. Their social media teams and digital people are said to be on the clock from sun rise to sun set to track and respond to misleading information.
The South African government declared: Anyone that creates or spreads fake news about the Coronavirus COVID-19 is liable for prosecution. They encourage people to verify the information before they share it. Here in South African, the spreading of fake news or misleading information about COVID-19 is now an offence punishable by a fine, six months’ imprisonment, or both. The information includes but is not limited to; false prevention measures or cures, myths and rumours. Since the outbreak an abundance of misinformation has been doing the rounds and it should all be refuted with evidence-based information.
As expected, conspiracy theorists didn’t sit this one out, they also jumped on the band wagon. The conspiracies were also spreading with the same pace as the virus, if not faster. From Corona being a biological weapon to 5G Networks links, surprisingly they left the aliens out of it. As the Medical Futurist put it: “One person in Wuhan eats an uncooked bat, and your local Walmart runs out of toilet paper. This is such a surreal scenario, no wonder people are looking for alternative answers to how their normal lives got blown into pieces in the matter of weeks.”
The main problem with misinformation is that it sometimes occupies the vacuum of science, facts and truth. This leads to valuable information being misplaced and ignored, its place taken by false information. As the cliché goes, this is a matter of life and death, people are looking for trustworthy information that could assist them in the fight against the pandemic. People should at all times scrutinize the sources of the information they consume. The opening paragraph by the great novelist John Maxwell Coetzee is an abstract from “Diary of a Bad Year”. While Coetzee made reference to the 1918 influenza pandemic, his philosophical thinking makes for an interesting observation during these times. The Corona virus in its quest to take over the world has brought with it uncertainty, job loses, more economic instability, panic, anxiety, misinformation and many other unwelcomed negatives.
Tsepang Molefe is groundWork’s Media Information & Publications Manager
This opinion piece also appeared as an article in the Mercury, Cape Times, and Pretoria News. The press clipping can be viewed here. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.
Back to basics is the only sustainable solution
By Avena Jacklin
29 April 2020 - By month end in South Africa, most people are hungry. Every month. That is in ‘normal’ times. And that is for ‘normal’ families – not the very poorest – in a country where 60% of people are poor, according to official figures, and the next 20% are just one misfortune away from poverty. That is a lived experience for most South Africans even before Covid-19 struck. The crisis shines a harsh light on the need to change food system from one that is corporatized to one that is accessible, nutritionally acceptable and controlled by people.
When the lockdown was announced, many people felt rising levels of panic and desperation. Those who could afford it rushed to o buy essential foods and stocked-up. Even before the crisis, most people could not afford a diet with adequate nutrition, according to Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity. This accounts for the high incidence of dietary-related disease such as diabetes and stunting in children. During lockdown, the cost of a household food basket rose sharply, particularly for bread and vegetables. It has stopped informal livelihoods and with the wave of retrenchments and rising unemployment, so are people’s ability to afford even a poor diet. Some hoped government would supply food parcels to relieve their distress and enable them to stay at home. Food parcels are delivered but do not reach many. The hungry have ignored the lockdown to make means to put food on the table and as the Unemployed People’s Movement echoes: “without food, we need to hustle”. Food parcels while needed at this time, is a questionable approach, taking away people’s ability to make decisions for themselves. Addressing the crisis is not about food parcels and hand-outs, but rather about setting in place the practices that will create system change.
The lockdown exposes the fragility of peoples’ basic rights of health, food and water and ultimately to life. It exposes the growing inequalities of the post-apartheid era. The Covid-19 pandemic serves as a wake-up call for how we produce food and who eats what. Following the enclosure of their land, people have been made dependent on industrialised agriculture, turning them into consumers instead of producers. The crisis reveals how many children depend on school meals and are one meal away from starvation. It exposes how many of their parents are just one wage-day away from extreme poverty. It has broadcasted on our TV screens as a reminder to us all about the daily struggles of communities and workers in our country and for many the struggle to survive.
The ‘State of Disaster’ regulations systematically favour the industrial food system. Supermarkets remain open with their supply chains intact. The reported lack of Covid-19 adjusted work conditions means market gardeners are cut off from markets and street traders are shut down. They are excluded by the paperwork and by not being registered on databases. Such bureaucracy creates rights for big corporates with big environmental impacts but not for informal but sustainable producers. Coastal fisher communities, with the support of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, engaged in a sharp struggle to have their fishing rights recognised. The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries finally issued them with permits to continue fishing to feed their families and recognised this as an essential service. However, it appears that the eThekwini Municipality has not aligned to national State of Disaster regulations and have stopped subsistence fishermen and women from fishing despite their permits, so the struggle continues for fisher folk trying to feed their families.
Everyone who lives in South Africa has the constitutional right to sufficient food and water. These rights are linked to the fundamental rights to life and dignity. Current economic and food systems are neither designed to deliver on these rights nor capable of doing so. They are designed for profit. Our best agricultural lands are used to grow non-food products and food for export while our people go hungry. Seed supplies are privatised, basic foods corporatised, deadly chemicals and pesticides are sprayed across the land and genetically modified foods entrench corporate control.
For a system change to be possible, people must have access to resources needed to produce food, including water, land and skills. They can create a food network that is not dependent on monopolisation but is owned and defined by people. The choice of what, how and where food is produced is political. It is a matter of survival that people collectively transform the food regime, removing it from the impositions of industrialised systems and create ecologically sound and resilient systems owned and controlled by people. In addition, people need to be equipped to withstand the impacts of the climate crisis including drought, wildfires and floods.
This is what food sovereignty is about. And it comes with a set of practices that include agro-ecology, localised production, seed saving and swopping, growing indigenous foods, conserving water and energy, restoring the soil, protecting biodiversity and sharing knowledge, and ensuring people’s access to food they need.
A future where everyone has food that is healthy, nutritious and affordable is within reach and it is in our hands.
Avena Jacklin is a Climate and Energy campaigner at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA
The Nation needs more than Band-aids, Mr. President - Giving communities power to demand inclusion in decisions made about their lives is key
By Avena Jacklin
14 April 2020 - Government is putting people’s democratic rights to know and to say ‘no’ under sustained attack. Government ministers are dodging their democratic duties to consult people and promote public participation by deliberately excluding communities affected by their decisions. Their constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being is undermined in the process along with their rights to information, free speech and assembly.
Gwede Mantashe, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, attempted pushing through the Draft Upstream Petroleum Resources Development Bill by publishing it on the 24th of December 2019 when most people were on holiday. That did not work. Seventeen community groups registered their objections to a Bill that favours industry, weakens environmental protections, is heedless of the climate crisis and cuts public participation short.
The Department of Minerals Resources and Energy (DMRE) then arranged consultations exclusively with corporate and legal respondents for the 9th of March in Pretoria, excluding community groups whose livelihoods, land rights and water catchments will be compromised. Officials said it was each person’s duty to call the department to ask if there was a consultation process and if they may be included. The DMRE had no plan to consult with communities nationally. In the event, the corporate and legal consultation was cancelled as the COVID-19 pandemic swept into South Africa and the president declared a National State of Disaster.
In a separate process on amendments to the Mineral Resources Development Act (MPRDA) and draft guidelines on the resettlement – that is, removal – of mining affected communities, community consultations in Emalahleni, Mtubatuba and Kriel were called off without explanation. Following a lengthy struggle to access information on the amendments, communities from Springs, eMalahleni, Middelburg, Wonderfontein, Phola and Ermelo gathered to meet DMRE officials at the Witbank Civic Centre on the 12th of March.
The DMRE, however, did not show up and it was left to municipal officials to tell community delegates that the meeting had been cancelled. Deeply frustrated, people then marched to the DMRE offices to demand an explanation for the cancellation and to establish clear processes for consultation with fence-line communities. With the police present, acting DMRE regional director Mashudu Maduka addressed them and blamed the municipality and the department’s national policy unit for the failure to communicate as they were leading the process on consultations. More police were deployed and communities were asked to leave with no further communications.
These patterns of exclusion run deep through all sectors of our government. At the Durban Climate Change Strategy Workshop hosted by the eThekwini Municipality Council in February, attendance was by invitation only and the most vulnerable communities living near rivers, in congested townships with water shortages, fisher communities, food gardeners and small business were excluded from consultation processes due to what consultant Derek Morgan termed “budgetary constraints”.
There are many ways to engage the public, disseminate information and create awareness, including radio and partnering with community organisations and tertiary institutions that work in these areas. Such means are being used by the presidency during the COVID-19 State of Disaster at no cost to government. In the time of climate crisis – with storm surges, floods, heatwaves, fires and droughts – the most vulnerable will need the most support. But we are not prepared. Government’s response is crippled with inadequate disaster planning and very little in the way of climate change mitigation and adaptation plans.
On the first day of the COVID-19 lockdown, the Minister of Environment, Barbara Creecy, doubled the Sulphur-dioxide (SO2) pollution allowed from coal fired boilers, raising the minimum emissions standard to 1000 mg/nm3 just five days before the limit of 500mg/nm3, agreed a decade ago, was due to come into effect. The new standard is 28 times weaker than China’s and 10 times weaker than India’s. The department’s primary intention is to protect Eskom and Sasol, both of which have worked to obstruct implementation of the minimum emission standards.
This is the second time round for the Department. In 2018, it promulgated the SO2 doubling without inviting public comment. groundWork, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, then took it to court and the department backed down. It withdrew the measure but immediately published a second notice allowing a minimal 30 days for public comment. This allowed desktop submissions for those with internet but excluded the communities most immediately affected by Eskom’s and Sasol’s pollution.
Lowering the standard will result in a heavy burden of disease including about 680 premature deaths every year. That does not count the impact of COVID-19. It is now well understood that people whose lungs are compromised by pollution are more vulnerable to the virus. And the latest research from Italy indicates that pollution helps spread the virus as it is carried by particulate matter.
The long struggle against the autocratic colonial and apartheid regimes and for a democratic practice embracing human rights, inclusion and transparency is being undermined. The Constitution calls for a participatory democracy that enables all community members to meaningfully influence the decisions that affect their lives. This includes closing the loop through feedback processes and continuous reporting between initial public participation and final action in a form that is responsive to people’s needs. Freedom of information is fundamental to this process.
This government is the extension of the economic relations of colonialism and, as in the colonial period, it requires restrictions on people’s rights of access to information, free speech and assembly. The path to justice is now cluttered with commercial confidentiality, enshrined in the Competition Act, coupled with state secrecy, with the apartheid era key points repackaged as the Critical Infrastructure Act. The infrastructure in question is mostly the infrastructure of extraction.
In understanding what is possible, what can be done, we look to the landmark case where communities stood firm on their right to say ‘no’. On 22 November 2018, following a long struggle to protect their ancestral land from mining, the Amadiba community won a court ruling that government may not issue a mining license on their land in Xolobeni, on the Eastern Cape coast, without their consent.
Issuing directives, gazetting regulations and granting authorisations while excluding those whom the system makes vulnerable is a disease of a political past that is spreading through the cracks of a negligent and reckless official leadership. Washing, sanitizing and band-aiding will not heal a suffering nation. But developing more resilient communities with the power to demand inclusion in the planning and decisions that are made about their lives and the future of their children will bring us to a more equal, more connected and healthier society a society based on open democracy.
Avena Jacklin is groundWork’s Climate and Energy Justice Campaigner
Coronavirus Underlines Health Inequalities in Society - Covid-19 will hit the poor hardest amid already high levels of malnutrition, TB and HIV
By Bobby Peek
30 March 2020 - As with the climate crisis, the coronavirus marks out the connections and disconnections of our profoundly unequal society. It arrived in South Africa with middle class travellers but it will not be confined to the richer classes. Around 60% of South Africans are poor, according to official statistics, and they carry a very high burden of disease starting with malnutrition, HIV and TB. People’s health is also compromised by high levels of pollution in the environmental sacrifice zones where our electricity is generated, our fuel is refined and minerals are mined and smelted. And while the richer minority have access to high quality health care, poor people do not. They rely on a public health system that is weakest where the need is greatest. Ironically, more government money goes into the private health system that serves the minority than into the public health system that has been subject to austerity budgeting for over two decades.
The coronavirus has disrupted profoundly interconnected and fragile global systems. However, this gives us an opportunity to make our world more equitable and to test our just transition to a society with decent jobs for all, universal healthcare, and energy systems that benefit people and the biosphere.
We have to change systems that place profit over health and wellbeing. We have to recognize and address the political, social and economic factors that govern how health or illnesses moves through our communities. For example, many people living in informal settlements have no access to running water, making frequent hand washing very difficult, and crowded living conditions make social distancing almost impossible.
In 2007, the groundWork Report warned that economic depression provided the best hope for a credible reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. It observed that this was the ultimate expression of unsustainable development accompanied by environmental injustice. This was borne out in the 2008 financial crisis and is again proven with the economic impacts of the coronavirus. Without profound change in the ruling economic system, the costs will be passed to the poor.
We should not be afraid in this time. Most of what to do immediately about coronavirus is already known: wash your hands; don't touch your face so often; stay home. While individual action is important, it will not stop an epidemic. Only collective action will. Organize locally to care for each other and prioritize reaching and supporting the most vulnerable communities.
Additionally groundWork has taken the following decisions to help slow down the pandemic.
Effective from Thursday, the country has been on lock down. But will this mean all domestic workers and casual workers get paid; how do we support staff with logistics and additional costs, to build a new work routine, and keep a sense of community during this time; how do we look after our children at home and how does life continue meaningfully.
We understand that we are a privileged NGO and many of our community partners do not have the ability to take the needed drastic action that we can and that is now asked of them. While our meetings with partners have all been called off, and we are urging our partners not to hold any local community gatherings that were planned we realise it is important for people to organise at the neighbourhood level to ensure that everyone is informed of the crisis and what they need to do and to organise mutual support. As NGOs we need to figure out how to support community organising as appropriate – way beyond this 3 week lockdown.
In this time of crisis we must be vigilant and find ways of ensuring that democratic practice is strengthened rather than weakened. One of the practical ways of doing this is for government and corporates to roll-out, as a matter of urgency free wi-fi and data across townships so that people stay in contact and build democratic practice in new forms. Corporates must drop data charges. Government must not use this time to push through projects that people have questioned and are not just. Developments that require public meetings and consultations must honour these processes, and government and corporates must not use this crisis to deny democratic participation.
We urge government to immediately deal with the mass transport system as a matter of utmost urgency and take action to ensure that people who have no choice to use this system are supported and that the taxi industry itself is supported to ensure safety of their passengers.
We are very mindful of the escalation of the Coronavirus (or COVID-19) pandemic. We need to take extraordinary measures in order to protect our staff and families, especially in consideration that our public transport and fragile healthcare system put our vulnerable communities in particular at risk. We are working closely with our healthcare partners though our GGHH campaign to make their systems more robust and to meet the most pressing of our environmental health challenges.
We wish you all strength through this challenging time.
Bobby Peek is groundWork Director
This opinion piece also appeared as an article in The Mercury, Cape Times, and Pretoria News. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.
Mining’s Toxic Legacy for the People of Dannhauser - Profits extracted leaving behind poverty and polluted land and water
By Nkanyiso Mthombeni and Robby Mokgalaka
16 March 2020 - A very sensitive matter that has surfaced in Dannhauser KwaZulu-Natal which is a small coal mining town in northern part of the province. The town has suffered close to a century of coal mining and has had several issues of environmental injustice cases that have haunted the people and the communities at large way back from the apartheid past to our democratic present. Mining has brought sadness and poverty to the people of the area.
Like apartheid forceful relocations and grave extraction without proper rituals and compensation to the families concerned is the practice of the past and of present. Abandoned and unrehabilitated mines are scattered around our lands. The coal and corporate profit has been extracted and the people are left with polluted lands, water and poverty.
One such mine is the Durnacol Mine that closed 24 years ago but the community remains with the discarded heap of mine waste and that blows across people neighbourhoods and pollutes the are that people rely on for life.
The state of the Durnacol community has been low-balled - abandoned - by the Amajuba District and Dannhauser Municipality and nothing has been done in challenging Department of Mineral and Resources and Energy to come on board and do something about the hazardous state of the abandoned mine.
As we fight the expansion of mining activity in our communities, we urge people to see the extraction sector as an enemy. We have seen recent mining rights proposals increasing in the very same region that has been struck by this mining catastrophe in the past and present.
Peoples’ health is compromised on many levels. Of great concern is government’s community health care hospital built in Dannhauser, just 2km from the Durnacol abandoned mine. The Department of Health should provide hospitals that make people well, and not ill. It should be a place of healing not illness. This government facility which started its operation in 2015, is now posing a huge threat to its workers and the community that it’s delivering services to. I've been approached by the workers who are seeing fatal cracks on the walls of this building widening day by day and they now fear for their safety. The sad part is that this infrastructure is only 5 years in existence and had cost R90 million to build, on a shaky ground that was previously heavily mined. The facility is now a threat to the community and employees of the Department of Health. The reason the building is in this state is because this was an old mining site, and the walls are cracking as the land subsides after mining. The Durnacol shaft number 2 was right where the hospital is now built.
Sadly, some members of the community are not aware nor suspicious as this matter has been treated with utmost secrecy – the public has no information or report on the situation. There is a clear lack of democracy and closure of public spaces to get this information. We need an open democracy that allows informed questioning of the decision-makers and policy-makers who continue to grant mining rights in the area and around this region. The authorities completely fail to acknowledge the sad reality which mining exposes society to which is poor health, polluted lands etc. Thus people are challenging what is happening and workers are also joining in supporting these challenges. The call for no mining in our communities is becoming a broad call.
This case is a textbook symbol of environmental injustice and deadly costs that results from mining activity. These experiences also increases the sensitivity of the community to resist such 'development', bearing in mind the aftermath.
I've been fortunate to be referred to the system manager of the hospital about the state of this building – he is fully aware of it. The Department of Health is also downplaying this issue, the hospital being built on a mining area and the fact that this puts people’s lives at huge and unnecessary risk. I hope that the struggle to improve the hospital is related to our struggle of challenging the ongoing mining of coal in the area. The links must be considered and understood in the context of our demand to campaign to keep the coal on the ground.
It is evidently clear that the government prioritizes mining companies and their activities at expense of the wellness and safety of people. The destruction of the environment by mining and impact on the lives of people have long been brought to the attention of the government, but always fell on deaf ears.
Back in 2015, various national Portfolio Committee representatives were invited by groundWork to visit the Highveld to witness for themselves coal-affected communities in the area and hear from community people from around the country about the coal mining impacts on their lives. Only few Portfolio Committee members turned up and very little has been done to date.
In 2017, groundWork again assisted the coal-affected communities to visit the national parliament to convey the same message to the various Portfolio Committees, hoping that the attendance from the Committees would improve, there was still less attendance and from those whom we engaged with, yet there was less action.
In 2018 Newcastle, groundWork also assisted the affected communities by developing memorandums to hand over to Mr. Gwede Mantashe (Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy) in both the KZN Mining Indaba and Mining Charter consultation event, calling upon the Minister to take action against the Ikwezi coal mine that has forcefully relocated people and dug out their graves without proper consultation, the minister failed to respond to the memorandums and the mine is still operating and nothing has been resolved. The government don’t care about the people when it comes to mining, it only cares about mining in the pretext of profit making under the guise of development. If it is development, why are people left to suffer at the expense of this development? Who is this development for?
We need a development plan for South Africa, not an extractives plan.
Nkanyiso Mthombeni is a community activist from NEJA (Newcastle Environmental Justice Alliance) in Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal and Robby Mokgalaka is groundWork’s Coal Campiagner
This opinion piece appeared in the The Mercury, Cape Times, and Pretoria News, and can be viewed in newsprint format here. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.
Africa Under Threat from Plastic Dumping
By Bobby Peek
03 February 2020 - WHEN China took action to protect its borders from foreign plastic pollution by effectively shutting its doors to plastic waste imports in 2018, it threw the global plastic recycling industry into chaos.
In 2017, according to the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, South Africa was exporting about 315 000 tons of plastics waste. Until then wealthy countries had become accustomed to exporting plastic waste problems, with little thought or effort to make sure the plastic went towards being recycled responsibly and did not end up harming people or the environment in less developed countries.
In particular, North Americans and Europeans exported not just their plastic waste, but the pollution that goes with getting rid of it. However, the plastic waste, once exported, did not just "go away" inevitably mismanaged in poorer countries, it ended up clogging public infrastructure, causing public health problems and most visibly circulating globally in our oceans.
A recent report by a global zero waste alliance called GAIA found the impact of plastic waste exports to Asian countries alarming. Global South countries simply don't have the policies, capacity or infrastructure to safely manage their own waste, let alone the deluge of plastic and hazardous waste that the Global North has thrown at them.
With more Asian countries closing their doors to dumping of plastic waste, Africa is now in a position of threat. Recently Senegal has been receiving waste from the US, and more recently Liberia had received waste from Greece. This leaves us in a difficult situation. Undoubtedly, any plastic waste dumped into African countries will to begin with being burnt as a means of treatment and disposal, or designated as a secondary fuel source for industries such as cement plants, never designed for such a purpose.
Open burning of waste is common in Africa and is among the least desirable waste management practices globally because of danger ous potential health impacts. Similarly, burning waste in cement kilns releases a harmful class of chemicals called dioxins and furans. They last a long time in the environment and stay in the food chain. One of the major sources is the open burning of municipal waste. These chemicals are also known for their reproductive and endocrine disruption properties.
There are global waste treaties that seek to address the global trade in hazardous waste. In 1989, the Basel Convention was agreed in Switzerland as a global response to unrestricted global toxic waste. However, the original treaty did not ban the trans boundary movement of hazardous waste but instead required prior informed consent.
To address this gap, the second meeting of the parties adopted the Ban Amendment, to prevent member states of the Organisation for Economic Co operation and Development OECD, the EU, and Liechtenstein exporting hazardous wastes as defined by the Convention to less developed countries. It came into effect last year.
Similarly, the Bamako Convention is an African Regional treaty in 1998 prohibiting the import into Africa of any hazardous including radioactive waste. The reason African nations entered into this agreement was because of continued toxic waste exports to Africa from developed countries most notably the Probo Koala case in Ivory Coast.This is because of the failure of the Basel Convention to prohibit trade of hazardous waste to less developed countries. History taught us that global waste treaties cannot alone protect us: neither the Basel convention nor the Bamako Convention were or are sufficient to protect our global commons from plastics and toxic waste mismanagement.
Bobby Peek is groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA Director
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