A court case that began this week is expected to expose the conflict within the South African government as it battles to balance the demands of mining expansion and environmental protection.
Billions of rands are at stake as the government awards huge mining licences, while it is accused by communities and environmental groups of jeopardising animal species and eco-systems.
Mpumalanga Lake District Protection Group (MLDPG) has launched a landmark bid to stop a proposed opencast coal mine in Mpumalanga. The application will be heard in the Pretoria high court this week.
"The social and environmental impact costs that come with mining are high and only become evident once the mining is over," said the group's chairman Koos Pretorius.
"We are concerned that no strategic environmental impact assessment has been conducted, and are convinced that coal mining is not the best long-term option for the area," he said.
The court case is expected to highlight conflicts between the Department of Minerals and Energy, and the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. Environmental Affairs spokesman Blessing Manale said existing legislation left the department's "hands tied" and gave its counterpart free rein "to own mining rights and regulate its own environmental impact".
"Once a prospecting licence has been granted, the mining department is allowed to handle its own environmental impact assessment without our involvement," said Manale.
Pretorius, who is a farmer, said licence applications were pending for mining or prospecting on about 80percent of land in the Mpumalanga escarpment area, raising fears that no agriculture or tourism would soon be left.
The area has coal reserves locked in close proximity to farms and ecologically sensitive areas like the lake district, with its more than 300 lakes.
According to geoscientist Terence McCarthy of the University of the Witwatersrand, many of the environmental and social costs of mining, a key job creator, have not been taken into account.
"Mining invariably affects the environment negatively. One needs to weigh up the relative benefits of mining against using the land for other purposes," he said.
Many mine areas become permanently "sterilised" and groundwater becomes contaminated, he said.
"If mining were allowed, it would mean the end of pans and lakes. They would in time simply become pools of toxic waste."
Residents say mining expansion has put a halt to eco-tourism and farming investments. - Sapa-AFP