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Rights coalition appeals go-ahead for coal power plant on culturally, ecologically sensitive area

Centre for Environmental Rights calls on environment minister and department of forestry, fisheries & environment to intervene to protect residents’ rights

Civil rights organisations are appealing a decision to grant a planned coal-fired station in the Musina-Makhado special economic zone in Limpopo. File photo.
Civil rights organisations are appealing a decision to grant a planned coal-fired station in the Musina-Makhado special economic zone in Limpopo. File photo.
Image: Robert Tshabalala

The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) is appealing a decision by the Limpopo economic development and tourism department (Ledet) to approve the environmental authorisation for the controversial Musina-Makhado special economic zone (MMSEZ) project.

MMSEZ is an industrial metallurgical complex which will hold a coal power plant, “which is to be built in a water-scarce and culturally and ecologically sensitive area of Limpopo province”, according to a statement by the centre on Thursday.

They say the environmental impact assessment said it would house a “number of emission-intensive facilities”.

On February 23 the department approved the environmental authorisation for the project.

CER is a civil society coalition representing Earthlife Africa, Dzomo La Mupo, groundWork and the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of SA.

They are appealing the decision, calling it a “fatally flawed process due to the decisionmaker and MMSEZ SOC’s [security operations centre] conflict of interest”.

They say Enviroxcellence’s final environmental impact assessment report, submitted to the department in November, fails to resolve concerns raised in the past by civil society regarding procedural fairness, “including Ledet’s conflict of interest and lack of authority to be the decisionmaker for this project’s environmental impact assessment given Ledet's close involvement in the project”.

They say local community organisations and environmental justice groups are disputing the viability and long-term environmental impact of the proposed project.

The coalition has also called on environment minister Barbara Creecy and the department of forestry, fisheries & the environment (DFFE) to intervene to protect residents’ rights.

Rob Davies, then-minister of the department of trade & industry, promulgated the designation of the MMSEZ in February 2016. The zone has a land area of 7,262ha and is located 40km south of Musina and 50km north of Makhado.

The designation of the Musina-Makhado special economic zone area as promulgated in 2016.
The designation of the Musina-Makhado special economic zone area as promulgated in 2016.
Image: Government Gazette

The centre says the conflict of interest exists because the decisionmaker in the environmental authorisation process has a vested interest. It says the appeal authority, the MEC of Ledet, is similarly compromised since his department actively promotes and implements the MMSEZ.

“As documented on their websites, Ledet [the decisionmaker] is the holding company of the Limpopo Economic Development Agency [Leda], and MMSEZ SOC is in turn wholly owned by Leda [Leda and MMSEZ SOC are the applicants of the environmental authorisation]. Moreover, MMSEZ is a ‘flagship project’ of Ledet.”

And the national DFFE has confirmed  it is the competent authority to decide on the MMSEZ EIA.

Makoma Lekalakala, director of Earthlife Africa, said: “The fact that these entities are closely connected, if not essentially the same thing, represents a serious bias which wholly undermines the environmental authorisation process and any decisions based on it.

“As such we urge the minister of DFFE to intervene as the appropriate competent authority in this matter, to honour the requirements that an environmental authorisation be procedurally fair and free of bias and overturn the recent approval for the project.”

These sacred sites are part of our culture, our history, our livelihood and our way of being. These and many ancestral burial sites have not been identified, including any agreement related to exhuming ancestors’ graves.
Mphatheleni Makaulule, Dzomo la Mupo’s

The civil society coalition continued in its statement, saying the revised environmental assessment did not allow for effective public participation.

“In one case, community members were initially physically barred from a public participation meeting that took place on September 29 at Lekkerlag, Limpopo.

“At this meeting, armed security guards were instructed to only allow entry to those who wore T-shirts supporting the project while refusing entry to local community members, activists and landowners.”

They say this is in direct contravention of public participation process and in contravention of fair administrative decision making in terms of the constitution and the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act.

“The environmental impact assessment process was also flawed in that the process expired in May 2021 in terms of law. At that time, [environment consultants] Delta Bec, who submitted the final environmental impact assessment, stated the development is not sustainable and the land clearance should not go through without all the other industries first having obtained their environmental authorisation.”

The coalition said Delta Bec since recused themselves from the process, having also been of the view that the assessment process had expired.

“Despite the expiry, Ledet allowed the impact assessment process to continue through another environmental consultant, Enviroxcellence, who in the end recommended the land clearance despite the negative impacts.

“The environmental impact assessment still contains inadequate specialist studies, inappropriate findings, does not address the cumulative impact of the project as a whole, and lacks mitigating measures for the cumulative impacts of the project.”

The civil rights organisations say even if all procedures were followed, authorisation should still not be issued because of the project’s “negative consequences for climate change, water scarcity in the region, and the effect the project will have on cultural heritage and human health”.

Dzomo la Mupo’s Mphatheleni Makaulule said this environment contains sacred sites including forests, rivers, lakes and trees which are “irreplaceable and important to local communities’ way of life and heritage”.

“These sacred sites are part of our culture, our history, our livelihood and our way of being. These and many ancestral burial sites have not been identified, including any agreement related to exhuming ancestors’ graves.

“MMSEZ are failing to address the concerns of marginalised communities about their cultural rights to these spiritual sites, which have been affected since the apartheid era due to forced relocations. MMSEZ are violating our human rights and the MMSEZ project is resulting in community division and conflict when we try to address these issues.”

The MMESZ SOC will have 20 days to respond to the appeal, and depending on the process followed, the decisionmaker will have about 50 days to make a recommendation on the appeal.

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