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South Africa

World Heritage Site Under Threat - Mapungubwe National Park World Heritage Site - South Africa

John Davison, South Africa  May 18, 2009

The achievement is significant by any nation in raising its conservation areas or heritage sites to World Heritage Status. The process involves a considerable amount of effort and often investment to achieve the status. World Heritage status also puts that country onto many international platforms and data bases that promote the country significantly. Several exisitng World Heritage sites in South Africa and elsewhere, extend across state borders and are of transfrontier significance involving several governments often "softening" former "hard" colonial borders and even re-uniting cross border peoples sharing tribal identities, even common ancestry or historical affinities who have been denied access to or discouraged from visiting heritage sites for hundreds of years.

However, the more significant effort only commences once the World Heritage status is granted as then follows the critical need to manage the declared sites and areas in terms of long term perpetuation of the core, key elements that justify the World Heritage Site status. Protection of those core elements in perpetuity often will require decision makers to significantly down play short term economic issues and even to not allow economic benefits to destroy the core elements of a World Heritage Site's reason for existence! A duty only a few politicians succeed at understanding!

One of South Africa's World Heritage Sites is under threat of loosing the key elements that led to the granting of the status!

Permit application procedures are now underway at National Government level for the development of coal mining by Coal of Africa Limited (CoAL), a company with Australian connections as well as local South African partners. The mining is set to take place at CoAL's Vele colliery site where it wishes to move rapidly to develop a large scale strip and underground coal mining project, the Vele Colliery Coking Coal Project, situated virtually at the entrance to Mapungubwe National Park World Heritage Site. Mining could start soon to the east of the Park within seven kilometers of the significant archeological sites within the park. The project seems destined as well, to be linked with the establishment of a fossil fuel burning power station.

The South African National Parks authority (SAN Parks) has declared its concerns and is opposed to the development being granted a mining permit.However, recent national government actions in connection with mining permit applications, at times granted premature to required environmental impact procedures ( premature granting then withdrawal of mining permits for example mining plans for the Pondoland region), give conservationists and tourism players little confidence that due concern for the Mapungubwe World Heritage site's status, ambiance and wildlife of the Park will be given due weight in the EIA process for this mining application. Recent Cabinet portfolio changes after the 2009 South African elections have created further concern that politicians with pre-conceived ideas and maybe even vested interests may now play a critical role in the adjudication process of the merits of the granting of the Vele Colliery mining permit - a process that because of economic problems is likely to be skewed in favour of job creation to the detriment of long term heritage, environmental or tourism considerations!

SanParks spokesperson Wanda Mkhutshulwa is quoted in a recent report dated 21 April, 2009 carried on web site as saying SAN Parks has raised its concerns and is actively engaged in discussions with the State Department dealing with the mining application.

Mapungubwe was the site of the core settlement of indigenous people whose rulers lived on and near to a hill feature in the park from where a significant trading empire stretched out over much of southern and central Africa as long ago as 1200AD. Fine gold workings as well as trade in ivory with far flung nations have left South Africa today with a priceless heritage of great mystical appeal to thousands of local visitors who flock to Mapungubwe annually. The disturbance of the Mapungubwe aesthetics and potential environmental effects on water quality are but a few of the concerns that are being expressed about the mining so close to the World Heritage site!

The growth of international tourism to Mapungubwe Park was set to be further stimulated during 2009 when a huge interpretative center is due for completion in which many of the Mapungubwe artifacts that have been housed away from the site will be on display in original or replica form. The opening of a new restaurant and curio shop at the Interpretive Center, stood to encourage more international tour groups. Open cast mining with blasting, dust as well as significant heavy ore carrying transport loads moving along the roads right at the National Park entrance are likely to significantly deter tour operators from including Mapungubwe National Park in South African and regional itineraries. Building and commissioning a new fossil fuel power station will further reduce the attractiveness for tourism once a modern human mining settlement of many thousands of residents develops that will destroy the quiet, mystical, rural aesthetic appeal that was significant in the awarding to the site of World Heritage Status.

See also for maps of proposed mining location site

World Heritage Site Under Threat - Mapungubwe National Park  World Heritage Site - South Africa

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