South Africa’s northern Limpopo Province is known for its lush forests, national parks, fruit farms and heritage sites — but lately its green image has come under threat from a proposed multibillion-dollar industrial megaproject.
Made up of a cluster of 20 steel and other metalworking plants, and fueled by a coal-fired power station, supporters say that the project would create much-needed local jobs, while opponents warn that it would spell catastrophe for the climate and health.
“We are worried that if the project goes ahead, we will be wearing masks for years to come, not because of coronavirus, but because of pollution,” said Innocent Ramuhala, a secretary at the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa (MEJCON-SA) who lives in Mudimeli village, close to the proposed site.
“We have so many questions and so few answers,” Ramuhala said.
The planned Musina-Makhado Energy-Metallurgical Special Economic Zone would cover 8,000 hectares with industrial facilities including a coal washery, and plants for coking coal, ferromanganese, steel and cement.
It promises to provide nearly 54,000 jobs in a province with 22 percent unemployment, South African government data show.
However, critics say that South Africa is already the continent’s biggest emitter of planet-heating carbon due to its heavy reliance on coal for electricity, and is failing to align its energy policy with a pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
Zaid Kalla, a spokesman for the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism, which is tasked with assessing the project’s merits, said that “balancing economic, social and environmental benefits ... forms part of the ongoing review and consideration of the application.”
The Centre for Environmental Rights, a South African environmental law organization, has submitted comments opposing the project on behalf of MEJCON-SA and other groups.
“We have strong objections to the project — which entails the development of massive, unnecessary and expensive polluting infrastructure,” said Michelle Koyama, an attorney with the organization.
In Mudimeli, young boys ride past on a donkey-drawn cart.
“These boys should be in school, but instead they are driving carts for money,” said Lawrence Neluheni, 37, who had heard about the project on the radio, but said that the details remained hazy.
“Of course we want jobs ... but we also want our health — if you are rich, but you are sick, then what is the point?” the construction worker said, covered in dust from a day of building.
Economic zones like the project are typically business or industrial areas, governed by special laws, that aim to boost economic activity and employment.
The project is the largest such zone planned in South Africa, according to the environmental impact assessment published in February by Delta BEC, a South African environmental consulting firm.
The zone would be managed by the Limpopo Economic Development Agency, with capital investment estimated at 248 billion rand (US$16.7 billion), the assessment report showed.
The area was selected for its proximity to minerals and road networks, said the report, which was funded by the development agency.
The project is expected to generate about 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide over its lifetime — equal to a little more than double South Africa’s current annual emissions.
The planned zone would comprise a northern site for logistics, and a southern site for an energy and metallurgical cluster — where more than 100,000 indigenous and protected tree species are found, the assessment showed.
Chinese company Shenzhen Hoi Mor has reportedly pledged to invest US$3.8 billion in the zone, but could not be reached for comment on its role.
The zone operator permit was issued to South African Energy Metallurgical Base, a subsidiary of Shenzhen Hoi Mor, according to a government news Web site.
Shavana Mushwana, a spokesman for the zone, said that China would be a likely export partner for products and materials produced in the zone, alongside “various market destinations across the globe.”
Bordering Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, Limpopo’s UNESCO biosphere reserve and reputation for being the country’s winter breadbasket have earned it the title of Africa’s Eden.
It is also considered a hotspot for climate change, with rising temperatures and increased rainfall variability in the region already leading to more droughts and floods, said Victor Munnik, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand.
A highway that runs along the site of the proposed zone is flanked by game lodges and villages shrouded in dense, green indigenous trees.
Save Our Limpopo Valley Environment deputy chair Johan Fourie, who owns a lodge in the area, said that the group’s members, who are based in South Africa and abroad, were not “anti-development.”
“But it must be the right kind of development that benefits local communities,” he said, walking through his property where a 1,200-year-old baobab tree towers above his lodge.
Recent rains have painted the area green, but for years it has been brown and parched due to patchy rainfall, Fourie said.
The assessment for the zone — which would require 80 million cubic meters of water per year — refers to a possible water source in Zimbabwe that could meet part of this demand, while noting that Zimbabwe is at high risk of groundwater scarcity.
“This keeps me up at night,” Fourie said. “Where will we get this water from?”
Part of the planned zone would be on the ancestral land of the Mulambwane people, where graves and mopane trees are found, Ramuhala said.
“It feels like I am between a rock and fire, imagining that my village can be destroyed from the coal mine and ancestral land lost to the industrial zone,” he said, standing by the proposed site.
Hundreds of women camp in the area twice a year to collect mopane worms from the emperor moth, which they dry to eat.
Regina Mukwevho, 48, has sold high-protein mopane worms for the past decade, enabling her to build a home and support her family — but she, like many in Mudimeli, said that she had never heard of the economic zone project.
“If it bring jobs then OK, but what jobs? We are in the dark. Experts must explain it to us and they must make sure our groundwater will be safe,” she said.
Recently, the development agency temporarily put the project on hold, saying that the environmental impact assessment was not complete, partly due to poor community consultation, a lack of clarity on water and energy supplies, and the fact that the assessment did not recommend a final decision on the zone.
Mushwana said that public participation would continue to be solicited through the end of this month, while Kalla said that it was up to the development agency to decide whether a new project site should be considered.
“It feels like good news for now, but it is not yet a victory” Ramuhala said. “We still need clarity on all the rumors, and we will keep fighting until our voices are heard.”
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