Mining is destroying crucial Eswatini nature reserve

The mine has the king’s blessing but no environmental authorisation

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Mining of green chert can be seen bottom right in this photo taken at the head of Mgwayiza Valley, an important ecological and archaeological part of Malolotja Nature Reserve. Photo: Anthony Borrel

  • For over a year mining company Michael Lee Enterprises has been operating in the ecologically sensitive Malolotja Nature Reserve in Eswatini.
  • In February the king gave the company his blessing and congratulated it on getting a 25-year mining licence, although it has obtained no authorisation from the environmental authority.
  • The company claims it has only been “prospecting”, but it has no environmental compliance certificate for this either.
  • Meanwhile the company continues to mine in the reserve and export thousands of tonnes of green chert.

The sound of hydraulic rock breakers at work, hacking great chunks from the face of some of the oldest mountains in the world, can be heard echoing down the Mgwayiza Valley in Eswatini.

For over a year now, Michael Lee Enterprises (registered in Eswatini), a company with the same name as its Taiwanese owner, has been mining green chert from outcrops within Malolotja Nature Reserve.

The cryptocrystalline quartz is sent to a sorting site above the Nkomazi River, loaded into shipping containers and trucked to a railway dry port in Matsapha, the kingdom’s primary industrial town. According to the truck drivers, the green chert is then railed to Maputo in Mozambique, where it is exported.

“I take two to three full loads of green stone a day to the Matsapha railways,” a driver told GroundUp.

His truck had broken down on the highway. Its burnt out brake discs were steaming. “Normally my truck should hold 25 tonnes, but today they have loaded me with 37. This is dangerous for the truck, and for me.”

According to the drivers and also loading workers, there are four to eight collections with 40-foot shipping containers daily.

People living nearby, environmentalists and some tourism industry players are asking how mining was allowed at all in Malolotja, a protected nature reserve.

Mining with rock breaking photographed on 22 May 2024, despite an environmental compliance certificate never having been issued. Photo: Anthony Borrel

Valuable ecological site

Covering about 18,000 hectares of mountainous wilderness bordering Mpumalanga, the reserve has been managed by the Eswatini National Trust Commission (ENTC) since 1979, and it attracts thousands of local and international visitors annually.

It is also a peace park, part of the Songimvelo-Malolotja and Greater Lubombo transfrontier conservation areas, and part of the Strengthening the National Protected Areas System project, conducted from 2014 to 2020.

The mining is taking place in the depths of the Makhonjwa Mountains, part of the Barberton Greenstone Belt and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site of Outstanding Universal Value in neighbouring South Africa. At around 3.5-billion years old, these are the oldest mountains on the planet. They offer insights into the formation of Earth’s crust, the growth of continents, and the evolution of early life.

Mgwayiza Valley is one of the most ecologically, archaeologically and geologically diverse parts of Malolotja and has been an important site of study for researchers for many decades.

Located in the Barberton Centre of Endemism and the Limpopo-Mpumalanga-Eswatini-Escarpment, Malolotja is globally important for species diversity, supported by over 60 years of research.

Regionally important species include trees, cycads, birds, and butterflies. It is also a unique habitat for amphibians, including rare species such as the Ghost Frog and the Plaintive Rain Frog. New species were discovered as recently as 2021.

Over 30% of South Africa’s endemic bird species have been recorded in the reserve. Ornithologist Dave Allan noted in 1991 that Malolotja hosts more southern African endemic birds than the Kruger National Park.

All of this is being put at risk.

Michael Lee Enterprises is already extracting vast quantities of rock at the head of the valley and plans to mine an additional 400 hectares, with irreversible damage to the ecological integrity of Mgwayiza Valley and the greater northern Malolotja area.

Tonnes of green chert are loaded onto tipper trucks and taken for export. Photo: Anthony Borrel

“Prospecting”

In the Initial Environmental Evaluation and Comprehensive Mitigation Plan from February 2023, available for public review at the Eswatini Environmental Authority, the mining company failed to mention the unique environmental significance of the site. The documents, based solely on secondary research, foregoing any professional fieldwork, understate the impacts, risks and hazards associated with mining in the proposed area.

Other inconsistencies in these initial project documents that were noted by the authorities in a critical and sceptical response letter to the company, include a stated intention of mining coal (not green chert), a lack of baseline data and insufficient research and preparation.

There are also numerous unfounded assertions, such as a claim that there is no archaeological or heritage significance in the proposed area. This is not true.

A 2021 survey mission by the Swazi Archaeological Research Association revealed evidence of human presence spanning from the Middle Stone Age to the Iron Age. Discoveries included pottery, numerous stone circles, extensive terracing for crop cultivation, and thousands of stone artefacts, indicating continuous human habitation over millennia in the valley.

Yet the mining and minerals board granted Michael Lee Enterprises a 12-month prospecting licence in September 2022.

In February 2023, operations began.

In February this year, the company was granted a 25-year mining licence. This followed a visit by the king to the site on 22 February 2024.

A 16km stretch of gravel road leading to the mine through pristine Afromontane landscape was widened for the official motorcade, according to workers.

At an official ceremony in Mbabane, Michael Lee thanked the king for the licence. Chairperson of the mining board, Guduza Dlamini, the king’s brother, congratulated them on obtaining it. High-level representatives from the Embassy of Taiwan were also present, as was the South African High Commissioner to Eswatini.

Green chert collection on the mining site in the Mgwayiza Valley. Photo supplied

Significant changes in the law

Attempts to mine within Malolotja are not new. Michael Lee Enterprises was granted a licence to prospect for green chert in 1998, under the then Mining Act of 1958. The national trust commission protested through numerous channels. After a public outcry and a royal site-visit, the licence was withdrawn and the project halted.

Since then laws have been changed with a new Mines & Minerals Act passed in 2011.

“Sections in the Mines and Minerals Act of 2011 were carefully crafted to undermine or supersede the Swaziland National Trust Commission Act of 1972,” a government official told GroundUp on the sidelines at a public scoping meeting in Piggs Peak on 27 April 2024.

“The fact that minerals occur in a protected area is no longer a guarantee that they will not be mined for profit by private interests, with support from the authority mandated with oversight,” he said.

The 1972 Act gave the Eswatini National Trust Commission wide-ranging powers, and specifically provided a stipulation against mining in protected areas. Section 20 prohibited the digging or excavation of “any hole, pit or trench or otherwise interfere with the natural configuration of the land in a park or reserve, or alter the natural flow of water in a park or reserve”.

The 2011 act overturns this provision. Section 22 now entrusts the mining board with powers to grant prospecting and mining rights within national parks “after consultation with the authority or body regulating national trusts”.

Asked whether he was aware if any such consultations took place, the official said, “The king summoned the CEOs of the minerals board and the commission and told them to find a way to work together.”

It would appear the king’s blessing and the granting of a 25-year licence has sealed the deal. However, a project brief itself states that the 25-year right will commence “on the day Michael Lee Enterprises receives an Environmental Authorization from the Eswatini Environmental Authority”.

No such authorisation has been given.

There is only a memorandum of understanding that Michael Lee Enterprises entered into with the National Trust Commission. It granted the miners access for a period of one year, from 1 March 2023 to 28 February 2024.

But as of May 2024 mining continues.

A lawyer involved in previous battles within Malolotja told GroundUp, “In the absence of proper scrutiny of the manner in which the Mining Board and the Eswatini National Trust Commission exercised their public functions and duties, it seems that the burden will fall on the environmental authority to halt the project or to impose conditions that substantially protect the endangered environment.”

He said the Mining Act does require that Michael Lee Enterprises obtain an Environmental Compliance Certificate before any mining operations may commence.

He said he would expect the environmental authority to draw “extremely adverse conclusions”, since Michael Lee Enterprises had been operating in a proclaimed nature reserve without an Environmental Compliance Certificate, and that its “so-called prospecting involved blasting, degradation of a large area, construction of a wide road and the extraction of a large quantity of minerals contrary to the provisions of the prospecting licence itself”.

The Eswatini Environmental Authority, under section 11 of the Environmental Assessment Regulations of 2022, could simply decline any application for an initial environmental evaluation if it deems the area to be so environmentally sensitive that no development should be allowed.

Consultants display a map with the proposed mining area at a public scoping meeting at Piggs Peak on 27 April 2024. Photo supplied

Environmental authority

A letter dated 2 February 2023 addressed to the mine’s operations manager Mfanufikile Mashinini by environmental authority CEO Isaac Dladla raised 27 concerns: 21 on substantial issues, the rest on the poor quality of the submitted documents.

Dladla states that Malolotja is an environmentally sensitive area, no mining is allowed in a protected area, and there was no indication why this mining activity was special enough to justify it.

But operations began anyway.

Asked why, Dladla told GroundUp last month that the full environmental and social impact assessment and comprehensive mitigation plan were still awaited. He said he was not in a position to respond to us “as we are still to adjudicate on the process and eventually make a determination on the future of the project”.

Geo Solutions, the environmental consultants hired by Michael Lee Enterprises for the project, are responsible for assessing the environmental and social impacts of what they say is only a forthcoming project. In a nine-page project brief, the consultants praised the project’s job-creation potential and concluded that it “demonstrates a commitment to responsible resource extraction.”

At the April scoping meeting in Piggs Peak, where a DJ played crowd-warming amapiano songs between submissions, Futhi Dlamini of Geo Solutions announced that an environmental impact assessment would now commence. While the public awaits a draft report for review, operations would stop and only resume once the environmental authority issued an authorisation letter.

But operations have continued. And an employee at the Nkomazi sorting site said that work has almost doubled since the scoping meeting.

When GroundUp visited on 30 April and 6 and 22 May, tipper trucks were carrying stone to Nkomazi. From there it was trucked in shipping containers to Matsapha railway station.

At the Piggs Peak scoping meeting, people laughed when Mashinini said that all they had done so far was prospecting.

But people became excited when the company announced it will build a megacity, a hospital and a series of factories that will employ over 3,500 people.

In his February 2023 letter, Dladla said with 5,000 tonnes of stone wanted for prospecting, “the project could be viewed as full-scale mining”. He “advised” the miners to either review the quantities or justify them.

A brief response, contained in the Initial Environmental Evaluation and Comprehensive Mitigation Plan reports, was that the company would instead extract only 3,000 tonnes.

Based on the extent of operations it is plausible that multiples of 5,000 tonnes have been extracted.

Mashinini did not respond to GroundUp’s questions on the quantity of, and justifications for, the extracted stone – and why the company continues to export what it is extracting.

Mining activity in the indigenous forest at the head of the Mgwayiza valley. Photo: Anthony Borrel.

TOPICS:  Environment Mining

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