A Square Kilometre Array Meerkat antenna is transported to the international project site in the Karoo desert. Picture: SKA SA
A Square Kilometre Array Meerkat antenna is transported to the international project site in the Karoo desert. Picture: SKA SA

THE Square Kilometre Array (SKA) SA project’s plans to buy 118,000ha of Karoo sheep farmers’ land to protect the radio telescope from interference is finally making headway after a bumpy start at the beginning of 2016.

Farmers who were unwilling to even allow the project’s appraiser access to their land to assess the value of their properties have now allowed the process to get under way. "All 36 farms have now been done. The valuator was on each and every farm, and each was (appraised) individually.

"We are very happy," said Alice Pienaar-Marais, the SKA SA land-acquisition programme manager.

One of the initial sticking points was the fact that some farmers wanted to negotiate as a group. However, the nature of the valuation process, which involves assessing the market value of the land, improvements to the property and quantifiable losses to the business such as relocation costs meant the SKA project had to negotiate with individual land owners, she told Business Day.

The SKA is an international science project located in SA and Australia, and will be the world’s most powerful radio telescope once completed. After the design of the first phase of the telescope was completed last year, scientists mapped out the size and shape of the land required to protect it from radio frequency interference.

About 131,500ha of land surrounding the telescope’s 176-dish core, which lies 80km from Carnarvon, needs to be free from radio frequency interference.

In 2008, the project acquired 13,500ha of this land with the purchase of Losberg and Meys Dam farms.

The area currently being negotiated by the project to protect the core consists of 36 parcels of land held by 22 individuals.

Pienaar-Marais said offers had been accepted for two farms; negotiations were under way for five; and four farms no longer needed to be bought by the SKA, because their owners barely used the land, and had committed to ensuring there were no activities on their property that would interfere with the telescope. "By negotiating and working together with individual farmers, it actually turned out quite well."

The appraiser was compiling final valuations for the other 25 farms, and negotiations would then get under way with owners, Pienaar-Marais said.

The SKA SA project has consistently declined to indicate how much it is prepared to pay for the land it acquires, saying only that the price is based on the value of the land, improvements to the property such as dams or fences, and quantifiable losses.

The SKA SA project will also have to pay compensation to landowners who need to grant access rights to small parcels of land, or servitudes, that will hold 21 dishes in three 90km arms spiralling out from the telescope’s core.

In addition to the dishes, the servitudes will also house roads, power lines and base stations. The SKA SA project published a map in October 2015 with corridors of land around the spiral arms that affected 130 farms. It had refined its estimates of the affected land, narrowing the corridors to such an extent that now only 71 farms were affected, Pienaar-Marais said.

Running parallel with the land-acquisition process, construction of the radio telescope is gathering pace. Last week, the team announced that it had detected 50 previously unseen radio galaxies with just four of the dishes that have been constructed as part of the 64-dish MeerKAT array, which will be integrated into the much more powerful SKA.

"This image covers less than 0.01% of the entire celestial sphere," said SKA SA chief scientist Fernando Camilo. Imagine the possibilities with the full 64-dish MeerKAT, said the scientist.