Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

IT IS beyond dispute that climate change is catastrophic. Food price increases, threats to our health, heat, droughts, floods, ocean acidification and rising sea levels — these affect all of us.

Our government is concerned about economic development to improve the well-being and quality of life of communities. That can be done only by creating and retaining jobs, and supporting or growing incomes and the tax base.

However, the government and business constantly tamper with nature. Compromising the environment directly and indirectly causes air, water and soil pollution, wrecking many basic amenities of life. These can create health and safety hazards and threaten the welfare of all living species as well as food security. SA should contribute positively towards a balanced and planned political ecology.

That means development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Robbins Paul in 2005 argued that political ecology attempts to evaluate the interplay of environmental, political, economic and social factors, and balance these multiple biological process.

Now that the ANC endorses a "radical" approach, the government is less coercive in protecting the environment. Rather, policy making, implementation and monitoring — in the name of economic growth and job creation — is more exploitative of the environment.

If the government brushes aside the future and current effects of climate change, it will not only undermine the development it has gained so far, but could set us on a downward spiral of increasing unemployment, inequality, poverty and ill health. SA is already experiencing the effect of droughts on food prices and water supply.

Warnings have been sounded from various sectors of society in recent years about the unregulated spread of coal mining in SA, particularly in Mpumalanga, and the distressing effect this will have on agriculture and water security.

A report released by the World Wide Fund for Nature SA (WWF-SA) in November 2011 indicates rapid degrading of rivers, prospecting and mining rights issued without careful diligence and a lack of proper impact assessments. Most of the recommendations in the report were not implemented.

In October 2012, the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy released a pilot study on the effect of coal mining on agriculture, which said 46% of SA’s total high potential arable soils were found in Mpumalanga, and "at the current rate of coal mining ... approximately 12% of SA’s total high potential arable land will be transformed". A further 14% of that arable land was subject to coal prospecting applications.

The study assessed the effects of this transformation, including the loss of maize production and resulting price increases; job losses; soil degradation; water and air pollution; and health effects. It concluded that "the effects of coal mining on agriculture are immense and some effects are irreversible".

The Bench Marks Foundation released its Policy Gap 9 report on South African coal mining in August 2014. This report highlighted the awful living conditions that the communities affected by mining face and the lamentable failure of mining companies to engage with them meaningfully or positively; the devastating effect of coal mining on previously arable land; the effect of air, water and soil pollution on farming activities and human health; mining companies’ poor compliance with legal and regulatory requirements for environmental protection; the almost total lack of monitoring and enforcement by the Department of Mineral Resources; and the "extremely cavalier attitude (of the South African mining industry) towards the closure of mines and the rehabilitation of the environment".

All these reports warn about the imminent catastrophe, if steps are not taken by all relevant stakeholders to avoid this potential negative outcome of the spread of unregulated mining. In future this country might find itself faced with so many challenges that they cannot be reversed. It is one step forward and two steps backwards, creating jobs for the communities today but causing unemployment, starvation and disease for the generations to come.

Coal mining companies predictably argue that they are better job creators than agriculture and tourism. Many of the new coal mining projects are short-term and not sustainable, with life-of-mine projections of between five and 10 years. Nevertheless, if mining takes place without proper monitoring and regulation, the costs usually far outweigh the benefits and are irreversible, compromising food security and long-term jobs in farming.

Occupational health and safety issues also arise: noise; respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis and silicosis; and dust around the mine. The sector still experiences fatalities and injuries. Again, this requires tough regulations, as well as engagement among mine management, labour and the communities around the mines.

The Department of Mineral Resources should work closely with the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, the Department of Environmental Affairs, the Department of Water and Sanitation, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Department of Health, the Department of Tourism and communities at large. All these stakeholders are affected by the Department of Mineral Resources’ decisions.

Everyday that minerals are extracted in SA, the country becomes poorer. Unlike agriculture, we cannot grow or replace the minerals extracted. We are going to be left with holes everywhere, polluted soil and water and unhealthy communities without jobs and food.

The ancients saw no division between themselves and the natural world. They understood how to live in harmony with the world around them.

It is time to recover that sense of living harmoniously with the environment for our economies and our societies.

Matlala is a postgraduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand