SUNDAY TIMES - Fertiliser quest puts fossil 'gold mine' at risk
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Sunday Times News By BOBBY JORDAN, 2017-03-05 00:00:00.0

Fertiliser quest puts fossil 'gold mine' at risk

Visitors to the West Coast Fossil Park examine a ’fossil bed’ at the bottom of an excavation pit.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER

It's modern man versus early man on the West Coast, where a mine backed by billionaire Patrice Motsepe prepares to dig into one of the world's oldest fossil graveyards.

Elandsfontein farm, about 150km north of Cape Town, made world headlines in 1954 with the discovery of a 500,000-year-old hominid skull now known simply as Saldanha Man - a human ancestor who roamed our shores with stone-tipped spears.

Fast-forward half a million years and Elandsfontein Exploration and Mining (EEM) has acquired a mining right to sift through a large patch of soil, not for fossils but for phosphates for fertiliser.

The mine says jobs and income are the way of the future, but managers of a nearby fossil park fret about its impact on the past - on rich fossil deposits embedded in the phosphates.

West Coast Fossil Park Trust chairman Dave Mitchell said this week were fears EEM would further erode the area's protected status - a concern based partly on consultation with mining stakeholders.

Mitchell is particularly concerned about potential mining "borrow pits" overflowing onto park land. He feared EEM would further erode the area's protected status, a concern based partly on consultation with mining stakeholders.

"We are happy and willing to work with anybody ... who plays honourable and honest open cards with the heritage authorities, in order to follow good heritage conservation practices," he said.

The mine is in a buffer zone of the West Coast National Park and only a kilometre from the fossil park, which recently landed Lotto funding of R67-million for upgrades. The main phosphate deposit stretches into the park.

But EEM insists its intentions are not to obliterate human history for the sake of a quick buck. It points to a detailed heritage management plan for its 500ha.

The main fossil beds on the mine property have been excluded from the mining area, and the heritage plan has the approval of watchdog body Heritage Western Cape.

"Elandsfontein has appointed full-time archaeology and heritage specialists who are monitoring the work conducted on site," said EEM technical director Michelle Lawrence.

Ironically, the area's fossil "gold mine" was discovered thanks to an earlier mining project, and some scientists believe further mining could be a short cut to further discoveries.

Elandsfontein also holds a potential fossil treasure trove of prehistoric animals such as a sabre-toothed cat, and a horse-type giraffe.

The mining licence is the subject of a legal review amid concerns raised by environmental groups, among them the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER). There are also fears of political interference after the SA National Parks board last month unexpectedly withdrew an objection to the mine's water-use licence application.

According to EEM, mining can benefit hundreds of thousands of people through its Ubuntu-Botho Trust, partly owned by the Motsepe Family Trust. Image: Arnold Pronto/Business Day

SANParks, which manages the West Coast National Park, had raised concerns about the impact of mining on a huge freshwater aquifer that feeds into Langebaan lagoon.

Much of the area is on land earmarked for expansion of the park. "Is there really nothing that is off-limits?" said CER director Melissa Fourie. "We've seen this [mining] push into protected areas. What is next? Kruger Park?"

Human rights lawyer Richard Spoor said legislation gave officials wide discretion to award mining rights, which were often granted despite valid concerns about environmental damage.

"There is an unquestioning assumption that mining, and jobs and investment that come with it, are what we need, and so you find this ideological blindness that informs their thinking and attitude," Spoor said.

According to EEM, mining can benefit hundreds of thousands of people through its Ubuntu-Botho Trust, partly owned by the Motsepe Family Trust.

West Coast Fossil Park director Pippa Haarhoff said the short-term benefit of mining needed to be weighed against the long-term enrichment of scientific knowledge.

"The value of fossils is underestimated because they are generally regarded as dusty old bones. But their value lies in what they have to teach us - and we don't yet know how many major discoveries are still lying out there," she said.    

Fourie believes a condition of the water-use licence should be improved public consultation. "Given the enormous potential ramifications of this proposed mine, and the likelihood of the water-use licence being challenged in the Water Tribunal, it really does seem short-sighted ... to grant this licence without making 100% sure that a proper process has been followed."

jordanb@sundaytimes.co.za