Earthlife Africa and communities who may be negatively affected by the MMSEZ say that human and environmental rights, including the wellbeing of affected communities,  must be prioritised.

Today, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg and several of the vibrant communities in the Vhembe District celebrate a significant victory as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Compliance Unit has recommended the withdrawal from the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ). The MMSEZ – which many view as a major ecocide threat – is a metallurgical cluster, an industrial zone which would be created by destroying around 3000 hectares of near-pristine natural and sacred environment. The mega-project has been anticipated since the early 2000’s, when the local council announced plans to develop Musina from a village into a city. However, there has been opposition to these plans because this area holds huge cultural significance for the local Venda people, and the affected section of the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve is home to diverse fauna and flora, which can only be found in the Baobab Belt.

According to Earthlife Africa’s Director Makoma Lekalakala, “This is a huge win for the movement toward sustainable and inclusive development and an even bigger win for the people of the Vhembe District who, as a result of the MMSEZ, were living with the threat of possible mass destruction of their natural resources. We welcome the decision, especially because it affirms our concerns about significant procedural shortcomings in the UNDP’s handling of the MMSEZ MOU.” 

According to the independent UNDP Social and Environmental Compliance Unit (SECU) report, the UNDP Country Office (South Africa) deviated from prescribed protocols, specifically selecting an inappropriate form for the MOU, thereby bypassing essential policies. These policies related to due diligence, publicity, use of the UNDP emblem, and mitigation of reputational risks. This oversight resulted in a failure to comply with UNDP’s Policy on Due Diligence and Partnership with the private sector, as well as the associated Risk Assessment Tool, particularly in assessing high-risk projects involving coal and other minerals.

Community members of the Vhembe district in Limpopo protesting against the proposed MMSEZ development.

Lekalakala says, “This decision underscores the fundamental importance of rigorous due diligence, especially in projects with such potential high risks as is proposed by the MMSEZ. We commend the involvement of civil society organizations like Dzomo La Mupo, Mulambwane Women, Living Limpopo, Save our Limpopo Valley and Pepper Bark Environmental and Development, along with all the communities in the Vhembe District, whose voices and participation were instrumental in bringing this issue to light. Moving forward, we urge the UNDP and all others who promote projects that have the potential to harm, to prioritise transparency and adherence to policies. This will help prevent potential human rights violations and ensure sustainable development for all.”

Mphatheleni Makaulule from Dzomo La Mupo says, “Aa. The UNDP decision simply clarified that marginalised communities should be given an ear to their voices. The MOU was looking at the profits that could be made but did not consider the damage it could cause to the land and air, which our people need to live. Water, biodiversity and air quality at large is very important for our wellbeing, as well as preserving our sacred sites and ancestral graves. Initially, when the MOU was signed, they undermined the voices of communities. But now, thorough attention is required because of the huge threat the MMSEZ poses. With this development, our wellbeing will collapse in an irreplaceable way. It puts in danger many of the livelihoods that make Limpopo unique. I hope that the withdrawal of this MOU teaches everyone to give communities attention. Aa.”

Nemakhavani Mbedzi from Masisi says, “When it comes to decision making, those that will be most affected by those decisions should be part of the process and they should also be in agreement with the decisions taken. The people proposing these big projects should start using the language of the local people, so that they easily understand and be better informed about what is being proposed, so the people can be clear about processes that concern them.”

Tshihuwa Tshiwela Elisa Chairperson from Mulambwane Women’s Organization, “Aa. I feel happy about the decision made here. It is very long that we were in the struggle, fighting to get our land back. We are so grateful to Earthlife Africa and others for helping us fight to get back our ancestor’s land because we were stranded and isolated in our struggle. Our intention is to get back to our homes on our ancestor’s land. This is our birthright. But more than our right and duty to protect our heritage sites, we must also protect the rich biodiversity of that land. Development should not come at the expense of Zwifho (heritage), Mupo (Environment) or people’s health. We want to protect our “zwifho”, our sacred places. We want the graves of our ancestors to be safe and protected. All people who have plans to destroy other people’s land other people’s heritage, they must stop. Land and “mupo” are very important and for this decision, the Mulambwane people, we are giving thanks.”

Earthlife Africa and its community-based partners call upon the UNDP Country Office to swiftly act upon the SECU’s recommendations and disengage from the MOU with MMSEZ. Moreover, the environmental justice organisation urges all stakeholders to prioritise human and environmental rights, and always consider the wellbeing of affected communities, in any future developments.

The report is publicly available here:

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Watch these short films to better understand why these communities are so passionate about protecting their land and heritage: