By Jeffrey Fhumulani Majuta Executive Director at Pepper Bark Environmental and Development

 The Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ) has been anticipated since the early 2000’s, when the local council announced plans to develop Musina from a village into a city. Welcomed by many, the special economic zone (SEZ) was seen as a chance for makholwa (emigrants) – the region’s many graduates who were forced to find work in other provinces – to come back home, so that their skills and talent could benefit their own communities.

When it was finally stamped in December 2017 – by then-Minister of Trade and Industry Dr Rob Davies – more joy, hope, and expectations filled the hearts of the people of Musina. But, as the project flaws started to show, these hopes and expectations diminish daily. People are particularly opposed to this huge, anti-environmental metallurgical giant project because the affected section of the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve is home to diverse fauna and flora, which can only be found in the Baobab Belt. This area also holds huge cultural significance for the local Venda people.

Consultation, neither meaningful nor inclusive

Local communities are dissatisfied with the consultation processes, which thus far have not only been inadequate but also biased, especially since it soon became clear that the purpose of the south-site of the MMSEZ aims to satisfy Sino-markets, not local ones.

This land has become a particularly contentious issue.

Transparency and information

There is no transparency from the MMSEZ and its partners. Most events are held privately; there are no invitations. We only hear via the community grapevine that there was an event. Employment promises are just as sketchy, with Limpopo Economic Development Agency (LEDA) and the Environmental Assessment Practitioner (EAP) each promising vastly different job figures ranging from 21 000 to 100 000. Due to the lack of transparency, our young people fear that they will only benefit from unskilled labour opportunities and that Chinese companies will import labour, as the project unfolds.

Looming problems

lot will change if the MMSEZ project goes ahead. The region is already water scarce, with supply systems prioritising the industrial sector and suburbia, while townships spend days without water. What impact will adding water-intensive mining operations have on a region where the local and district authorities are already battling with water issues? Communities do not have enough information about the plans regarding water.

Weather patterns are already drastically changing and, regardless of rains, farmers claim their boreholes are drying up. With all this in mind, it is implausible to believe that the proposed Musina Dam will also cater for the poor communities, when considering all the other activities that need water. Where does the MMSEZ plan to source its water?

Threatened biodiversity

The delicate Vhembe Biosphere reserve will suffer most, due to the changes to the environment. The MMSEZ will negatively affect the entire food pyramid and chain. Already, in areas next to the town, mopane worm reproduction has decreased to almost zero. The ecosystem will be affected by deforestation during land clearance and residue emissions during production, and habitats will be destroyed, with disruptions to nature’s food banks and life cycles. The buried mopane worm pupae may not hatch, and the baobab pollinators might relocate, just like the ravens that moved away, by more than 3km. Rare species will become extinct, and the entire heritage resource system will forever be changed. Since the MMSEZ development will likely occupy more than 3862 hectares of land, what will be the impact of clearing away the indigenous vegetation – including Mopane, Baobab and Marula trees – for this project?

The region’s sacred sites are also threatened, and ancestral places of worship may start to lose its spiritual value. There is no way to quantify this loss of (spiritual) connection between past, present and future generations, which depend on certain rituals. Plagues might strike the communities. Misfortunes may come. Like most African people, Venda people believe that harm to their sacred sites, through development, will bring turmoil and instability in different ways including drought, cattle or human beings going missing, and many more different, bad things.

Resistance and resilience

This is why local communities continue to resist the MMSEZ. They are dissatisfied with both the concept of the metallurgical project and its processes. Communities have raised objections during the EIA processes, and then lodged an appeal after the project got the green light by Limpopo Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (LEDET). It was when LEDET rejected appeal that the environmental community began to prepare for a legal fight against the MMSEZ. A key issue is the obvious conflict of interest; LEDET is both the applicant for the project and the authority responsible for its environmental authorisation.

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Jeffrey Fhumulani Majuta is Executive Director Pepper Bark Environmental and Development – focused on a better, cleaner environment for all. He is also a member of Earthlife Africa’s Grassroots for Climate Action and the Digital Storytelling Champions groups.