Activists win against Goliath mining companies
10 February 2021 | Environment
Otjohorongo community activists and a Namibian farmer have chalked up a hard-fought victory against mining companies in the Erongo region after authorities shut down several granite and marble mining operations that had caused irreversible damage to priceless pre-historic rock art sites.
In the wake of an investigation launched into complaints by the activists and farmer more than a year ago, authorities in November last year agreed to withdraw relevant mining permits and licenses from several large scale mining sites at Otjohorongo granite hills and Farm Gross Okandjou.
A letter to the community this month confirmed that in November last year, following the findings of the investigations, “it was resolved that all environmental clearance certificates (ECCs) and mining licenses in these areas will be withdrawn”.
The decision was based partly on the discovery that not one of the companies had been issued a valid ECC, as the environmental impact assessments on which the permits were issued lacked the legally required heritage component as required by the Environmental Management Act and the National Heritage Act.
“Heritage resources were not identified, recorded, reported interpreted and their significance was not appropriately estimated,” the team found.
The letter invites community members to attend a stakeholder meeting on Saturday this week with the national heritage council, and the mines and environment ministry representatives at Otjohorongo.
The meeting will discuss the outcome of the joint report for Otjohorongo Hill and Gross Okandjou farm, as well as to map out the future exploration and mining activities and the way forward regarding the protection of the two heritage sites.
Studies found that the two areas contained 30 significant archaeological areas with over 530 rock paintings, many dating back as far as 5 000 to 30 000 years according to archaeologists.
Both sites have been designated as areas of not only national, but regional and global archaeological importance.
Site visits confirmed "cases of disturbances and possible damages to archaeological heritage landscapes. The mining impacts manifested themselves in the form of direct destruction of archaeological resources, disruption of the cultural landscape setting, as well as disturbances and damage to the ecosystem and the geological integrity on both sites."
"The sites are highly vulnerable to further disturbances and / or destruction due to their proximity to mining operations, which would in turn translate to irreversible loss of cultural heritage."
This information is contained in a letter dated earlier this month that invites the Otjohorongo community to a stakeholders meeting this coming weekend.
“A total of six proponents were identified to be responsible for the disturbances and destruction of archaeological sites,” the letter stated.
The shutdown of activities involved the withdrawal of two exclusive prospecting licences (EPLs) that had been issued for Gross Okandjou Farm.
At Otjohorongo granite hill, the authorities withdrew two mining licences (MLs) and two mining claim (MCs) were withdrawn.
The mining companies affected include Royal Uniity Mining Investment CC, Adaptabiz Investments CC and Ongeyama Mining CC, according to the letter.
The Otjohorongo community and a farmer first rung the alarm bells over the wholesale destruction of the rock paintings, between November 2019 and January 2020.
The Otjohorongo cultural heritage activists issued an urgent call for help, detailing that “significant heritage bushman paintings are under serious threat due to open mining activities undertaken in the Otjohorongo area, Erongo region, Omatjete area.”
Their public appeal alerted authorities, who launched an investigation into the matter.
Community members applauded the long-awaited move by the authorities to protect the country’s archaeological and cultural assets, and confirmed that all mining activities finally seized in November last year, one year after the community first rung the alarm bells.
A community member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cautioned however that not all activities have stopped. He said activities were still detected in January at Otjohorongo and that the mining companies claimed they were only hauling away left-over mined materials.
He added that the battle is not over, and that the community will continue to push authorities, particularly the Heritage Council, to declare the areas as official national heritage sites to protect them from any future mining activities.
‘Our ultimate goal’
ANamibian archaeologist, who declined to be named, agreed that the withdrawal of permits is “indeed progress”.
He added however that it is disappointing that the authorities did not take earlier and stricter measures, explaining that the destruction of heritage sites in Namibia is, by law, a criminal office.
“I think that only a criminal prosecution will send the message that these people need to hear.”
He praised the community members who have stood up for the ancient heritage sites, adding that the authorities should publicly thank the community for alerting them to the long-standing problem.