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Element Africa: Keeping platinum in the ground, and minors out of mines

Laborers at a cobalt mine.

Laborers at a cobalt mine in the DRC. Image by Afrewatch / IIED via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • South Africa’s minister of mines has approved a platinum mine in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve despite objections from a farming community of 500 whose homes sit atop the deposits.
  • The end of a government-funded program to incentivize parents in the Democratic Republic of Congo to keep their children in school has seen more than 250 return to working in cobalt mines.
  • It’s a different story in Kenya’s Makueni county, where strong local regulations are keeping minors, and criminal elements, out of the sand mining industry.
  • Element Africa is Mongabay’s bi-weekly bulletin rounding up brief stories from the commodities industry in Africa.

South Africa approves platinum mine despite community concerns

GA-NGWEPE, South Africa — South Africa’s minister of mineral resources and energy has approved a platinum mine in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve, underneath the homes of about 500 rural people in Ga-Ngwepe, Limpopo province. On Oct. 13, Minister Gwede Mantashe rejected an appeal by the farming community of Early Dawn against the granting of a mining licence to Waterberg JV Resources (Pty) Ltd in 2018.

“What is so sad is that the majority of people who will be dispossessed are mainly women and children. We are literally on our own,” community leader Mamedi Ngoepe told Mongabay.

The minister also turned down the community’s appeal on the grounds that they did not adequately demonstrate their right to the land. He referred to a 26% share of the mine allocated to historically disadvantaged South Africans as fair compensation for the loss of their current way of life. However, this share in the platinum mining venture has not been allocated to the community, but to a tiny company owned by the vice president of Waterberg’s majority owner, Canada-based Platinum Group Minerals.

Ngoepe said he found it hard to believe that mining could be permitted anywhere in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve, a 460,000-hectare (1.14-million-acre) expanse of forest, grassland and savanna that includes parts of Kruger National Park, the Thathe Vondo sacred forest, and the World Heritage Site at the ancient kingdom of Mapungubwe.

The biosphere holds hundreds of different species of insects, reptiles, birds and mammals. Vhembe and its buffer zones are also home to more than 1.5 million people, many of them farmers like the residents of Early Dawn.

The community, which has lived here since the 1940s, is now looking for lawyers to file a legal challenge to Waterberg’s license, on the basis that underground blasting will damage their homes and force them to leave their land and homes.

Mapungubwe's baobab landscape.
Mapungubwe baobab landscape. The Vhembe Biosphere Reserve is an expanse of forest, grassland and savanna that includes parts of Kruger National Park, the Thathe Vondo sacred forest, and the World Heritage Site at Mapungubwe as well as major towns and farming communities like Early Dawn. Image by Martin Heigan via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Waterberg JV Resources’ compliance with environmental regulations at the site so far is poor: soon after it got its exploration license, it was found to be operating without a water use license, according to a government investigation. It was also found to be mining sand and drilling boreholes, which the community says caused their own water supply to run dry.

The mining consortium has still not secured a water use license, and the community plans to oppose its application for that as well.

Neither Platinum Group Metals nor DMRE spokespeople replied to questions sent by Mongabay.

End of school support program sees DRC kids return to cobalt mines

KIPUSHI, Democratic Republic of Congo — More than 250 children were absent at the start of the new school year in Kipushi, in southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in September. They have instead returned to work in the area’s mines, as an initiative designed to provide an alternative to child labor in the cobalt supply chain came to an end.

The children, aged between 7 and 14, were among nearly 3,000 minors working in the mines around this cobalt-producing center. According to Congolese mining news site, around 500 children were enrolled in school last year as part of a donor-supported program. But at the start of the 2022-2023 school year this past September, just 213 returned.

The DRC produces 70% of the world’s cobalt. Since 2017, the government has adopted a national policy to get children out of the mines. But children are still a common sight on mine sites. The majority of the estimated 44,000 children working in mines across the country are to be found on hazardous small-scale mining sites in the cobalt-rich provinces of Katanga, North Kivu and South Kivu.

Children working in the cobalt mines.
Children working at a cobalt mine in Kailo Territory, DRC. Thousands of children between the ages of 7 and 14 miss school to work in the mines in the DRC. Image by Julien Harneis via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Shanick Ilunga, coordinator of the NGO Aile du Coeur, told Mongabay that the swift return of schoolchildren to the mines is a reminder of the importance of improving conditions at home if child labor is to be eliminated from mining. “You have parents without jobs, their standard of living drops. It’s really hard for them to keep children from going to mining sites. So you have to take a lot of parameters into account.”

For Bernard Kakulu, a member of the Association for Humanitarian Rights (ADH), the free primary education program implemented in 2019 by the government isn’t enough to keep at-risk children in school. Supportive programs beyond school are necessary, he said. “It is true that the problem of school fees has been solved. But when the child has problems feeding himself, he won’t stay in school. Before, there was a problem with the school canteen. This system kept many children in school,” Kakulu said.

Strong regulation keeps Kenyan kids out of sand mines

MAKUENI COUNTY, Kenya — Across Kenya, children in rural areas can be found working in poorly regulated sand mines, often far from the reach of authorities. But in the east of the country, in Makueni county, local authorities are acting to keep minors away from this dangerous work.

Mohamed Daghar, East Africa regional coordinator for organized crime watchdog ENACT Africa, has investigated the impact of Makueni county’s regulation of sand mining.

He says there are similar problems with child labor in Uganda, where young boys in canoes dredge sand from rivers and lakes, and in Tanzania, where children are often employed as labor to dig sand out of pits.

“Because of the general interventions that Makueni county did in sand mining, even the involvement of children was to a very large extent limited,” Daghar told Mongabay by phone. “They used several methods, for example if they saw any children near sand mining sites, the Makueni county inspectorate used to chase them away. They also enrolled the youth above 18 years old into sand-related savings and credit cooperatives to make them organized and curb penetration by criminal cartels and organizations.”

People harvesting sand.
Mining sand in Tala, Kenya: children in many parts of the country can be found working in poorly regulated sand mine sites like this one. Image by Quitworkbaninja via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

According to Patricia Kombo, a young climate and environmental activist from the county, before regulations were adopted in 2015, children were a common sight in sand mining locations. But that year, Makueni set the minimum age for work in the industry at 18 and established the Sand Conservation and Utilization Authority to oversee the sector. The county also created a fund that returns 5% of revenue from licenses and fines to host communities.

“The law banning children from mining has really transformed our communities,” Kombo told Mongabay by phone. “In the past, sand mining grounds acted as crime centers with a lot of school dropouts, were dens of drugs and petty crimes. The ban has reduced illegal mining along the rivers, and kept students in school.”

Under Kenya’s 2010 Constitution, county governments are responsible for regulation of mining, but Makueni is so far the only one that has published regulations and administrative infrastructure for this.

As banks fund oil pipeline, campaigners question their environmental pledges

Anna Majavu, Didier Makal, and Dominic Kirui contributed to this bulletin.

Banner image: Laborers at a cobalt mine in the DRC. Image by Afrewatch / IIED via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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