Egbert van Bart sits on a riempie bench on the stoep of the Groot Marico Visitors Information Centre, stroking the long grey beard flowing down his thin neck.
Here, on the deserted main street of the “beautifully weird” bushveld dorp, he recites a well-used passage by South African author Herman Charles Bosman, describing the North West town.
“There’s no other place I know that is so heavy with atmosphere, so strangely and darkly impregnated with that stuff of life, that bears the authentic stamp of South Africa,” renders Van Bart.
It’s fitting. After all, it was Bosman who immortalised this tiny hamlet and its mampoer-loving inhabitants in his humorous stories over 70 years ago.
Van Bart runs the Herman Charles Bosman Literary Society. For his wife, Santa, the clear, untainted waters of the Groot Marico River – one of the last remaining rivers in the province still safe to drink directly from – define Groot Marico too, as does its sense of mystical spirituality.
“There’s still the spirit of place here and I think the river contributes to that,” explains Santa of the North West’s only free-flowing river, after which the town was named.
But the elderly couple are worried about the renewed interest by mining companies in Groot Marico, and its scenic surrounds.
Diamond giant De Beers has secured environmental authorisation to prospect for kimberlite, a potential diamond bearing rock, in the sensitive catchment of Groot Marico, Swartruggens and Koster.
Several other mining firms have launched prospecting and mining bids for gold ore, copper ore, fluorspar and aggregate in the region.
“We’ve got 200 indigenous tree species, the second-most bird species in South Africa and seven different veld types here in Groot Marico,” enthuses Van Bart.
Santa shakes her grey head firmly. “We can’t allow mining of any kind to happen here. This is our place.”
In December, Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa dismissed an appeal by 143 appellants – including the Van Barts, local Kgosis, the provincial parks board, farmers unions, landowners and environmental organisations – lodged against De Beer’s environmental authorisation.
They contended there’s insufficient evidence about the impacts of possible drilling for prospecting through the water table “in such a sensitive catchment”.
But Molewa was unconvinced. “I’m aware the Groot Marico catchment is a pristine area but I’m satisfied the proposed prospecting activities will pose a low risk to the receiving environment,” she wrote.
But like their neighbours in town, Jacques du Plessis, and his partner, Louise Schmidt, are wary. The couple run a popular guest farm, tucked in a deep, remote valley in the river’s catchment.
“Whether the prospecting is a few 100m that way or this way from our property, it will have a massive impact,” remarks Du Plessis, smoking a cigarette and mulling an uncertain future.
“We sell peace and quiet – this place is vociferously quiet – and suddenly if we have trucks coming in and people blowing up stuff
“This place is pristine and we want to keep it like that.
“I told them (De Beers) if they prospect here, they will have to pay me out for those few months because no one will want to come here for that.”
One of South Africa’s last remaining clean rivers
A stretch of the perennial river, fed by dolomitic eyes, is hidden like a secret, on their property. These eyes are geological formations where groundwater from dolomitic aquifers is forced through fractures in the earth to the surface.
For Schmidt, love for this river runs deep. “It’s one of the few clean rivers left in the country and we’ll do anything to protect it,” she says.
“The people who come to Groot Marico from Gauteng can swim in this river without any fear of being poisoned. It’s amazing to see children swim freely in a river.”
The government has declared the Groot Marico river system a strategic water source and a national freshwater priority area because of its high aquatic biodiversity, endemic fish species and unique features, such as the dolomitic eye systems and tufa waterfalls that sustain it.
The 2015 North West biodiversity sector plan describes how the upper reaches of the river and its tributaries boast clean free-flowing water with its catchment a vital water resource for the North West.
The river holds a class A/B eco-status in the upper catchment, which means it is “least impacted”.
De Beers cannot comment further on its proposed project as it is in discussions with the Department of Mineral Resources on its exploration activities in the Groot Marico region.
However, in its response to the appellants, the firm states that many “don’t understand the separation between exploration and the possibility mining may be pursued at a point in the future, under a separate application process”.
Data gathering for exploration is non-invasive, and if drilling is undertaken, it would drill no more than four boreholes with its anticipated impacts mitigated in its environmental management programme.
Molewa notes how De Beers explains that the exploration activities don’t pose unacceptable risks to the environment, provided the mitigation measures are implemented.
This isn’t good enough for Brian Sheer and his partner Jeanne, who run Mmutlwa wa Noko (porcupine quill), a community group, which has garnered support from traditional communities.
Together with an eclectic mix of local landowners, the organisation chased off another mining outfit, African Nickel, in 2010. The De Beers battle looks likely to be headed for a judicial review.
Outside the town, Sheer peers into the 17m crystalline waters of the Marico Eye, where abundant water lilies dapple the surface.
He tells how the couple see themselves as “catchment custodians.
“Living in a river catchment that is an important water resource is a huge responsibility, especially in a water scarce country. Every decision and action upstream affects those downstream, and since the river becomes the Limpopo, which provides water to four countries (SA, Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe), millions of lives are impacted by what we do at the source.”
The river’s catchment is the “pumphouse” of the Groot Marico river. “Water is precious. Clean water is rare. The fact that we have, in its upper reaches, one of the last remaining sections of river in South Africa with clean, pure water that can be, and is, drunk directly from the river, increases our sense of responsibility and urgency.”
Local residents are pushing to create a Marico Biosphere Reserve to protect the dolomitic aquifers.
Molewa’s concession was that the environmental authorisation granted to De Beers would exclude buffer zones around protected areas not to be mined.
While unemployment and poverty remain rife in the local villages and townships, Daniel Kane, of the African Pride African Nature Conservation Association, tells how mining has split local communities.
“Some people want eco-tourism and farming; others want mining jobs. I don’t support mining because most the mines that come here, they take all the minerals and eventually pollute the water. They benefit more than the people benefit.”
A legacy of poverty and community disruption
Mariette Liefferink, a mining activist, agrees. “The legacy of mining within the North West has raised serious challenges to the argument that mining will create more jobs and wealth and end extreme poverty.
“The evidence has shown that when mining companies close, communities are often left not enriched and disrupted with unsustainable future land use options, open pits, polluted soil and ground and surface water.
“Very little wealth trickles down to benefit local communities.”
Bridget Jonker, who runs the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Source to Sea programme, says the Groot Marico river has become a flagship river of national importance for its good condition, high biodiversity and cultural value.
“This region is vulnerable to water shortages and effective water management needs to be top priority.”
While most of South Africa’s water comes from mountain catchments that receive the highest rainfall, the Marico River is extraordinary.
“The river is quite a unique source area in that the river is fed by a system of groundwater aquifers that maintain regular flows to this dryland river. Thus, the water supply that supports this catchment (and feeds into the Limpopo Basin) is dependent on the health of the groundwater and its recharge area.
“Putting this water source area at risk of further abstraction and pollution by mining is short-sighted and the potential ramifications of this on aquatic biodiversity and the lives of people living in the catchment are of huge concern.
“The area is semi-arid and what you’re left with is a source of fresh water regardless of rainfall, even during the recent extreme drought that persisted in the region for three years. The town of Groot Marico had water while water had to be trucked into the neighbouring town of Swartruggens.”
The provincial biodiversity plan details how many major towns such as Zeerust and Ottoshoop, draw their water solely from dolomitic eyes.
“These must be regarded as critical ecological infrastructure in the province.”
In the old mining town of Ottoshoop, ancient water pushes out of rocks at Jack Rossouw’s feet from another important dolomitic eye. He and his brother have now started bottling the artesian water to sell.
“Last year our water was voted the best tasting water in the world.
“According to experts, we’re sitting on the biggest underground lake in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s dolomite, it’s porous and the water just flows through it.” But he too is fighting off mining bids.
“Our main concern is that it’s very easy to contaminate the water, but to rehabilitate it is impossible. That won’t happen in our lifetime.”
By Sheree Bega. Source: IOL News