Protected areas need not pit humans against nature

This article originally appeared in New Frame on 28 October 2020. It can be viewed here.

A battle is currently being waged in Mpumalanga over the right to mine coal in the Mabola Protected Environment (MPE). Declared by the Mpumalanga provincial administration in 2014, it comprises 70 000ha of grasslands and wetlands and is considered a vital headwater of the Usuthu River system. The area is considered so critical to water supplies that it has been classified as a strategic water source by the South African National Biodiversity Institute and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. 

Despite this, less than two years after being declared a protected area, the then national minister of water and environmental affairs, the late Edna Molewa, and then minister of mineral resources Mosebenzi Zwane granted an Indian-based mining company, Atha-Africa Ventures, a licence to mine 2.25 million tonnes of coal a year in the MPE for 15 years. 

This curious decision was immediately challenged in the high court in Pretoria by several environmental groups led by the Centre for Environmental Rights. In terms of the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act (2003), such a decision can only be made in “exceptional circumstances” and only after the “cautionary principle” has been applied. 

In 2018, the high court found that the ministers had not applied “cautionary principles” in making their decision and reversed it. Egged on by Atha-African Ventures, the government appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeal in early 2019 and lost again, before losing its appeal at the Constitutional Court in November last year. 

Apparently undeterred by these defeats, Vusi Shongwe, Mpumalanga’s member of the executive council for agriculture and the environment, has threatened to alter the boundaries of the MPE to accommodate the mine. He has stated that he will cut about 10% of the MPE by using Section 24 of the Protected Areas Act, which empowers the authority which created a protected area to be able to amend its boundaries. 

Who benefits?

To examine the eagerness with which this mining is being pursued means looking at who stands to gain from it. The black empowerment beneficiaries of the mine are Sizwe Zuma and Vincent Zuma, nephews of former state president Jacob Zuma. The intimate relationship that appears to exist between elements of the Zuma family and Zwane supposedly reveals the former minister’s interest in seeing the mining project go ahead. 

Events unfolding in Mpumalanga are typical of thousands of similar episodes taking place throughout the world where previously protected areas are either already being exploited or under threat of being exploited by extractive industries. 

Such events are commonly known as protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement. So bad has the situation become that a website has been set up to track and map each transgression, or proposed transgression, into protected areas. In recent years, and particularly during the Covid-19 lockdown in certain countries, the number of tracked events is accelerating as leaders such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsanaro and Narenda Modi open previously protected areas to extractive industries like mining, ranching, oil and gas, and logging. 

Large parts of Africa are under similar threat. The Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is threatened by oil exploration; the Murchison Falls Protected Area in Uganda looks set to be home to 400 oil wells; mining for uranium looms over the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, while copper mining in Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park has been seriously mooted. 

The driving force behind this unprecedented attack on the world’s protected areas comes down to simple economics. The world is approaching peak production for numerous minerals that are critical for the continued reproduction of capitalist relations of production and consumption. 

‘Economic depletion’

While the concept of Peak Oil has been well understood since geologist Marion Hubbert’s famous Peak Oil theory of 1956, the concept of peak minerals only gained significant traction after the 2014 publication of the Club of Rome’s Extracted: The Past, Present and Future of Global Mineral Depletion. This report reveals that numerous minerals, including but not limited to copper, zinc, cadmium, uranium, titanium, tin, lithium, nickel and platinum are facing peak production some time between 2040 and the end of the century. 

Just like oil, none of these minerals are facing actual physical depletion. Rather, they are becoming increasingly difficult to produce economically because easily accessible or high-quality ore deposits are being rapidly exhausted (known as “economic depletion”).

In oil, this has manifested itself in the exploitation of so-called unconventional sources like tar sands or, when the price of oil is high enough, via extremely risky operations in deep waters. Deep water drilling can result in accidents like the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. It is worth noting here that Total’s decision to drill for gas off South Africa’s southern coast will take place in far more treacherous water than the Gulf of Mexico. 

In terms of minerals, the peak is leading to pressure to exploit more easily available sources, many of which are inevitably located in previously unexploited protected areas. 

While recycling, input substitution – replacing minerals in short supply with more readily available alternatives – and technological innovations can ease the pressure on remaining resources, none of these can meet even a small percentage of the current ever-increasing demand for minerals. If we are not to turn protected areas into sacrifice zones, fundamental change is necessary. 

Colonial perspective

As a starting point, we need to entirely reconceptualise the meaning and thus purpose of protected areas. Historically they, like nature reserves, were created with what sociologist Jacklyn Cock calls an “authoritarian conservation perspective”, which dates from the colonial era. This perspective prioritised the capturing of resources or landscapes for colonial regimes (such as timber in India or elite hunting in Africa) and the preservation of iconic megafauna. These processes involved the forcible removal of people living in these areas – people, evidence is now showing us, who generally lived in harmony with their environments in sharp contrast to colonial assumptions that they were damaging them. 

The desire to preserve certain animals and landscapes was also informed by what historian William Cronin has called the “wilderness myth”. Cronin argues that the compulsion to create protected areas was also driven by the desire to preserve a mythical “virgin landscape” that was “uncontaminated” by humans. But, as he notes, such a landscape has never existed and could only come about through the expulsion of humans, meaning that “wilderness” landscapes are socially constructed landscapes. In this way, humans are not considered part of nature. 

While in more recent years some efforts have been made to reincorporate displaced peoples into nature reserves and parks, the idea of protected areas as “virgin landscapes” largely persists. The problem with this as it relates to resource extraction is that it creates an entirely false binary in terms of what is at risk from mining, logging or ranching. Rather than being a nuanced debate about how extractive industries affect all living things (including humans, of course), contestation over extraction in protected areas gets reduced to a simplistic battle between the claimed benefits of “development” and the preservation of “pristine” animals or landscapes. 

This then enables those supporting extraction to claim that animals’ lives are being prioritised over human lives. This is exactly how the present debate over the MPE in Mpumalanga is playing out. In May, Shongwe stated that “the people in the area are eager to see the mine opened because of the economic opportunities it will create. But outsiders, who do not understand the extent of the poverty here, are opposing it … an empty stomach does not understand a lot of these environmental arguments.”

Commodified value

We also need to fundamentally rethink how we conceptualise protected areas in terms of how we value them. Under the onslaught of neoliberalism, they have now become commodities. Desperate to show the relevance of protected areas in a world where everything is parcelled up and only has meaning if it can be given a market price, governments and some environmental organisations have adopted what they see as market-based solutions to try to preserve them. 

This phenomenon, described by geographer Kathleen McAfree as “selling nature to save it”, has resulted in protected areas being leveraged as money-making enterprises. This narrative has certainly infused the South African National Parks authority. A brief look at its most recent strategic plan notes plans to develop its “business architecture” to “grow our tourism revenue, diversify our product” and “enhance our customer experience”. But as sociologist Bram Buscher argues, by subscribing to these normative neoliberal practices and tools, economic growth bizarrely becomes the prerequisite for a healthy environment. 

A recent report by the South African Institute of International Affairs, Safeguarding Africa’s Natural Heritage: The Case of Mining in Protected Areas, falls into this trap. It notes “a conservation designation, such as a World Heritage ranking, can translate into substantial income generation…” And, “to increase Protected Areas’ success as conservation tools, it is important to acknowledge the substantial socio-economic gains made from protecting designated areas”.

How this relates to resource extraction in protected areas is critically important, as a group of academics who studied the dynamics of oil exploration in the Murchison Falls Protected Area demonstrate. Led by geographer Catrina MacKenziea, they argue that by assigning a financial capital value to nature, protected areas are actually made more vulnerable to exploitation. They note that “this occurs because nature is commodified, allowing the economic value and profitability of land uses within a Protected Area to prioritise how nature is exploited”. 

Thus, by championing the economic utility and value of protected areas, they fall more readily into normative patterns of extraction and consumption and a gateway is created for the extractive industries to enter the debate. Audre Lorde’s famous quote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” is appropriate here.

Realistic visions

So, what can we do? As a first step, we must abandon idealised visions of a pristine nature unspoilt by humans. In doing so we will begin to accept the undeniable truth that humans are, and always have been, part of nature. This, in turn, will allow us to envision alternative formulations where humans are intertwined and commingled “with nature”. 

Thus, when a protected area is threatened by extractive industries, it will be less about nature versus humans and more about the damage such industries are likely to do to all forms of interrelated and co-dependent life within the context of the ongoing climate emergency. 

Then we also need to examine and critically evaluate the patterns of production and consumption that are driving the endless search for minerals. We need to interrogate the social and cultural forces that continue to shape what it is we think we need, or how we must behave, to be considered “successful” in the context of early 21st-century capitalism. 

This is an urgent call because the last great frontier of the extractive industries, the ocean, is now squarely in its sights. 

Image: Kerstin Geier/ Gallo Images

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