THE annual mining indaba, now on in Cape Town, has spawned massive
documentation and media reports. Organisers of the indaba – ‘Where the
world connects with African mining’ – will have expected most of this
publicity. But there’s one publication which may have been
unanticipated: a new booklet by the Centre for Environmental Rights
entitled, ‘When mines break environmental laws: how to use criminal
prosecution to enforce environmental rights’.

The timing is no coincidence. The launch material for the booklet
notes, ‘As has become the norm at the Indaba, the massive
environmental impacts of mining are relegated to a few discussions
around “sustainability”, and the problem of non-compliance with
mining, environmental and water legislation in the mining industry is
simply absent from the Indaba programme, as are the communities and
downstream towns affected by poor environmental management and
non-compliance by mining companies, past and present.

The booklet itself is a model of simple language with the legal issues
and the rights of the communities clearly put. There’s also no shying
away from its purpose which the introduction makes clear. ‘While
mines and mining operations can contribute to economic development and
provide jobs, they can also bring about suffering for individuals and
communities by causing damage to the land, water and air around them.
Individuals and communities living with the negative impacts of mining
can fight back by taking steps to protect themselves, their homes,
their livelihoods and their neighbours. This guide tells you how.’

Sometimes the problems experienced by people living near mines are the
result of ‘criminal activity by a mining company, its employees or
subcontractors,’ readers are told, and when a crime is committed
‘community members and all those affected by the crime should report
it to the South African Police Service’. This is an important way in
which individuals and communities can ‘fight back’ against ‘illegal
and non-compliant mining’, taking steps to protect themselves and
their homes.

It’s a document I recommend highly and you can download it from the
centre’s Website: It explains what individuals and communities can do
to protect themselves in cases where mining crimes are being
committed, with examples of where environmental crimes have been
detected and dealt with and precise explanations of how to lay a
criminal charge and give evidence in any resulting court case. But it
does more than this. It’s empowering in the way it expands awareness
more broadly of our rights as citizens in a constitutional state; any
reader will inevitably start to think about where they can act to
protect other rights.

Melissa Fourie, executive director of the centre, said they had
decided to bring out the booklet because so many violations went
unnoticed by the authorities. This in turn was the result of
hopelessly inadequate compliance monitoring. Since most violations
weren’t detected perpetrators had come to believe there would be no
consequences. This booklet was intended to stop that sense of impunity
by helping make people affected by mines more aware of what
constituted criminal activities and how they could stop it.

It’s a great idea to equip local communities so they can help protect
their constitutional rights to a safe and healthy environment from
criminal mining violations. Now I’m hoping for a similar strategy in
relation to other environmental offenders, local municipalities for
example – though from experience I’d say that the media is often of
more help than the police.

In the platteland we know about water running through the streets.
Sometimes fresh water pours wastefully for days, other times water
from the sewers fills the road. But for the last six months people in
Zastron, neighbouring town in our municipality, have battled a new
refinement: streets running with blood.

This week local papers published photos of the bloody streets, with
quotes from members of the town’s business community who say the
stench is overwhelming but that municipal workers come round, shrug
their shoulders and go away again.

Now the municipality has told the media that the problem is caused by
two abattoirs illegally emptying their waste into the town’s sewers
which back up and spew blood into the streets. After subpoenas and
warnings failed, said the municipal manager, the abattoirs have bought
septic tanks which they should start using ‘from Monday’.

Somehow I doubt these problems will end next week. And if I’m right
we’ll soon be looking for a booklet explaining to the people of
Zastron how they can lay charges against the municipality as well as
the abattoirs.