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Part 3: Mine(d) Over Matter: Mining Fibrous Plants

5 Feb 2020 - 15:00

The present part of the ‘mine(d) over matter’ series focuses on one specific project called ‘Resilient Futures’. The project is an example of how one could potentially put theory (such as the circular economy) into practice. The project is in its infancy, with potential up and coming pilots on selected mine land. 

‘Resilient Futures’ is a research collaboration among various academic chairs aimed at evidence-based research solutions to problems associated with mine closures. This project brought together various environmental, engineering, economic, and legal experts that contributed different perspectives on how to drive post-mining industrial development by planting fibrous plants (such as hemp, flax and kenaf). These different perspectives were explored to try and translate research findings into actionable policy.

The special quality of fibrous plants provides a possible solution to social and environmental problems associated with mine closure.[1] Fibrous plants are sturdy characters and have the potential to absorb pollutants from the soil. This accumulation of pollutants and metals remediates the land.[2] There is also the possibility of mining the plants themselves – extracting the metals from different parts of the fibrous plant.[3] The farming (and consequent ‘mining’) of fibrous plant on mine land is labour intensive and would incorporate communities impacted by mine closure into a new economic venture. 

Fibrous plants such as flax, hemp, bamboo and kenaf can be harvested to create an agricultural sector where mining once was – filling the economic void.[4] This agricultural sector then provides the potential to produce various products and contribute to a more complex economy in South Africa.[5] Economic complexity would be a long-term goal. Ultimately the aim would be to encourage small businesses to grow out of the agricultural sector into a multi-product manufacturing scheme.[6] Therefore key economic, social and environmental issues are addressed by creating jobs, remediating the land of toxins and providing an economic incentive to encourage environmental rehabilitation.

The main impetus for this project is that mining operations struggle to effectively implement existing legal frameworks, and do not rehabilitate the mine after operations cease. The true costs of extensive rehabilitation and social and labour obligations are often underestimated.  These costs are often borne by the taxpayer, the surrounding community and the environment rather than the mining company.

One important consideration when initiating the fibrous future initiative is the life cycle of the mine.[7] The current life cycle of the mine starts with prospecting for minerals, reconnaissance missions and broader risk analysis of doing business in a specific area. The mining companies proceed if there is a high potential for profit, and when all the legal requirements are met for that purpose. Once the production phase of the mine is over, the mine decommissions its activities and begins closure procedures.

To initiate the fibrous project in the beginning stages would allow the mine to prepare for the post-mining fibrous future initiative by adding the project as a strategy of rehabilitation and closure. If later in the lifecycle the mine seeks to initiate the project, then various amendments would need to be made to their existing legal obligations. Amendments to the Social Labour Plans and Environmental Management Plans would be required (examples of such changes can be seen in the next two parts) with the aim to prepare the community and the land for a fibrous future.[8] If, however, the mine has been abandoned – there is no accountability for those tasked with rehabilitation.

For the purposes of the series, it is important to note that it true closure of the mine happens rarely. Often, mines nearing the end of operations would be sold to smaller miners who would then be required to rehabilitate the mine after their closure. These smaller operations are usually unable to perform such a mammoth task and tend to abandon the mine in an unrehabilitated state. Currently, in South Africa, there are approximately 6 000 abandoned mines. This has reached a crisis state.

Abandoned mines are dangerous wounds to let fester, they contribute to toxic chemical leaching, acid mine drainage, erosion, sinkholes, contamination of the surrounding environment, and present a treacherous opportunity for desperate artisanal miners to enter the mine for minerals left behind.

There are also further social costs that remain relatively invisible such as criminal syndicates servicing large resource companies by using artisanal miners. These syndicates often add illicit minerals to a bulk of the exported legitimate material – ‘washing’ the minerals clean in the mix and exporting them outside of the country

The question then becomes – how do we avoid the abandonment of mines? And what should we be doing with those 6 000 abandoned mines? Firstly, to avoid the abandonment of mines, the transition into a clean post-mine activity needs to be socially and legally incentivised. Social incentives would include using the pressure of a good public image to encourage good behaviour. Legal incentives could include instruments such as tax breaks for post-mining activities. 

Often, neither the environment nor the communities surrounding the mine have a ‘board of directors’ representing and strategizing on their behalf. Awarding personhood to companies should be accompanied by moral standards of environmental consciousness and social responsibility. Consciousness and responsibility, rehabilitation and empowerment – are two inseparable sets that will need to be conceptualised in the mining culture to develop a circular economy. A moral economy would require the law to act as a conscience – the need to positively reinforce good behaviour and expect responsibility to be taken for the lifecycle of the mine. 

Second, to address the crisis of abandoned mines in South Africa currently, we need to take a historical analysis of who benefitted from the mine, and the ownership of the mine throughout its life – be it the state or various private mining companies. All are responsible, and responsibility is proportional to the geological evidence presented. This is no small feat.

So, would we need to embark on such a journey? The first leg requires a fair amount of dreaming and openness to change in culture.[9] The mining process needs to change from purely a short-term profit-driven, operational structure, to a practice of preparing for restoration. To be able to tread lightly, carrying a very heavy industry will need various stakeholder identities, such as 'the mining company', 'the state', and 'the community' to empathize deeply with one another, especially with those who carry brunt of the environmental and social burden. 

The problem of abandoned mine land can potentially be mitigated by planting fibrous plants. These plants help clear the soil of toxins and helps to revitalise an otherwise hazardous area. The project needs to be driven by a collaborative effort of all who benefitted. 

Part four and five will look at the case when mining companies are present and willing to incorporate a fibrous initiative into their rehabilitation programme. The last two parts of the series delve deeper into the legal frameworks that guide the initiation of a Fibrous Future. Part four will present some of the laws which consider the social and environmental issues in the mining sector and how they would impact a fibrous future initiative. Part Five will recommend some changes to the legal obligations set by most mining companies with regards to the social enterprise of fibrous future initiatives.

Written by Aysha Lotter.

Continue to Part 4.

 

[1] Harrison S T L., Rumjeet S., Mabasa X., Verster B., “Towards Resilient Futures: Can fibre-rich plants serve the joint role of remediation of degraded mine and fuelling of a multi-product value chain?” Unpublished. (2019) University of Cape Town; Allen C., Bhorat H, Hill R, Rooney R, and Steenkamp F “Building economic complexity in the South African fibrous plant economy” Unpublished. (2019) University of Cape Town; Broadhurst J, Chimbganda T and Hangone G “Identification and Review of Downstream Options for the Recovery of Value from Fibre Producing Plants: Hemp, Kenaf and Bamboo.” Unpublished (2019) University of Cape Town; Mostert H, Paterson A, Young CL, van Schalkwyk L “Innovations in Mine Rehabilitation - The Two Sides of the Law: An exploratory study of enabling mechanisms in the law for using fibrous plants in mine land rehabilitation” Unpublished (2019) University of Cape Town.

[2] Harrison S T L., Rumjeet S., Mabasa X., Verster B., “Towards Resilient Futures: Can fibre-rich plants serve the joint role of remediation of degraded mine and fuelling of a multi-product value chain?” Unpublished. (2019) University of Cape Town; Broadhurst J, Chimbganda T and Hangone G “Identification and Review of Downstream Options for the Recovery of Value from Fibre Producing Plants: Hemp, Kenaf and Bamboo.” Unpublished (2019) University of Cape Town.

[3] Harrison S T L., Rumjeet S., Mabasa X., Verster B., “Towards Resilient Futures: Can fibre-rich plants serve the joint role of remediation of degraded mine and fuelling of a multi-product value chain?” Unpublished. (2019) University of Cape Town; Broadhurst J, Chimbganda T and Hangone G “Identification and Review of Downstream Options for the Recovery of Value from Fibre Producing Plants: Hemp, Kenaf and Bamboo.” Unpublished (2019) University of Cape Town.

[4] Harrison S T L., Rumjeet S., Mabasa X., Verster B., “Towards Resilient Futures: Can fibre-rich plants serve the joint role of remediation of degraded mine and fuelling of a multi-product value chain?” Unpublished. (2019) University of Cape Town; Broadhurst J, Chimbganda T and Hangone G “Identification and Review of Downstream Options for the Recovery of Value from Fibre Producing Plants: Hemp, Kenaf and Bamboo.” Unpublished (2019) University of Cape Town.

[5] Bhorat H, Hill R, Rooney R, and Steenkamp F “Building economic complexity in the South African fibrous plant economy” Unpublished. (2019) University of Cape Town.

[6] Allen C., Bhorat H, Hill R, Rooney R, and Steenkamp F “Building economic complexity in the South African fibrous plant economy” Unpublished. (2019) University of Cape Town

[7] Mostert H, Paterson A, Young CL, van Schalkwyk L “Innovations in Mine Rehabilitation - The Two Sides of the Law: An exploratory study of enabling mechanisms in the law for using fibrous plants in mine land rehabilitation” Unpublished (2019) University of Cape Town.

[8] Mostert H, Paterson A, Young CL, van Schalkwyk L “Innovations in Mine Rehabilitation - The Two Sides of the Law: An exploratory study of enabling mechanisms in the law for using fibrous plants in mine land rehabilitation” Unpublished (2019) University of Cape Town.

[9] Mostert H, Paterson A, Young CL, van Schalkwyk L “Innovations in Mine Rehabilitation - The Two Sides of the Law: An exploratory study of enabling mechanisms in the law for using fibrous plants in mine land rehabilitation” Unpublished (2019) University of Cape Town.