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Traditional healers lay criminal charges against mining company and its directors for environmental crimes

2 June 2015 at 11:07 am

The ravaged Madimatle Mountain
The ravaged Madimatle Mountain
The ravaged Madimatle Mountain

Parts of the ravaged Madimatle Mountain in Limpopo, a sacred site for traditional healers

On 28 May 2015, the Traditional Healers Organization, assisted by the Centre for Environmental Rights, laid criminal charges against mining company Aquila Steel SA (Pty) Ltd and three of its directors, Johann Louis van Deventer, Anthony Poli and Martin Nicholas Alciaturi, for breaches of environmental, mining and water laws.

Van Deventer, a South African resident, is still a director of Aquila Steel. Poli and Alciaturi, both residents of Australia, have resigned their positions with Aquila Steel, but were directors at the time that the violations occurred. Directors of a company who commit or allow criminal offences under mining and environmental laws can be held personally liable for those offences, together with the company itself, and can face penalties including fines of up to R5 million and ten years’ imprisonment.

In 2007 and 2008 Aquila Steel, at that time the South African subsidiary of then Australian-listed mining company Aquila Resources Limited, obtained prospecting rights for iron ore on two properties outside of Thabazimbi in Limpopo. The Madimatle mountain and Gatkop cave, sites of significant cultural, spiritual and historic value, are situated on these properties. Many of the 69 000 traditional healer members of the Traditional Healers Organization (THO) visited the mountain and caves for spiritual reasons, until access was restricted by Aquila Steel.

Although the prospecting rights granted to Aquila Steel allowed limited drilling and vegetation clearance – 1.6-3km of roads and 10 drilling sites – the company constructed over 33km of roads all over the Madimatle mountain, and drilled in approximately 200 locations, unlawfully clearing vegetation and protected tree species in the process. As well as being in contravention of the conditions of its prospecting rights, these activities were conducted without environmental authorisation – a criminal offence under the National Environmental Management Act.

Despite this flagrant violation of the law, at the end of 2014 the Limpopo provincial environment department (LEDET) gave retrospective permission to Aquila Steel for the listed activities that it commenced illegally. LEDET fined Aquila Steel R300 000, but failed to direct the company to do any rehabilitation. The THO believes that the fine levied is wholly inadequate, and inappropriate, given the extent of the destruction and violation of the law, and given the fact that LEDET was empowered to levy a fine of up to R5 million.

In 2013, Aquila Steel also applied for a mining right, which, if granted, would effectively permit the company to remove the top of the Madimatle Mountain. A number of interested and affected parties are resisting this application.

Late last year, the SA Heritage Resources Agency approved provisional protection of the Madimatle mountain and its caves because of the site’s cultural and religious significance. Aquila Steel has appealed this ruling. The agency has until the end of next year to decide whether or not the area merits National Heritage status.

The THO and others affected by Aquila Steel’s illegal behaviour have been trying unsuccessfully for years to convince authorities to take action against the company. As a last resort, they have been forced to lay criminal charges against the company and its directors in an attempt to obtain justice.

Phephsile Maseko, National Coordinator for the THO, explains why the THO decided to take this course of action: “We hope that by raising awareness of Aquila Steel’s conduct and the failure of the authorities to put a stop to it, or to make any effort to force Aquila Steel to rectify the damage it has caused, we will help to prevent the destruction of more of South Africa’s precious heritage resources.”

Tracey Davies, attorney and head of the Centre for Environmental Rights’ Corporate Accountability and Transparency Programme, says: “For too long, company directors who oversee flagrant violations of mining, environmental and water laws have suffered no consequences whatsoever. There are countless mining-affected communities whose rights are violated by this unlawful behaviour, which is either ignored by our authorities, or dealt with in a woefully inadequate manner. These communities are starting to realise that when the responsible authorities fail them, they have the power to hold mining companies and directors to account.”