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By Dylan McGarry & Christelle Terreblanche
“How can the leaves on the tree say ‘we do not care for the roots´. How can they claim to be evergreen. Our elders are our roots, and we are the leaves. This is what we are seeing, the seeds are dying-why?- because we do not care for the roots. The younger generations they are the seeds, they have lost their connection to the elders, saying ‘we can live our own life’ I learned this from my father, he was an elder.”
These are the words of Makaulule Mpatheleni the spokesperson for Dzomo La Mupo (The Mupo Foundation: www.mupofoundation.org) who on November 15 alongside Moses Mudau handed over a letter to the Deputy Minister of Water Affairs Rejoice Mabudafhasi, on behalf of a coalition of nine NGOs to call for a ban on the water licence application by Coal of Africa, an Australian mining company. The company is prospecting to mine for coal at the Vele mining site at the edge of the Mapungubwe world heritage site. This would also necessitate the extraction of underground water from an area in Venda to feed the new Medupi power station in the area. The coal also happens to be below sites deemed sacred for the vhaVenda.
A day after publication of the official appeal, Moses since received word that the company would take legal action against Dzomo La Mupo over the appeal to government. The company dismissed as “spurious” the allegations when contacted for comment, but admitted it would revert to legal avenues if attempts to bring the company into disrepute does not stop.
On Saturday 19th November in Louis Trichardt-Makhado, a round table exchange, guided by the Climate Train team, was conducted with the women of Dzomo La Mupo, who guard the ancient water springs, their elders and spokespersons of communities from far-flung areas such as Tshidzivhe, Vhutanda and Thsivhale. The group sincerely shared their concerns and
pains regarding several burning challenges – ranging from the proposed mining in the area to the growing disconnection occurring between generations in their communities – and shared their requests to the decision makers at COP17. A global report last week also pointed out that the Limpopo Valley is among the most climate vulnerable sites in the world, and the group is facing diminishing water supplies at a time when the coal mines are expected to use vast quantities of water amidst fears that the extraction process could also contaminate ground water.
The vision of Dzomo La Mupo (vhaVenda for Voice of Nature or Universe) is to revive the indigenous values of Mother Earth and to protect their sacred sites, traditions and way of life from extractive and unsustainable industrial development. A primary focus for the foundation is to heal the ailing trans-generational knowledge pathways in their community, which are rapidly being eroded from the effects of globalisation and urbanisation.
Mphatheleni says: “At Mupo Foundation we are working with elders, for us the elders are fountains of knowledge, without elders, we cannot say we will have a future… for us, as we say we learned from the elders, sacred sites is not just a forest or a cave, as the elders say, sacred sites starts very deep under the ground, beyond where we can reach to up, up to where we can´t reach above the stars..”
She stressed that sacred sites “connect us on earth, and the ancestors in the ground and the one we don´t know, meaning the creator.” If you disturb the sacred sites, you interfere with the connection of spirituality, of where we are and where our water comes from. We have disturbed this cycle of seasons that is why we have climate change. We do to sacred sites to
pray for the health of whole communities. This is not a story, it is a reality. We want to raise this in a loud voice at COP17. Look at the disturbed indigenous forests, sacred sites and ecosystems. This is what causes climate change. Our children today are growing knowing another way of life. The children, they know that the food comes from the packets and from the shops, there is no relation to the soil… How can our children believe in the knowledge coming from the elders and from nature.”
Forgetting to respect sacred nature
On behalf of the gathering, Mpatheleni shared the concerns from the elders regarding how even government do not respect their sacred sites, regarded as the dwellings of protective water spirits and early warning systems to droughts: “Today the department of tourism have turned our sacred sites into an entertainment place. You will now find condoms scattered at
our sacred site. You go inside our sacred site you find a concrete house with people sleeping there. There are modern burials there, with tombstones, plastic flowers and empty bags of cement.”
The indigenous people of vhaVenda are sensitive to the delicate balance between culture, spirituality, livelihoods and nature. During the exchange the elders passionately explained that when individuals or industries disturb sacred sites they not only interfere and jeopardise Venda spirituality, but also jeopardise the natural ecological patterns that sustain all earth
An elderly woman from Dzomo La Mupo testified “The rivers are empty, they should not be empty during this time, we have a month which is a restricted-sacred month, where we should not do anything during this month, we are not allowed marriage, or any other ceremony in that month… it is taboo…during this time you stay at home like the Israelites…
during this month people are mining minerals from the earth and burning the forest, now we are seeing that these months have shifted, that´s why there is climate change. How can there be balance, how can we be stable?”
A woman from the group affectionately called Makadzi, carefully deciphered the large ecological calendar that the elders had previously created with younger members of the community. She highlighted the paramount importance of protecting traditional cultural cycles, based on understanding the interconnectivity and balance found in nature, and
between people, in order to solve the complex problems of climate change:
“If you look at this calendar, this is the cycle, the movement of the ecosystem which is found in the sacred site, in the indigenous forest. We are saying as Dzomo La Mupo, there is no miracle to solve climate change if we do not go back to the roots. Our elders, the ecosystem, this is our solution to bring order to this disordered world.”
Alleged threats and bribes from Coal of Africa
Shocked by the response of Coal of Africa in a national newspapers (eds – Beeld and The Star) to their letter to the Water Affairs department, Moses Mudau states “categorically that they will persecute us legally”. Another concern for Moses and the rest of the Mupo Foundation is the community consultation process made by the mining company. In order for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to be approved by government, the developer has to conduct a rigorous process of community consultation.
According to Moses this process has been seriously flawed and allegedly even corrupt: “They say they are busy consulting communities, so that they can indicate to the government that they have met with the communities and the communities have agreed, but when we speak to them as community spokespersons they threaten us…now we wonder what is really happening. What Coal of Africa is doing is not enough, there are many people out there who don´t really know what they (Coal for Africa) are planning.”
In response, Coal of Africa´s Investor Relations Manager Sakhile Ndlovu, said: “We most certainly have complied fully with what the law requires in terms of community consultation and continue to do so; and yes, genuine concerns, articulated to us in the appropriate forums in good faith, are taken seriously and acted upon. Further, these are transparent processes where the outcomes of engagement are considered by the authorities
throughout the permitting and licensing process.”
She said the company was “committed to the responsible development of its mineral assets” and “acting in compliance with legislation and regulation”.
“We are committed to more than just compliance though – and believe that the company should do all it can to mitigate any negative environmental impacts and support the preservation of the natural environment, while creating direct and indirect job, and supporting local economic development and skills development in local communities.”
The suggestions of bribes and threats were dismissed. Ndlovu said that they were, however, “growing weary of individuals and entities using public platforms other than those provided by statute to make spurious, unsupported allegations against us” when they are protected byrigorous legislative safeguards.
“We have said that we will certainly consider using avenues available to us in the law to stop parties that maliciously seek to bring us into public disrepute. We also suggest that individuals or communities who are genuinely interested and affected parties engage through the processes and structures that are in place.”
A male elder insisted the consultations benefited individuals at the expense of the community: “…you find now that the community is in darkness, they don´t even know what is happening, very few people will benefit. What we are saying as Dzomo La Mupo, the whole environment does not belong to an individual, even if I am a king I cannot make a decision without proper consultation, proper consultation should be done properly. We are not against the mine per say, we know that our people lack jobs, the issue is the repercussions of the mine [and that] they may bring disaster to human life. We are saying as Dzomo La Mupo, please do not damage our ecosystem, as no one can restore the ecosystem which is damaged…”
According to Mpatheleni, who attended the initial public consultation process hosted by Coal of Africa, she learned from their engineers that if the mining is to go ahead it is estimated that by 2015 they would have used all the underground water reserves in the area. Mpatheleni recalls the meeting: “We stood up and said what about the ecosystem, you are not caring for
the ecosystem, you are not caring for the eco-system that is the basin for the whole life. Then the director or the manager went out of the room, then we said to those who would allow us that ‘you cannot apply this water licence, and minister should not give you this water licence, because once you are taking water you bring desert here. We are still against mining here because it will destroy trees, it will destroy our soil, it will pollute our air it will poison everything.”
On the depletion of groundwater by 2015, Coal of Africa rejected the “alarmist predictions” which it said was not based on empirical facts and said it had commissioned “detailed analysis of water usage and sourcing and these are at an advanced stage”
But Dzomo La Mupo´s concerns mirrors that of countless communities across South Africa, particularly those in Limpopo and the North West provinces where rampant platinum extraction has displaced whole communities and their livelihoods while scaring vast tracts of nature during the last decade. At COP17, civil society groups from Africa and South America are scheduled to hold several consultations on this apparently worldwide trend of putting minerals and energy for short term gain before people and ecosystems.
Dzomo La Mupo’s response to the African Charter for rights for Mother Earth
The Climate Train has been creating open spaces for exchange and discussion around a countrywide process to draft a People’s Climate Charter, which aims to be the African contribution the Universal Declaration For Rights For Mother Earth, adopted by South
American countries in the last two years after extensive consultation. Through the Earth Forum (www.earthfora.org) a social sculpture process and other round table discussions on the train route, there has been a continuous stream of engagement around a draft charter crafted by eminent environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan.
In summary, the draft document proposes several universal and Africa particular values about human relationships with nature – including;
- The Earth is Sacred
- All shall live well
- Each (member of natural communities, which includes plants, animals, rivers, mountains) has the right to its place in the community
- Healing shall replace exploitation
- Communities shall decide for themselves
- Those that harm the Earth shall be held accountable
Dzomo La Mupo asked to add two core principles to the draft charter – that all indigenous forests be protected as a priority to bolster ecosystems – and on a cultural level, that the ancient wisdom of the elders be respected and harnessed in the bid to meet climate change before it is lost forever. They insisted we should “…live to leave a space for future generations to continue …where we are trying to full-fill the present life… everything we must do, it (must be) for the future generation. And for me the future generation doesn´t only mean human beings, it is the future of all earth communities, future of everything, future of the trees as when we were today planting trees with the school children, the children are future, but the great grandchild of those children will see that big tree. We have to do everything thinking about the future generations of all earth communities.”
A request to COP17
The exchange on the Climate Train ended with a formal request from Dzomo La Mupo articulated by Mphatheleni – “We are humbly requesting … can we save the last remaining indigenous forests rather than continuing to destroy them. Can this be a call very loud to every community? Every indigenous tree, every indigenous forest that we see, can we use all our power and all the means to save it, instead of destroying it, or interfering it. We hope that through this way we can really deal with the climate change… another request, can we use the knowledgeable elders before they die, because to us Dzomo la Mupo, elders are our library, a living library, which if an elder dies it´s like going to Oxford and burning the library…can COP17 and all the institutions regard the elders as a knowledge library that we have to save before it goes to decay. I don´t see in a hundred years to come we will be having knowledgeable elders with this knowledge… there is a huge gap between the young and the elders, that´s why we said the food in the packet, there is no knowledge there, no elder who is going to transfer the knowledge there, there is no connection, no connection to