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Saving Gamsberg’s succulents

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Several species found in the Gamsberg area are threatened. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

Saving Gamsberg’s succulents

Vedanta had to put on more than one cap when they started mining in the unique landscape of South Africa’s Succulent Karoo.    

By Leon Louw founder and editor of WhyAfrica

When Vedanta Zinc International (VZI) broke ground at Gamsberg in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa in 2015, they not only opened-up the largest undeveloped zinc deposit in the world, but also inadvertently became the custodian of an extremely sensitive biodiversity hotspot. They were given the mammoth task to manage and preserve the unique succulents of Gamsberg and the immediate surroundings.

The Succulent Karoo Biome, shared between South Africa and Namibia, is one of five semi-arid biodiversity hotspots in the world, and is extremely rich in botanical diversity. Hundreds of succulent plant species occupy tiny ranges within the isolated inselbergs scattered throughout this vast landscape. Underlying the weak developed soils of the Karoo, are the valuable natural resources that gave birth to Gamsberg Zinc Mine, South Africa’s youngest large-scale mine.

Gamsberg is about 30km from Vedanta’s other South African mine, 42-year-old Black Mountain Mine (BMM) in Aggeneys, a small mining town in South Africa’s northern hinterland, nestled within the spectacular hillocks of the Northern Cape that hosts rich deposits of zinc, lead, copper, and silver. Together, BMM and Gamsberg are known as the Black Mountain Mining Complex (BMC).

The BMC cluster forms the backbone of a modest provincial economy and with expansions at both Gamsberg and BMM in the pipeline, Vedanta’s project is a ray of hope for a frail national economy.

Gamsberg comprises an open pit mine and a processing plant. At full production in Phase 1, the mine is expected to produce more than four million tonnes (t) of ore from the pit and about 250,000 tonnes per annum (tpa) of zinc-in-concentrate. In April 2022, Vedanta announced a further investment of R7-billion for the development of Gamsberg Phase 2.

The investment into the open cast zinc mine promises to create 2,000 to 2,500 jobs during the construction phase and a further 800 to 1,000 permanent jobs during the peak operations phase. Once construction is complete, the expansion will double Gamsberg’s annual ore capacity to eight million tonnes and the mine will produce an additional 200,000 tonnes a year of metal in concentrate (MIC).

Gamsberg plans to develop three new underground shafts that will increase the life of mine to more than 50 years (from 30 years).

BMM comprises the Deeps shaft and Swartberg underground shafts and a processing plant. Plans are afoot to deepen Swartberg, which will increase production substantially. Further ramp-up is planned, taking copper and lead ore production past the two-million-tonne-per-annum mark. The Swartberg Expansion Project has received environmental approval. BMM has been in operation since 1980 and was acquired from Anglo American by Vedanta Resources in 2010/2011.

Vedanta Zinc International’s Gamsberg mine is located in biodiversity hotspot in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

Building mother stock  

But WhyAfrica was not in Aggeneys to visit Vedanta’s mining operations. We were there to discover the secret world of some of the most threatened plant species on earth: the succulents of Aggeneys’ isolated inselbergs.

Heading up Vedanta’s conservation efforts at BMC, is Biodiversity Manager Koos Smit and his team. Smit is an experienced ecologist who has done important work with offsetting agreements at mining giant Exxaro Resources before joining Vedanta in 2017. Exxaro Resources owns 24.4% of BMM.

Smit met me in Aggeneys before driving to BMC’s nursery where the biodiversity team is carrying out conservation initiatives on the threatened and endangered succulents of the area. The nursery is an important conservation initiative to secure mother stock for seed harvesting and purgation of plants for conservation and rehabilitation purposes. Threatened and/or protected plant species are identified, marked, and translocated to the nursery before mining or construction of infrastructure commences.

The succulents are kept in the nursery in conditions that closely resembles their natural habitat. Collected seeds, plants transferred from the areas of development and plants propagated from seeds/cutting in the nursery will be used to rehabilitate mined-out sections of the mining and infrastructure development areas

“As part of our commitment to no net loss at BMM and Gamsberg Zinc Mine, the team moves as many sensitive plants to the nursery as possible. The integrated flora permits issued in terms of the Northern Cape Nature Conservation Act, 2009 (Act No 9 of 2009) (NCNCA) and the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act, 2004 (Act No 10 of 2004) (NEMBA) requires Gamsberg to keep as a minimum five representative individuals of each species of all indigenous plants that occur naturally in the area, 50 representative individual plants of all the  NCNCA listed protected species and 100 representative individual plants of all threatened or protected species listed by NEMBA: Threatened or Protected Species Lists. This will require a total of almost 130 000 plants in the nursery, excluding species propagated for future rehabilitation projects,” Smit explains.

The objectives of Black Mountain’s nursery are to, amongst others, conserve the required plant numbers per species as per integrated flora permit, to conduct research and ensure that there is always enough mother stock of the threatened species stored within the nursery. Gamsberg is currently planning a research project on how dust generated by mining activities affect the succulent plants of the area and will engage various universities in this regard as part of recommended research projects to form part of the implementation of the biodiversity management plan and biodiversity monitoring protocols.

BMM has engaged with and is finalising a service level agreement with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) who will assists them with the training, skills development and harvesting of seeds in the field, training of nursery employees in the collection of seeds and the propagation of plants from seeds and/or cuttings. SANBI will also assist BMM in submitting material to the Millennium Seedbank for conservation as backup to eliminate the potential risk of extinction of certain plant species.

Vedanta appointed an external services provider, NM Restoration, in November 2013 and during April to mid July 2015 to assist with the search and rescue program within the development footprint (including the open pit, all roads, and offices) at Gamsberg.

At the time, there were more than 15 people who searched, identified, marked, and then translocated plants to the nursery before any vegetation clearance as part of construction activities took place and the first blast for mining commenced. Neil MacDonald, who was part of the NM restoration team was appointed as Biodiversity Officer in August 2015 and took care of all the plants in the nursery. A Nursery Management Plan was developed by external service provider and Agarob Nursery was appointed in October 2019 to obtain additional resources to assist with the growing plant numbers, care, maintenance, pest and nursing of all plants through the implementation of the nursery management plan.

“We now need sufficient mother stock in the nursery to not only collect seeds, but also to propagate for future rehabilitation within the BMM and Gamsberg mining areas,” says Smit.

When Phase 2 of the Gamsberg expansion gets underway (which includes the construction of a second processing plant and the increase of production to 8Mtpa, current disturbed areas will be used to lay down construction materials, instead of clearing and disturbing new areas with natural occurring vegetation. “Therefore, a decision was made to delay the rehabilitation of current disturbed areas, until construction of Phase 2 is completed. Once the processing plant is up and running, we will start rehabilitating available disturbed areas,” says Smit.

Offsetting to ensure no net loss

According to Dr Urishanie Govender, Vedanta Director EHS and ESG, VZI is committed to be biodiversity positive by 2030. “We are aiming for biodiversity gains through various restoration programmes to enhance biodiversity within previously disturbed areas. BMM has embarked on a substantial offsetting programme that includes the acquisition of seven additional farms that will be handed over the Northern Cape Department of Roads and Public Works and will thereafter be declared protected areas under the National Environmental Management Protected Areas Act, 2003 (Act No 57 of 2003),” says Dr Govender.

“In 2017 we identified several farms with vegetation very similar to the areas that Gamsberg planned to mine. BMM managed to secure four farms by the end of September 2017. On the 5th of August 2020 the MEC of the Northern Cape Department of Environment and Nature Conservation (DENC) (recently changed to the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Affairs, Rural Development and Land Reform (DAEARDLR)) proclaimed these farms a protected area and the Gamsberg Nature Reserve was born. The four farms secured to date was transferred to the Northern Cape Department of Roads and Public Works on 13 May 2022,” says Smit.

In total, these four farms cover an area of about 22,000 hectares. Smit says that BMM is currently in negotiations to acquire two of the remaining three farms, that will be included in the Gamsberg Nature Reserve Protected Area.

According to the Biodiversity Offset Report, an Annexure to the Biodiversity Offset Agreement signed between BMM and DENC , they have to acquire 16 hectares for every one hectare of calcrete that they disturb.

“We first need to avoid sensitive areas. If that is not possible, we need to minimise and mitigate the impact. That means restoring and rehabilitating the area. Only as a last resort should you start looking at biodiversity offsets. To prevent any additional offsets going forward, we need to implement the biodiversity mitigation hierarchy first,” says Smit.

So, what are the chances that the disturbed areas would be rehabilitated? “The chances are good to rehabilitate infrastructure layout areas once construction of mining and mining related infrastructure is completed. The results of rehabilitation monitoring reports of areas that were rehabilitated in the past indicate good results. It is encouraging to see several sensitive and threatened species have moved back into some of the areas through natural plant succession and with limited interventions.

Intervention such as in seeding and even propagation and transplanting of plants produced in the nursery will speed-up rehabilitation and species diversity in order to enhanced and improved rehabilitation success.

Leon Louw is the founder and editor of WhyAfrica. He specialises in the extraction and responsible utilisation of natural resources, the primary sector of African economies and Africa’s political economy. 

WhyAfrica reports about, and publishes newsletters, magazines and research reports about natural resources and the primary sectors of African economies, and the infrastructure, equipment and engineering methods needed to extract and utilise these resources in an efficient, responsible, sustainable, ethic and environmentally friendly way, so that it will benefit the people of Africa.

Furthermore, WhyAfrica promotes Africa as an investment and travel destination, analyses the continent’s business environment and investment opportunities, and reports on how the political economy of African countries affects its development.         

WhyAfrica provides you with business intelligence that matters. Africa is our business, and we want it to be yours too. To subscribe to WhyAfrica’s free newsletter or digital magazine, and for more news on Africa, visit the website at www.whyafrica.co.za or send a direct message. WhyAfrica launched its first ever digital magazine in November 2021.

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