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Mine Hunters

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The wave-rich South African west coast is a favored haunt for world champions and underground surf explorers alike, renowned for its searing summer heat, empty spaces, and cold-water barrels. Diamond extraction, both on- and offshore, has long taken place a few hundred miles north of Elands Bay and into Namibia. But now the southern region is also under threat, both on its empty beaches and in its nutrient-rich waters.

A slew of multinational mining companies, which seem to have at least tacit approval from South African authorities, are tearing up the coast despite widespread concerns about their environmental impact. Numerous mines have popped up on the beach, and there are several pending applications for more offshore. Plans for a large shipping port also have been proposed.

Cape Town big-wave charger Mike Schlebach discovered one mining company’s stealthy operations the hard way. On a recent trip to a semi-secret slab, Schlebach learned that their digging for valuable minerals has quietly spread much farther south than expected—just 50 miles north of Elands and a mere 10 miles up from the mouth of Olifants River. Schlebach was blocked from beach access by rent-a-cops employed by the Tormin mine.

“I was told that I needed a permit to visit an area that I knew to be public land,” Schlebach says. “Security also told me that I couldn’t stay overnight, which is wrong. I pushed back and got ‘permission’ from them to camp on public land. The next day, I took a drive north to find the Tormin mine on the beach, and could see new roads, trucks, and diggers all hard at work ripping up the coastline.”

Mining in these nearshore zones can result in the imbalance of sediments, the collapse of cliffs, and the deposition of terrestrial material into the water column, which can undermine the local fishing industry. South Africa’s entire west coast is also a biodiversity hot spot, and its interconnected ecosystems are a haven for unique sea life and land-based flora and fauna—all now under threat. And the mining affects coastal-access rights, thus impacting outdoor sports, tourism, local communities, and indigenous cultural heritage sites such as Khoisan middens.

Incensed, Schlebach assembled a raft of like-minded individuals, concerned surfers, and other lovers of the area—including big-wave world champion Grant “Twiggy” Baker—to form Protect the West Coast (PTWC), a nonprofit with a focus to raise awareness and oppose mining applications.

“It’s a heavy situation,” says Twiggy. “To propose to dig up almost 50 kilometers of pristine environment and beautiful, untouched beaches is overstepping every boundary. This is a pending horrific environmental disaster on the largest scale.”

When Schlebach formed PTWC in November 2020, he knew they would be in for a fight. Two of the main companies involved, Mineral Commodities Limited (MRC), based in Western Australia, and its local South Africa sub- sidiary, Mineral Sands Resources Limited (MSR), have launched several defamation cases against activists who fought against their previous mining propositions in the Transkei on South Africa’s east coast, suing them for tens of millions of rands.

However, in February 2021 a landmark ruling was handed down by Western Cape High Court that dismissed MSR and MRC’s strategic lawsuits against public participation. The ruling, celebrated widely by environmentalists and affected communities, is a major victory in cam- paigning against mining companies that use the courts as a means to silence critics. It has also emboldened PTWC in its fight.

“It’s a major coup for the environment and its protection,” Schlebach says, “and we plan on using it to put more pressure on both the government and the miners by bringing information into the public domain, which will encourage better oversight, accountability, and alternatives.”

Since its launch, Protect the West Coast has enjoyed a fair share of publicity and attracted a solid following in the surf community and beyond. The organization is also planning several awareness drives in the near future, including digital campaigns, short films, protests, and potential injunctions.

“These areas are far more valuable by being protected,” adds Schlebach. “They are for future generations. It’s time for us all to put the natural world first, before it’s too late.

[Feature image by Alan van Gysen.]