Riddle of the sands: is Rio moving on St Lucia?

An unknown mining company — thought by some to be a proxy for Richards Bay Minerals — is bidding to mine on the edge of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park | By Tony Carnie | Sunday Times 9 September 2018 | Pressreader article

It has been nearly 20 years since Rio Tinto retired with a bloody nose after trying to process some of the world’s tallest coastal forest dunes into toothpaste and other consumer goods. In the late 1980s, through subsidiary company Richards Bay Minerals (RBM), Rio Tinto sought permission to mine titanium, ilmenite and other heavy minerals from the coastal dunes along the eastern shores of Lake St Lucia — one of Africa’s largest estuarine lakes and oldest game reserves. The company wanted access to mineral sands that are used to manufacture anything from paint to cosmetics, ceramic tiles, welding rods and lightweight aviation parts. But after one of the most heated environmental battles in South African history, Nelson Mandela’s newly elected government sent RBM packing in 1996, opting instead to promote ecotourism and to designate this wild landscape as a Unesco World Heritage Site, now known as the iSimangaliso (Place of Wonder) Wetland Park.

Two decades down the line, a shadow has appeared on the horizon as a hitherto unknown mining company seeks to take another chunk out of the coastal dunes on the southern perimeter of the world heritage site. Eyamakhosi Resources — set up by a former RBM staffer — recently applied for prospecting rights in the dunes south of Maphelane, just outside iSimangaliso but within the 5km buffer zone of the world heritage site. Conservation groups that fought to stop the mining in iSimangaliso believe it is no coincidence that the new prospecting zone is directly adjacent to RBM’s dredge-mining operations. Eyamakhosi’s sole director, Sicebi Richman Mthethwa, has interests in transport and has also tendered to clear drains and verges on public roads, but has no track record in mining or rehabilitating ecologically sensitive coastal dunes.

Mthethwa acknowledged that he worked for RBM for five years prior to leaving its employ in 2015, but clammed up when asked if he has the experience or the capital to mine. “Maybe we should have a private meeting. I don’t want to give you half answers over the phone,” he said, but later failed to respond to e-mailed questions on whether RBM was using him to access mineral ores via the back door. The department of mineral affairs refused to release any information on Eyamakhosi’s application, while RBM said it does not discuss the activities of other mining companies or “internal discussions”.

But environmental consultant Roger Porter recalled that RBM had expressed interest in mining the same dunes about eight years ago, backing off when conservation groups pointed out that Rio had signed a voluntary agreement not to mine inside or on the boundaries of world heritage sites. Porter said he was concerned that mining so close to the world heritage site could lead to several negative impacts, ranging from mine-related pollution to a reduction of critical water supplies and the destruction of adjacent fauna and flora.

Andrew Venter, CEO of the WildTrust conservation and development group, said: “This new company [Eyamakhosi Resources] seems to be a proxy company and it is unclear whether RBM has any financial interests or agreements with it. “However, I suspect that RBM’s current ore resources in this area are coming to the end of their life, so they have a narrow window of opportunity to extend their operations if they can secure additional ores. “The clever way to secure new ore would be to partner with local companies that are not big enough for standalone mining operations ... So is RBM simply using the local community to extend their northern mining operation?” He noted that RBM recently initiated plans to move the company’s existing northern mining operations to a new lease area, south of Richards Bay. The cost of moving dredgers, mineral separators and other infrastructure nearly 70km southwards would be enormous, so it made business sense to extend the life of the northern operation as long as possible.

Responding to a detailed list of questions about the company’s ore reserves and whether it has any relationship with Eyamakhosi Resources, RBM spokesperson Zanele Zungu said: “We do not discuss matters relating to the activities of other mining companies or provide detail of any internal discussions. “In terms of RBM, the mine life, based upon the existing mining licence areas, potentially extends to 2041. Work continues on the feasibility study for the Zulti South mine expansion, which will maintain RBM’s low-cost smelting capacity and zircon production. The project remains one of the best undeveloped mineral sand deposits in the industry, given its large ilmenite resource with high rutile and zircon content in the overall mineral suite.”

‘I suspect that RBM’s current ore resources in this area are coming to the end of their life, so they have a narrow window of opportunity to extend their operations if they can secure additional ores.’