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Civil society challenges Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone

- Lee-Anne Bruce

Joint release by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Living Limpopo and All Rise Attorneys for Climate and Environmental Justice

Our organisations have approached the High Court in Polokwane to review the environmental authorisation granted in respect of the heavy industrial development site of the Special Economic Zone located in northern Limpopo. We argue that the process was fatally flawed, with the provincial government granting itself environmental authorisation while ignoring severe impacts on water security and the climate crisis of this coal-fuelled mega-project.

The Herd Nature Reserve, Living Limpopo and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), represented by All Rise Attorneys for Climate and Environmental Justice, have launched a review application in the High Court in Polokwane. Our organisations are asking the Court to review and set aside an environmental authorisation which relates to the major development site of the Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone, also known as the MMSEZ. Due to the impact of the matter and large number of the community members who may be adversely affected if the decision to allow this project to proceed is not challenged, Legal Aid Aid South Africa was approached to provide support for the Applicants to be able to pursue this matter to the High Court. 

The Special Economic Zone was designated in 2017, with the Limpopo provincial government identifying two sites to the north and south of Musina for development and industrialisation. The operating entity, the MMSEZ State-Owned Company, is wholly owned by the Limpopo Economic Development Agency (LEDA) – an agency of the same provincial government department responsible for overseeing environmental authorisations. The MMSEZ is projected to generate over one billion tons of CO2e over its lifetime, or more than 10% of South Africa’s annual carbon budget under its Paris Agreement Commitments. The scale of the development has the potential to radically alter the environmental, social and economic landscape of the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve region, and the risks demand considered decision-making around environmental authorisation.

Many organisations – including All Rise, Living Limpopo and CALS – have repeatedly raised concerns about the feasibility and impact of the MMSEZ on this sensitive region and its vulnerable rural communities. Efforts to engage meaningfully with the government agencies sponsoring the project through the public participation process have proved futile. The final Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report issued in February 2021 by Delta Built Environment Consultants did not recommend authorisation. In spite of this, the Limpopo provincial government proceeded to appoint another environmental assessment practitioner to issue a revised final EIA Report in September 2021, which paved the way to grant itself authorisation in February 2022.

CALS and All Rise, along with several other civil society organisations promoting environmental and social justice, brought internal appeals against the decision to grant environmental authorisation, all of which were dismissed in July last year. We have therefore approached the High Court to review and set aside the environmental authorisation and instead uphold our appeal. We argue that the EIA, appeal, and public participation processes needed to be more procedurally fair and properly consider the impacts on, amongst other things, climate change and water security.

The review application includes two expert reports. The first, by Dr Louis Snyman from CALS, examines the potential devastating consequences of such a high-impact development without proper consideration of spatial planning. These include the loss of biodiversity, worsening already aging infrastructure and water supply problems, droughts, flooding, pollution and wetland destruction. The second report from independent political ecologist, Dr Victor Munnik, focuses on the dangerous impact of the water supply plans to meet the vast water requirements of the MMSEZ in this already water-stressed region.

“The Vhembe region contains some of the most biodiverse and culturally sensitive areas in the country, including the northern Kruger National Park, Mapungubwe World Heritage Site and other areas like the Herd Reserve, which are largely unprotected,” says Dr Louis Snyman, head of Environmental Justice at CALS. “This is already a water-scarce area, and failing to properly consider spatial development could have devastating consequences.”

“Living Limpopo has taken to the street markets of Thohoyandou to speak to the people who trade in indigenous natural commodities wild-harvested in the area around the MMSEZ, as well as to smallholder farmers and people living in nearby villages,” says Lauren Liebenberg. “Few had even heard of the MMSEZ. Those who had were sceptical. All want their voices heard. The Vhembe is our birthright. It has been sold without permission.”

“The right to an environment that is not harmful to health or wellbeing is guaranteed in the Constitution,” says Kirsten Youens from All Rise. “This is not only about protecting the physical aspects of the environment but the social, cultural and spiritual attributes. The MMSEZ is a massive development that will extensively impact all aspects of the environment. It will result in a severe setback to efforts to fight the climate crisis and render South Africa in breach of our international obligations.”

Read more in our founding papers here.

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