Shenton Safaris

Destroying the Wild Coast – the illegal sand mining crisis

Written by: Landia Davies 

The Wild Coast of South Africa is known as a remote and rugged region, largely unaltered by human development, but times are changing. Today the once-pristine sand dunes are being denuded one truckload at a time.

Undermining the hard earned, yet tenuous, wins in protracted battles against proposed titanium mining and toll road construction this coastal region is now being destroyed for far less socio-economic gain in order to meet domestic demands for building sand.

In the Eastern Cape building sand is in high demand, creating a gap in the market for shameless opportunists who are profiting from the free resources being plundered. Sand mining is a lucrative, albeit criminal business that feeds the rising construction demand both in this developing region and further inland. Journalists’ investigations have revealed that the unlawfully mined sand is being used to construct government schools, RDP houses and private homes.

In August 2014 Deputy Director of Environmental Affairs, Jaap Pienaar, told the Daily Dispatch that widespread illegal dune stripping “was causing massive damage to the Wild Coast, and if allowed to continue unchecked, would have negative long-term consequences for the region”.

The damage being done to sensitive coastal and estuarine environments is irreparable and the biodiversity lost – irreplaceable. To make matters worse, the impacts of illicit mining in the 1km buffer zone, which is officially designated as a protected area, are not being managed, limited or monitored. This is particularly relevant due to the absence of any rehabilitation measures.

The damage, however, goes beyond environmental impacts. According to a recent traveler, the speeding truck drivers are putting the lives of people, who walk and drive on these once-quiet roads, at risk. A concerned resident shared his experience, explaining that the drivers speed along the roads and drive recklessly, endangering pedestrians using the roads as they go about their daily lives, as well as visitors heading to the beach. There have already been instances of pedestrians being knocked down and seriously injured, while animals have been killed, hitting subsistence farmers hard.

A lodge owner, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, says that the dune raiding, “has a huge impact on tourism, as not only does it destroy the untouched beauty of the Wild Coast and create noise pollution in the whole area, but most of the truck drivers and sand loaders create major disturbance in the area”.

Furthermore, the daily stream of heavy trucks is worsening the condition of already poor roads, as well as fast damaging re-graveled rural roads. The deteriorating road conditions affect locals, as well as having a negative impact on tourism, making destinations harder to reach and increasing travel times, which limits access to intrepid visitors with lots of time and hardy 4×4 vehicles.

Resolving the dune-raiding problem is not as simple as stopping a few unscrupulous sand miners from degrading the local environment. It’s a complex crisis embedded in the unique historical context of this rugged region. This exceptional stretch of coastline falls within the former Transkei area, created under the apartheid regime. The remote 250km long coastal zone is scattered with rural villages, holiday homes and tourist destinations, the best-known tourism spots being Coffee Bay and Port St Johns. Known as the Xhosa heartland, this is not only Mandela’s birthplace, but also one of the poorest parts of the country

In the past, the lack of infrastructure and investment in the former Transkei inadvertently sheltered the scenic coast from the negative effects of rampant development, keeping the place “wild”. Unfortunately, this lack of development has simultaneously resulted in a myriad of socio-economic and political challenges specific to the province.

Locals have to endure the noise, the dust and the pollution caused by the succession of large trucks, along with the presence of dangerous and intimidating drivers, but tourists looking for some peace and quiet in untouched nature, are likely to go elsewhere. As the natural beauty and tranquility of the region are permanently demolished and the infrastructure is ruined, so the income-generating potential of the Wild Coast as a tourist destination disappears.

Tourism is currently the main source of income for many of the Wild Coast villages, so the collapse of the tourism industry would result in an economic crisis, unless alternatives solutions are provided soon. This means that with the inevitable decline in tourism development, communities will lose the long-term economic benefits and be left instead with a scarred coastline and a host of unsolvable environmental problems!

The DEDEAT Draft Environmental Management Plan for the Wild Coast (2013) urgently needs to be implemented, starting with the need to “create a balance between the development of an underdeveloped, high poverty region and the protection of an environment which is nationally and internationally recognised as being of exceptional value and importance”.

Probably one of the most workable solutions proffered to date, is to legalise some of the mining sites to meet the need for sand to build local houses. Legalising some mining sites offers a compromise with the potential to meet the growing demands of local development, whilst operating within the laws intended to protect the environment and attendant tourism industry.

The tragedy is that while these words are being read, the trucks keep rolling in and the sand keeps rolling out.

African Budget Safaris works with a curated selection of safari operators, offering packages from Cape Town to Ethiopia. From one day of shark diving to 56 day pan-African overlands, we have it covered. Travellers benefit from our in-depth knowledge of both destinations and operators, and our prices are all guaranteed lower than booking directly.

Africa Geographic