Indigenous Tribes Prepare for Deep Sea Mining’s Cultural Degradation


The indigenous tribes of South Africa have a premonition regarding deep sea mining, which is about to embark upon their coastal waters. The mining is predicted to destroy sea life, threatening their cultural identity. 

“When the sea life dies, our spirits die as well,” explained Peterson Englebrecht, a traditional Khoisan leader. “Belief in the marine after world is our custom.” Heaven is not straight up, but lies in the sea. These beliefs ring true for Englebrecht and the entire community of Kassiesbaai village in Arniston of the Western Cape in South Africa. 

Deep sea mining is a coup de grâce to our cultural identity, added Englebrecht. It will occur, despite backlash from science, cultural activists and non-governmental organisations.  

Kassiesbaai village falls within the prospecting rights for marine phosphate and was allocated to three companies in 2012 and 2014. These companies include Green Flash Trading 251 (Pty) Ltd (GFT 251), Green Flash Trading 257 (Pty) Ltd (GFT 257) and Diamond Fields International Ltd (DFI Ltd). 

The village is the only remaining historic fishing village in the country. It has its inception in 1905. It has a population of 1,677 and more than 90 percent of households are 100 percent dependent on marine living resources. The name “Kassiesbaai” is Afrikaans meaning, “bay of the little boxes” because the thatched, whitewashed fishermans’ houses resemble boxes from afar.

Traditional ceremonies reinforce the connection between the people from the village and sea, Englebrecht added. The Khoisan people have a complex belief regarding water. They see the sea water as the essence of both spiritual and physical life. It is an important element to conduct rituals to aid communication with the spirit world. The sea, according to Englebrecht, “is a living force which has the power to transform people from one state to another at a spiritual and physical level.”

“This is fraught with cultural challenges.This sea is our culture. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. First it will be the loss to food. Then the relationship with water,” said Englebrecht.

The total prospecting areas allocated is approximately 150,000 km, which is 10 percent of South Africa’s exclusive economic zone. This area has several existing fishery footprints, critically endangered ecosystems and habitats earmarked for protection in offshore marine protected areas.  

South Africa has 8,050 small-scale fishermen and 1,660 are based in this area. These fishers directly rely on healthy marine ecosystems for livelihood, nutrition, food security and income. They also play a critical role in providing employment and access to protein in coastal communities. 

Phosphate mining to harm ecosystems 

Land based phosphate mining and processing has left a serious pollution problem behind. According to scientists, this is because phosphate rock contains various metals and radioactive elements. 

There is a need for more investment in marine science to support sound decision-making in the deep sea environment. Very little is known about the oceans. Yet we are considering new offshore activities, like phosphate mining, that have never taken place.

Mining is a short-term non-renewable activity. Once the phosphate has been extracted, the jobs are gone. In contrast, if fisheries are managed sustainably, the food and job security they provide can last for many generations to come, according to marine scientist Even Lunsche.

Lunsche said phosphate mining of the seafloor is a major concern and must be considered a threat. He stated that a moratorium should be imposed while further environmental and risk assessments be conducted.

“Environmental impacts of seabed mining could include destruction of benthic, or seabed, habitats, the release of heavy metals and other dangerous materials such as hydrogen sulfide trapped in the seabed, algal blooms from mobilised phosphates, underwater noise pollution and reduced photosynthesis from reduced light penetration,” Lunsche said.

Mining in South Africa

Mining in general has not been kind to ecosystems, communities and culture of the people in South Africa. From the dry lands in Limpopo to virgin swaths of the coastal areas, humans have carved up the earth’s surface in search of minerals and metals.

In addition, the mining sector in the country is written in blood. Several activists have been killed. In a joint report released by the Centre for Environmental Rights, community activists in groundWork, Earthjustice, and Human Rights Watch face harassment, intimidation and violence. 

The 74-page report, “We Know Our Lives Are In Danger: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities,” reveals that the attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilize about damage to their livelihoods from environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants.

African people and ocean relationship

Aeneas Chigwedere is a politician, historian, educationist, and traditional leader who said the ocean is a constant for people of Africa, with cultures centred around long-held relationships that remain embedded in everyday life. 

Chigwedere said the people rely on the sea for fishing and cultural activities. “Many cultures in Africa hold a strong sense of stewardship, pride and spiritual link to the sea,” Chigwedere explained. “They share a sacred connection to it and its creatures, upon which they rely to fulfill their cultural and spiritual heritage. African people and the ocean are linked as they rely on the sea for food, water and air for our survival.”  

They enjoy the beauty of the sea and utilize the ocean for transportation, resources and recreation. 

Environmental organisations concerns and conclusions

The science is clear. Deep sea mining imposes a serious threat to sustainability. Instead of deep sea mining, the country needs a circular economy that puts eco-design, re-use, repairing, sharing and recycling.

 Studies commissioned by the Safeguard our Seabed Coalition (SOSC), an alliance of non-governmental organisations, warned that marine phosphate mining, “would have severe and irreversible impacts on marine ecosystems, livelihood and food security benefits sustained by our fishing industry.”

SOSC is seeking a moratorium on bulk marine sediment mining in South Africa’s exclusive economic zone until more is known about its environmental impacts and knock-on effects on renewable industries, such as fisheries. 

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