South Africa is a nation blessed by vast natural resources. When these resources are respected and conserved, they’re capable of replenishing themselves over time and meeting the needs of generations to come. This is not the way to maximize the amount of profit to be made in resource extraction, though. This is why many sand miners in South Africa step outside the law to harvest sand from protected areas, causing a tremendous amount of environmental and economic damage.
Why Miners Ignore Conservation Laws
Like any modern country, South Africa has established conservation laws and regulations to protect its environment from harmful exploitation. When it comes to the sand extraction industry, these rules consist largely of well-defined “at risk” zones where miners are forbidden to operate. Many sand mining operations, especially smaller ones, choose to ignore these boundaries and mine sand on coasts and in rivers where their operations do considerable damage.
Miners who decide to extract sand from protected regions can operate more cheaply than those that stay within the bounds of the law. Sand in these regions is often easier to obtain than in less-endangered areas, allowing the miners to haul out more sand for the same amount of work. Additionally, illegal miners have little incentive to follow other environmental and safety regulations. This lets them take shortcuts in their operational procedures that reduce their overhead and give them another unfair advantage over law-abiding companies.
The Economic Impact Of Illegal Mining
Illegal sand mining undercuts the true price of sand on the South African market. By competing with illegal harvesters, legitimate miners are forced to sell their sand at prices that can barely cover their expenses. As long as illegal material continues to flood the market, the price of sand will not reach a level that reflects its relative scarcity and environmental value.
On a nationwide scale, illegal mining incurs tremendous costs because the damage these operations cause has to be addressed as quickly as possible by coordinated government action. Although in an ideal world these expenses could be recouped from the miners who are responsible for the damage, in practice illegal sand mining companies are rarely prosecuted to the point of recovering enough money to pay for the cleanup procedures they make necessary.
While illegal mining causes many environmental problems that will be familiar to students of ecological damage – such as altering local environments, destroying animal habitats, further endangering threatened species, and putting sensitive biomes at risk – in South Africa the true cost of these illegal sand harvesting operations has a human face.
In 2015, years of illegal sand mining in the Umvoti River combined with historically low precipitation levels to make it impossible to extract drinking water from the river system. This caused a complete failure of the water supply for 27,000 homes in KwaZulu-Natal, and it took three weeks to correct the problem at a cost of millions of Rand.
Illegal mining has long been a serious problem in South Africa, and it’s important to raise awareness of the fact that it’s not just rare and precious materials that are targets for unlawful extraction. Even something as prosaic as sand requires careful conservation in order to prevent serious – even potentially life-threatening – environmental damage.