A nickel-mining company is threatening to sue an environmental watchdog for R50-million in damages after the latter raised concern about water use and public participation at a prospecting site near the Cradle of Humankind.
African Nickel this week launched a North Gauteng High Court application to stop what it called a “smear campaign” by Marthinus van As, a member of the Landowners Association of Magaliesberg, which it said could harm its R500-million Golden Valley mining project. Van As and environmental lobbyists were spreading “false facts and allegations” that had been reported in various newspapers and magazines in recent weeks, the company said.
Van As and the landowners association were not able to comment this week, but other environmental groups said the application was a classic case of strategic litigation against public participation, or Slapp.
The concept, which originated in the United States, involves the intimidation of civil society organisations so that they refrain from actively participating in public participation processes.
It’s usually used to silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a huge legal defence.
In the first case in South Africa, construction company Wraypex slapped five Magaliesberg environmentalists with a R250-million defamation suit in 2005 after they objected to the development of an 18-hole golf course near the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site.
North Gauteng High Court Judge Stanley Sapire threw out the case last November and ordered Wraypex to pay an estimated R1-million in costs for “vexatious litigation”. Earlier this month, the judge refused Wraypex leave to appeal the judgment.
Koos Pretorius, a director of the national non-profit Federation for a Sustainable Environment, said: “This is a typical Slapp suit. They are trying to intimidate the Magaliesberg landowners by scaring them off.”
African Nickel’s action followed Van As’s refusal to give an undertaking to the company that he would ask the publishers of various articles to withdraw “false statements” and publish an apology to the company.
Recent articles in The Star, Farmers Weekly, Moneyweb and other media reported that the landowners association was appealing against a licence granted by the mineral resources department to African Nickel and its partner, Boynton Investments, to prospect for nickel over an area of about 650ha.
The reports mentioned the association’s concern about the amount of water being used in the process, as well as possible pollution of the Magalies River and Hartebeespoort Dam catchment area.
They also related concern that there had been insufficient public participation in the drawing up of the environmental management plan and that the plan was being violated in several ways.
African Nickel denied these concerns in its application and said the area it had been prospecting was 9km away from a “buffer zone” around the world heritage site and not “environmentally sensitive”.
The company said it had been forced to take legal action because the reports could prejudice its investors.
“The application is not something like a gagging order against the press, or an attempt to prune the freedom of expression of individuals. It is definitely not an attempt to shut the bona fide complaints of environmentalists,” said chief executive Timothy Keating.
A mining engineer and former investment bank employee, Keating said the value of a future nickel mine at Golden Valley was expected to be at least R500-million. Van As’s objections could cause delays that would reduce its value by 10%, or R50-million.
A meeting was held on Wednesday between Van As, another member of the landowners’ association and African Nickel, on whether the association would oppose the application.