Various civil society organisations, including environmental protection organisations, have voiced strong criticism of the decision by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to support the heavily coal-dependent industrial zone in the Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ), in Limpopo.
The organisations condemned the joint China-South Africa industrial megaproject, which is located in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve, and the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the UNDP and the MMSEZ State-owned company on the basis that it “violates every principle of sustainable development which the UNDP purports to serve”.
The Vhembe Biosphere Reserve is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation- (Unesco-) registered Biosphere Reserve.
The Centre for Environmental Rights, Natural Justice, the University of the Witwatersrand's Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) and Living Limpopo sent an open letter to UNDP South Africa resident representative Dr Ayodele Odusola, and have further slammed the agency for the failings of its grievance mechanisms.
In the letter, the cohort of nongovernmental organisations and academic signatories argue that the MoU lends this “fundamentally flawed project undeserved credibility that is being used to attract investors and deflect criticism”.
In the MoU announced on March 17, the UNDP declares its support for the MMSEZ in order to “tackle South Africa’s triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment”.
However, many organisations and persons, who have registered as interested and affected parties, contend that the MMSEZ will worsen poverty, inequality and unemployment in Limpopo by aggravating water insecurity, climate change vulnerability, pollution and environmental degradation, the disease burden in an impoverished rural community, job losses in other collaterally damaged sectors of the economy, and the national fiscal debt load.
“The MMSEZ project, from conception to completion, violates many rights of indigenous and local communities in Limpopo. Natural Justice works substantively with these communities and is aware of the struggles the communities have suffered relating to their land, their culture and heritage,” Natural Justice representative Jacqueline Rukanda said.
Living Limpopo representative Lauren Liebenberg said it is the lost opportunity that disappoints most.
“The UNDP’s support for government’s Operation Phakisa for the Biodiversity Economy would have turbocharged roll-out in the province of a genuinely viable, sustainable and transformative development plan.
“Instead, without prior consultation, it announces its backing for coal exploitation and coal-based heavy industry, which will forever destroy our rich natural capital endowment in the Vhembe, along with its economic potential for its rural custodians,” she said.
“The UNDP is legitimising this dirty project and the consequences are real and damaging,” said CALS' Dr Louis Snyman.
The letter calls upon the UNDP to demonstrate its commitment to human rights and environmental legal standards, as well as its own principles, by retracting the MoU and officially communicating its retraction.