Groups Opposed to Fracking in the Karoo Must Forge Stronger Links

Rich landowners, poor communities, environmentalists, NGOs and labour must find a common voice to fight against a common enemy.

By Saliem Fakir · 12 Mar 2015

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Picture: Climate Access
Picture: Climate Access

As the government presses ahead with fracking, it is not entirely certain whether all South Africans will reap the rich rewards proponents are punting. There is still some way to go. While exploration rights are being processed there is a legislative mountain that must still be climbed.

The legislative terrain ranges from the passing of revisions to the Mining Act to the finalisation of water and drilling regulations as well as government’s desire to establish a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for the Karoo.
Nevertheless, there is always the danger that companies could take short cuts either because they are just in it for the money and/or because the regulatory bodies we put our trust in lack the bare essentials to hold the system of compliance and oversight together.

While there is overwhelming consensus within the South African government to allow for shale gas exploration, there are concerns and differences of views about the social and environmental impacts of fracking. In the latest budget speech, just over R100m has been allocated to research and ensuring the right regulations are put in place.

Fracking is expansive rather than intensive in its use of land. And it is precisely because of its expansiveness that it touches many more people than mining an ore body from a single mineshaft. This remains a core challenge for the gas companies should they expand into production beyond the exploration stage.

Given the trust deficit there will be no let up of social mobilisation against fracking. Social mobilisation against fracking has indeed seen a revival of mass-based environmentalism - but it faces challenges.

Firstly, whilst sustained public pressure from various social groups has had some effect, it has not stopped government’s approval of exploration.

Secondly, current anti-fracking alliances seem to be fragile.

Since shale gas operations require vast tracks of land, inevitably companies will have to negotiate access to sites and confront landowners concerned about the contamination of their water resources in addition to other fears. A curious alliance could emerge between rich and poor landowners. But it is too early to tell.

The most well known group against fracking is the Treasure Karoo Action Group (TKAG), which boasts 7,000 odd members on its Facebook page. It operates with limited resources and relies on volunteers.

The TKAG is in a formal alliance with AfriForum, which primarily represents white farmers in the area. AfriForum is seen as a defender of Afrikaner interests, which does present some problems for other community groups. The TKAG’s strategy with AfriForum is to build an on-the-ground presence. It also has links with the Khoisan community, but the exact substance of this relationship is still evolving.

COSATU and NUMSA have also taken positions against fracking, but their level of organisation on the ground cannot, at this point, be considered visible or vocal enough. Their opposition appears to be limited to statements issued at conferences as well as those in policy documents. There is no indication that the unions who oppose fracking have been able to use their clout to stop fracking.

Landowners who have no real incentive to have rigs on their properties are concerned about the value and productivity of their land. They may well choose to lock the process in a legal battle.

Already, on the ground, people talk of rich farmers and landowners ready to do battle as they have amassed a legal war chest. Unlike the situation in the U.S. where landowners own the land and mineral rights, landowners have no rights over minerals here in South Africa. Landowners in the U.S. can extract generous royalties from frackers and even risk their land because the incentive is high. This is not the case for private and communal landowners in South Africa. Here the spoils will be split between the fracking companies and the state with profits going to the companies, whilst royalties and taxes will go to the state.

Nevertheless, what we must pay attention to is the fact that the poor are divided on the issue of fracking.

Indigenous groups in the Karoo have sought to organize local communities in various parts of the Karoo – both for and against fracking, thus complicating the issue to some degree.

Those who have worked on the mines and still end up poor know all too well that outsiders and big companies, who are good at spinning a yarn, cannot be trusted. They would be more trusting if they saw determined political leadership over how the environment and profits are governed. They expect this at least from the post-apartheid government. But even here trust wears thin and a high-level of cynicism prevails.

At the same time, the issue of shale gas extraction is not something environmentalists can resolve by themselves. A broader base is needed like the one evolving for nuclear. But long years of desperation for jobs fuels wariness amongst the poor in relation to the better off. It’s just a fact of life. Even though they may have common interests with environmentalists, the poor are sometimes suspicious of entering into alliances with wealthier groups. Sadly, this is the case even when environmentalism could offer a more advantageous platform to negotiate a better deal.

There are, however, groups that can bridge the divide between local communities and groups challenging the policy and regulatory framework for fracking. These include, the unions and groups like Earthlife Africa, Groundwork, The Centre for Environmental Rights, Faith-based groups and others who have a history of working closely with poor communities.

At the end of the day, the magnification of voices opposed to fracking does not reveal the extent to which fracking is universally opposed in the country. There is still a long way to go. Social mobilisation is not a done deal and it remains a tough task all round.

Nevertheless, social mobilisation will have to be maintained in order to ensure that fracking does not turn into a license to extract without accountability.

Sure, there will be some low-skilled jobs, but inevitably low-skilled labourers in local areas end up competing will low-skilled labour from other areas. As far as jobs go, people could end up getting a raw deal, as migrant labour from other parts of South Africa (and possibly even other parts of the continent) will push down the price of labour. This already exposes the poor redistributive effects in the trickle down model of the oil and gas economy that is likely to unfold.

While social mobilisation has made a difference, in its current form, it may not be enough to stop fracking. If exploration does go ahead, social mobilisation will have to be more unifying than it currently is, as social pressure is the only thing to ensure that frackers don’t leave a wasteland in the Karoo and leave more people impoverished.

In the end, despite the fact that the Karoo is not a densely populated area, gas companies will have to contend with different groups and individuals, which will increase the cost of doing business. Nevertheless, there are enough people to give the drillers a hard time - and trouble they will get.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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