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Environment : South Africans Make Waves Over Mine Plan : 300,000 have signed petitions to protect wetlands, energizing the nation's tiny 'green' movement.

January 11, 1994|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LUCIA, South Africa — The provincial parks board offers the following words of warning about some of the residents here in one of Africa's largest and most diverse estuaries.

In a pamphlet titled "How Not to Be Eaten by a Crocodile," for example, is this helpful hint: "Do NOT paddle, swim or play about in rivers or other areas where there are likely to be crocodiles."

And if confronted by a hippopotamus, be prepared to make "an instant decision." Either stand perfectly still or run as fast as you can. "Alternatively get up or behind a tree--not a bush or a sapling, but a tree." Hippos, it turns out, kill more tourists in Africa than lions.

Aside from hundreds of hippos and countless crocs, St. Lucia Park and Game Reserve is crowded with vast flocks of pelicans, flamingos, eagles and 483 other species of birds. Most feed on fish--some found nowhere else--that teem in a shallow, 25-mile-long brackish lake.

Endangered black rhinos, leopards, wildebeests, zebras and other large game roam in rolling hills covered in acacia and thornbush. There are 47 species of frogs alone in the meandering rivers and swamps that drain into the Indian Ocean. The surf, in turn, crashes over a rich coral reef onto mile after mile of deserted golden sand beaches crowned by towering dunes, some hundreds of feet high.

St. Lucia, about 150 miles north of Durban on South Africa's eastern coast, is one of the nation's largest, oldest and most popular conservation areas. It is even a candidate for designation by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, which guarantees international recognition and protection.

But the St. Lucia wetlands are also the focus of one of South Africa's biggest and most bitter environmental controversies. Over the last four years, more than 300,000 people have signed petitions to oppose plans by Richards Bay Minerals, a multinational mining company, to dig up about 10 miles of coastal dunes inside the park to extract titanium oxide slag, a material used in paints and other pigments.

The dispute probably won't be settled until a new national government is elected in April and decides whether to issue a mining permit. But St. Lucia has already produced one obvious winner: It has energized the country's tiny environmental movement and sparked one of the first mass protests among South African whites.

"Mining has been king here, and the environment has been way, way down the line," said David Lindley, conservation ecologist at the Wildlife Society of Southern Africa. He cites his group as an example: The Sierra Club clone has only 20,000 members--but is South Africa's largest conservation group by far.

"We are probably 20, 25 years behind the states and 15 years behind Europe as far as environmental law is concerned and as far as environmental opposition is concerned," Lindley said.

But the furor over St. Lucia may change that, he said. "Never before has an environmental issue gotten so much public support. It has set a precedent for future environmental problems in this country."

If so, the precedent is a disaster, insists Barry N. Clements, a well-known conservationist and former park ranger who was hired by Richards Bay Minerals, or RBM, to repair what has become a public relations nightmare.

"This is the greatest hoax that has ever been perpetrated in the history of conservation," Clements complained. He blamed "a green left wing who are opposed to any development whatsoever" and a mining company totally unused to considering public opinion.

"These headlines are normally used for world wars," he said with evident disgust as he pointed out some of the local media coverage.

In his view, environmentalists and reporters have misrepresented the facts. The 3,500 acres that RBM wants to mine are no "ecological wilderness," he said. More than half the area is covered by dense government-owned commercial pine forests that will be logged whether the dunes are mined or not, he said.

Nor is the rest of St. Lucia pristine. Early settlers slaughtered so much game that several species became extinct. Rivers have been diverted, swamps drained and dams built to make way for vast sugar cane and pine plantations. The lake is choking with topsoil from overgrazing and poor farming practices. Until recently, there was even a military missile testing range nearby.

So RBM wants to use massive floating dredgers to suck up 30 feet per day of coastal dunes for the next 17 years. After valuable minerals are extracted and pumped away in a buried pipeline, the company says, the sand will be spit back out so the dunes can be rebuilt, covered with topsoil and replanted.

Clements said most park visitors will "hardly know" a huge mining operation is under way and that the replanted dunes someday will appear identical to the natural ones. But he concedes that could take decades.

"There's no way we can leave (the area) as good as it was," he said. "Mining is dirty, dangerous and destructive."

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