A Just Transition – Repurposing Mine Sites for Agricultural Opportunities

Meg Kauthen, Sustainability Designer at Business for Development, investigates how the transition towards a low-carbon future can create new agricultural opportunities.

South Africa is highly dependent on coal, with almost 90 per cent of its energy coming from coal-fired power stations, which is further complicated by load shedding – or scheduled outages designed to ensure that supply meets demand. As the world transitions towards a low-carbon future, how can South Africa move away from coal and meet supply demands without disrupting people’s lives?

The transition to clean energy also brings with it the importance of transforming land where mines operate to create economic opportunities. This includes making provisions for both vulnerable workers and alternative livelihoods for those living near the mine.

Ensuring a just transition towards a low-carbon future

The concept is called “Just Transition” – whereby we work to ensure mining companies return land to the community that can be used for other purposes. It is a responsible attitude to the environment that helps to make sure that Environmental Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) requirements are met now, and for future economic models – including agriculture. Without a Just Transition, the South African Federation of Trade Unions has estimated that about 40,000 energy workers jobs will be lost. With a population of 59 million people, where unemployment stood above 30 per cent even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, a Just Transition is imperative for economic growth.

Across the world we need to move towards net-zero carbon emissions if we are going to reduce the impact of climate change. This means finding new means of generating energy through renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal. However, as economies transition, governments, NGOs, and mining companies need to start working towards mine-closure to meet sustainability requirements – economic, environmental, and social. With the mining sector set to close many assets in the coming decades, thousands of community members need to be trained in modern agriculture practices that are climate-smart and regenerative, and it needs to happen now.

Repurposing remediated mine land and water in agriculture represent a significant opportunity to revitalize communities, writes the author. Photo credit: Glencore

An agricultural opportunity

Why are we discussing this on Farming First? There is a significant opportunity to address the above issue through repurposing remediated mine land and water in agriculture.

At Business for Development, an NGO focused on creating sustainable livelihoods through market-focussed agricultural opportunities, we have been working with Glencore Coal South Africa, Umsimbithi Mining Ltd, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), Impact Catalyst, and the Mine Water Coordinating Body (MWCB) to pilot a variety of winter wheat at a rehabilitated mine site and on nearby community land in Mpumalanga.

The results are proving to be positive. It is expected that the results will be around 1.5 tonnes per acre for the dryland pilot sites and 2.0-2.5 tonnes per acre for the irrigated pilot sites. When the crop has reached 30 per cent moisture levels in the coming weeks, Business for Development will take and compare the following samples drawn from four control sites:

  1. Remediated land irrigated with fresh water
  2. Virgin land irrigated with fresh water
  3. Remediated land irrigated with treated mine water
  4. Virgin land irrigated with treated mine water

Tests will be conducted to review if the remediated land and treated mine water leaves the grain with chemical or mineral residues.

On completion of the wheat pilot, key learnings will be shared with the South African Government on how the Mpumalanga Province can transition from mining – which accounts for 25.4 per cent of the provincial’s economy – to a sustainable post-mining agricultural economy. Successful implementation will mean improved food diversity and security, added farm-based employment, and potentially new skills behind crop processing. Given that the Mpumalanga province is close to Johannesburg, the market opportunities are significant.

Business for Development will use key findings to develop the required systems, including expanded distribution networks and markets for the wheat, to expand the pilot and replicate the program at other sites. In the coming months, the team will be planting fortified vitamin A maize and testing more sites. Through crop rotation, several economic opportunities for the community will be available all year round.

At the pilot site, a variety of winter wheat is grown. Photo credit: Glencore

Harnessing existing resources

By 2050 we will need to feed two billion more people. How can we achieve this without overwhelming the planet? One answer is to use the current resources we have – remediated mine land and water. Mines transitioning to closure, or those already closed, often have assets available for a circular economy – ranging from roads to railway lines, housing, buildings, and so on. All of these are available for repurposing into establishing sustainable solutions.

If we are truly going to be sustainable – meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs – we need to challenge conventional wisdom, test assumptions, bridge sectors, and embrace change to take measured risks. Agile and focused pilots like this can leave a positive legacy and generate a Just Transition for today’s and future generations.