Prehistoric rock art rescued

Authorities have decided to withdraw mining licences and environmental permits to prevent the destruction of priceless prehistoric rock art sites in the Erongo Region.

15 February 2021 | History

JANA-MARI SMITH

WINDHOEK



Otjohorongo community activists and a Namibian farmer have chalked up a hard-fought victory against mining companies in the Erongo Region after authorities resolved to withdraw mining licences and environmental permits to prevent the destruction of priceless prehistoric rock art sites.

In the wake of an investigation launched into complaints by the activists and farmer more than a year ago, authorities in November last year, agreed to withdraw relevant mining permits and licences from several large-scale mining sites at Otjohorongo granite hills and Farm Gross Okandjou.

A letter to the community this month, confirmed that in November last year, following the findings of the investigations, “it was resolved that all environmental clearance certificates (ECCs) and mining licences in these areas will be withdrawn.”

The decision was based partly on the discovery that not one of the companies had been issued a valid ECC, as the environmental impact assessments on which the permits were issued lacked the legally required heritage component as required by the Environmental Management Act and the National Heritage Act.

“Heritage resources were not identified, recorded, reported interpreted and their significance was not appropriately estimated,” the team found.

The letter invited community members to attend a stakeholder meeting over the past weekend with the national heritage council, and the mines and environment ministry at Otjohorongo.

The meeting was set to discuss the outcome of the joint report for Otjohorongo Hill and Gross Okandjou farm, as well as to map out the future exploration and mining activities and the way forward regarding the protection of the two heritage sites.

The ministry of environment and tourism on Thursday confirmed that environmental assessment reports did not address the heritage components as required by law.

The ministry however clarified that to date no ECCs had been withdrawn, in a statement that clashes with the heritage council's announcement to the community.

“So far no ECCs were withdrawn. The ECC may only be withdrawn if the impact by such an activity cannot be mitigated. Withdrawal is usually the last resort.”

The ministry did not explain the contradicting information but said it was working on a further clarification.



Annihilation

Studies found that the two areas contain 30 significant archaeological sites with over 530 rock paintings, many dating back as far as 5 000 to 30 000 years according to archaeologists.

Both sites have been designated as areas of not only national, but regional and global archaeological importance.

Site visits confirmed “cases of disturbances and possible damage to archaeological heritage landscapes. The mining impacts manifested themselves in the form of direct destruction of archaeological resources, disruption of the cultural landscape setting, as well as disturbances and damage to the ecosystem and the geological integrity on both sites.”

“The sites are highly vulnerable to further disturbances and / or destruction due to their proximity to mining operations, which would in turn translate to irreversible loss of cultural heritage,”the letter explained.



Shut down

“A total of six proponents were identified to be responsible for the disturbances and destruction of archaeological sites,” the letter stated.

The shutdown of activities involved the withdrawal of two exclusive prospecting licences (EPL) that had been issued for Gross Okandjou Farm. At Otjohorongo granite hill, the authorities withdrew two mining licences and two mining claims were withdrawn.



Proclaim

The Otjohorongo community and a farmer first rang the alarm bells over the wholesale destruction of the rock paintings between November 2019 and January 2020.

Community members applauded the long-awaited move by the authorities to protect the country's archaeological and cultural assets, and confirmed that all mining activities finally seized in November last year, one year after the community had first raised the alarm.

A community member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cautioned however that not all activities have stopped. He said activities were still detected in January at Otjohorongo and that the mining companies claimed they were only hauling away leftover mined materials.

He added that the battle was not over, and that the community would continue to push authorities, particularly the Heritage Council, to declare the areas as official national heritage sites to protect them from any future mining activities.

“That is our ultimate goal.”

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