Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Cameos of the Karoo: A journey into the heartland


Geraldine Bennett*|

22 March 2011 12:46

Moneyweb gets up-close and personal with the inhabitants of the Great Karoo.

RICHMOND, NORTHERN CAPE  - “We see the light at the end of the tunnel and now Shell is going to put it out”.  These are the words of Richmond emerging farmer, Clive Bruce. 
In a Moneyweb interview at the Caltex garage in Richmond, Northern Cape, Bruce, and another emerging farmer, Derrek “Wha” Olifant, said that this is what they have been working toward for three years …and now Shell Exploration, a wholly owned subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell has muscled its way into their lives. 
Shell didn’t knock and it wasn’t invited, but ever since its notification of an application to explore for shale-gas in the South African heartland, the People of the Great Karoo have been forced out of their comfort zones if opposed to the petrochemical giants mammoth upstream advances. 
Land of Windmills
Twenty eight members of the Richmond Emerging Farmers Cooperative Ltd (Richmond Opkomende Boere Kooperasie Bpk), who have waited almost three years to get up and running, now run the risk of having their R1.5m loan declined.
For the past three years the 28 members, whose participation in a proposed sheep, lucerne and vegetable operation on the farm Merweville, have funded their running costs from the income of the pensioners who are also members in the scheme.  These pensioners, although not actively involved in the day-to-day operations add their tuppence-worth by contributing financially to the livelihoods of the rest of the members while the co-operative farming venture takes shape. 
Daan van der Merwe, a retired deciduous fruit and livestock farmer from Ceres, Koue Bokkeveld, has been appointed mentor for this project via consultants Ethics and Leadership Institute, or ELI Group.  In conjunction with the active members he has drawn up a business and production plan together with a budget.   
Big names, Standard Bank, Absa, Department of Agriculture and the Landbank have been approached.
“We are also speaking to Khula Bank,” says Van der Merwe. 
This is the ‘light’ that Bruce speaks of. 
“For three years we have struggled, but we have not given up, and now with a mentor teaching us the ropes we see the light via a R1.5m loan …and just as we breath again Shell and its billion dollar slush fund has the potential to strip away our dream.” 
“The farm was purchased by the Ubuntu Municipality in 2007 and the emerging farmers cooperative has a ten year rental contract. The fact that they do not own the land makes funding challenging as they are not in a position to offer security”, says Van der Merwe.   
The funds are required to ‘stock’ up and implement self-sustaining options such as their own grazing and the cultivation of vegetables for local sale and consumption. 
“This initiative touches the lives of around 100 people,” says Olifant. “And we want to add to that by contributing to employment opportunities in the area”.
Bruce reckons, from his perspective in the local Richmond ‘township’ Sabelo, that unemployment is as high as “95%”. “If we can contribute just 10% to that by employing and training locals to farm again, then many more families will have food on their plates”.   
“…en nou hie kom Sjell en hulle siddi ligte af
Olifant and Bruce are two of the 28 members of the Richmond emerging farmers cooperative project willing to speak about their dreams, which they say have been shattered and rebuilt so often over the past three years.

Derrek Wha Olifant (L) & Clive Bruce (R)
There is a quiet pride in Olifant and a determination in Bruce as they talk about their plans once this funding is finally approved.
“We want to build this farm into a success for our children”.  We are old and our lives are lived, but what of our children whose future stretches before them?” 
Says Olifant, “All that we hope to achieve for ourselves is the promise of a future for our children”.
Olifant, the elder of the two, and referred to in the colloquial as Bra Wha has four children, and Bruce three. 
“This fracking application by Shell will definitely have a detrimental effect “nadelige impak” on our dream”, says Bruce. “What about our camps and our grazing?”
Bruce is the more informed of the two about Shell’s fracking application.  For them, the 90 000 square kms sounds serious but of more worry is the fact that investors close to a decision on a R1.5m loan could become jittery at the possibility of medium term water scarcity and contamination. This carries the risk of non-repayment since underground water in this arid landscape is absolutely essential for survival and fracking is highly water intensive.
“If they poison our water with chemicals, or they use it all up, our big plans are going to fail”. This possibility worries them.
Funding is necessary to buy 500 sheep and 15 rams for sale as lamb, mutton and wool; plant seven hectares under lucerne for grazing, and four hectares of vegetables. The latter will be sold into the local community.   
“If our farming venture is allowed to become a reality, we can offer jobs as well”, says Olifant. “If we can contribute 10% to Richmond jobs, then just imagine the difference this will make to many families in the area. 
Put your lights off
Asked whether he believed that Shell would offer jobs to the local community, both Bruce and Olifant in unison said that this would not be the case. “We’ve heard this line before!”
Citing the recent Eskom activity in the area, they say that although Eskom had offered a few locals some work, in the main they had brought in labour from the Far East. Bruce says the worst is that Eskom “paid the locals R2 000.00 a month, but [Eskom] paid the foreigners, who came and left sickness and disruption amongst our local community, R30 000.00 per month.”
Olifant and Bruce who are members of the community don’t believe that Shell can offer anything that they can’t. It’s their opinion that at the end of the day “a person can’t eat petrol”.  
No Water no Life
Besides the possibility of water depletion in this already arid area, lucerne cannot be cultivated if there is excessive acidity or salts in the water source. 
Hydraulic fracking is notably water intensive and the fracking mix contains chemicals, which if spilled would contribute to rising acidity in the fragile and complex aquifer system.
Equally, excessive salts will have an adverse effect on crop production, and in this respect, the option mooted by Shell of using “seawater in the fracking mix” should also be avoided.
Roland du Toit, a Beaufort West farmer, has 40 water wells on his 16 000 hectare family farm. He says that 95 percent of his water supply comes from below ground. 
“The farmers in this area are entirely reliant on underground water for their survival.  If there is the remotest possibility of contamination it spells disaster.” 
Du Toit, a merino, angora goat, cattle, game and lucerne farmer has no idea of what other possible source of water would be provided should underground water become contaminated, or depleted.
Du Toit can’t say what the impact of acid in water will be on his lucerne, because he says “We’ve never had to worry about that”. “The Karoo water is brackish but still drinkable, but additional salt into the system would make our drinking water impossible to drink, and would have a negative impact on lucerne growth”. 
A Soekor investigation in 1967, undertaken by Port Elizabeth drilling consultant and ex-Soekor employee, Andre Els, revealed evidence that a drilling fluid spill can, and did, emerge almost 40 km’s from the drill site in just 30 days. See In Solidarity with the heartland.
In the meantime 2010 multi-award winning fracking documentary, Gasland, is being passed around to much emotional reaction in the Karoo.   
Academy nominated, this documentary reveals disturbing evidence of inflammable water coming from household taps; exploding wells in back-gardens; creeping disease in humans and animals, and suggestion of internal energy cover-ups. 
One hundred and sixteen authorities in the USA have placed a banning, or moratorium on fracking and this is increasing in countries as far a-field as France and Canada; with the most recent anti-fracking petition tabled in Nova Scotia in opposition to Petroworth Resources’ fracking application.  http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/stop-fracking-in-nova-scotia/
The documentary Gasland is a sobering expose of US natural gas production via hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. 
For those in the Karoo opposed to the oil and gas giant’s advances it is not yet too late to take a stand against Shell and its cronies. 
The draft EMP is available still for public comment until 5 April 2011.
*Geraldine Bennett, a former high profile television anchor and energy sector executive, keeps an eye on environmental issues for Moneyweb. She can be reached via editor@moneyweb.co.za
Disclaimer: Part of Bennett’s fuel is being sponsored by Craig Elstob; accommodation by Peet & Hannah van Heerden; Roland & Lizelle du Toit, and Dr Peter Baker.  The TKAG (Treasure the Karoo Action Group) donated R1 000 towards her costs of covering this series.



  1. Watch Gasland

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