Campaigners force Shell to halt oil exploration on South African coast

Court instructs company to stop tests along Wild Coast after concerns raised about wildlife and lack of consultation

Shell will be forced to halt oil exploration in vital whale breeding grounds along South Africa’s eastern coastline after a local court blocked the controversial project.

The court order calls for an immediate halt to Shell’s seismic tests which involve blasting sound waves through the relatively untouched Wild Coast marine environment, which is home to whales, dolphins and seals.

The community campaigners behind the legal challenge welcomed the court’s decision as a victory for “voiceless” indigenous groups living near the coast which hold customary rights to undertake small-scale fishing in the area, as well as a cultural and spiritual connection to the ocean.

Lawyers for the groups successfully argued that Shell had failed to meaningfully consult people who would be affected by the seismic survey and also provided evidence of the threat of harm to marine life.

Wilmien Wicomb, an attorney at the Legal Resources Centre, said the case held “huge significance” because it showed that “no matter how big a company is, it ignores local communities at its peril”.

“This case is really a culmination of the struggle of communities along the Wild Coast for the recognition of their customary rights to land and fishing, and to respect for their customary processes,” Wicomb said.

A river mouth on the relatively untouched South African Wild Coast.
The relatively untouched South African Wild Coast is home to whales, dolphins and seals. Photograph: Africa Media Online/Alamy

Sinegugu Zukulu, a senior campaigner for Sustaining the Wild Coast, added: “The voices of the voiceless have been heard. The voices of the directly affected people have at last been heard, and the constitutional rights of indigenous people have been upheld.”

The victory for local communities follows an unsuccessful 11th-hour legal challenge by environmental groups earlier this month to block Shell’s plans on the grounds that it could cause irreparable damage to the environment.

Critics of Shell’s presence on the Wild Coast argue its plans were approved using outdated legislation. Shell received the green light in 2014 from South Africa’s then minister of mineral resources, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, just months before new environmental legislation was put in place.

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The oil company could be forced to comply with the tougher environmental regulation to move forward with its exploration plan for the sensitive ecological region, subject to a separate court hearing.

“This case reminds us that constitutional rights belong to the people and not to government,” Zukulu said. “And that the only way that we can [ensure] that the rights of indigenous people are living – and not just written on paper – is if we challenge government decisions that disregard these rights. This victory is hugely significant because we have made sure that the rights of indigenous communities are kept alive.”

A Shell spokesperson said: “We respect the court’s decision and have paused the survey while we review the judgment.”


Jillian Ambrose

The GuardianTramp

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