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#MineAlert: A digi-savvy tool to make mining activities more transparent in South Africa

#MineAlert: A digi-savvy tool to make mining activities more transparent in South Africa

By jesse.worker - May 25th, 2016

By: Tholakele Nene, Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism

Imagine that you were an ordinary South African citizen living in an area rich in coal, iron ore, or gold. You wake up every day to collect semi-clean water from the nearest river bank, a natural resource for which you are grateful. You tilt your first bucket to let the water flow in, remove it and repeat the exercise with all your buckets. You nudge your sleeping wheelbarrow, load the buckets and are on your way, passing grazing cattle and a graveyard, humming your way up the road. You arrive at your homestead and go about your business.

A few hours later while walking your children to school you notice a group of locals huddled against the local tuckshop (a small convenience store) staring at an A4 sheet of white paper on the wall. As you approach you hear talks about submitting CVs, relocation of graves, compensation, etc. You look around and see a notice of a proposed mine where a graveyard is located not far away from the river where you collect your water. The notice says there are only two weeks for you to give input to the mine’s developers. No direct contact details are supplied, only a postal address. Do you draft a letter? How will you know if it’s received by the mining company? Do you know of the South African Mineral Resources Administration Online System (SAMRAD)? Do you know your rights?


Mining in the South African context:

There are hundreds of communities in South Africa that are affected by mining. Some of these stories generate media attention because the proposed mining areas are near wetlands and ecologically sensitive areas, some because they are taken up by vocal civil society organisations and environmental activists that have enough resources to take action. And in some unfortunate cases, communities never receive the shared benefits—such as better roads and schools and compensation—that were promised to them by the mining companies.  

In 2011 the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) introduced the South African Mineral Resources Administration Online System (SAMRAD). The aim of this online portal was to help speed up the processing of thousands of mining applications streaming in daily. It was also designed to help the general public access information on mining and prospecting applications. Oxpeckers Centre created a test account on SAMRAD to see how easily accessible to the general public the mining information on applicants was. We discovered that the only information we had access to was our own, from a test account. We found it difficult to access information and navigate the website. Our experience working with communities told us that this would hinder use by those who needed it. This is why we created #MineAlert. To create ease of access to crucial mining documents for communities.


Advocating for transparency through #MineAlert:

On April 26 2016, the Oxpeckers Centre launched a mobile and web based app with the above-mentioned challenges in mind. The idea was to create a platform that bridges the transparency gap between government, organisations rallying for change, and ordinary citizens. The platform is free, fast, and easy to use. It is designed to equip mining-affected communities with the right amount of information to make their voices heard. It offers a place where citizens can access, track and share mining-related information such as: mining licences, water use licence,s and social and labour plans. As a registered user you receive alerts on all the mining companies or geographies you are interested in and are able to use this information, at your disposal, to petition for change.

We developed #MineAlert using three datasets: the most recent mining applications and licences in Mpumalanga, the latest datasets provided by DMR, and a dataset from African Mines. These were all consolidated into one master database that feeds over 2,000 data points into #MineAlert.

Each application or data point contains a mine name, mine owner, coordinates, province and in some cases crucial documents, such as social and labour plans, environmental authorisations, water use licenses and mining permits. Thousands of these documents were sourced from the Centre for Environmental Rights, a non-profit law clinic based in Cape Town, and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, a social justice organisation based at the School of Law at the University of Witwatersrand. Other points have links to videos shared by users and publicised by Oxpeckers on social networks, as well as updated related articles featured in the media.

We have shared these documents with users because we believe they are essential for transparency and are in keeping with free flow of information. Furthermore, they empower communities to know about their rights, to call transgressors to book, and to ensure that environmental and mining laws are adhered to. We want to encourage a generation of proactive communities who do their own investigations and compliance monitoring.


Training stakeholders:

Following the launch of the platform we conducted a number of online training sessions with stakeholders. These sessions are designed to walk the user through the platform. The general response that we have received from users during these sessions was that there is a need for a centralised platform where citizens can keep up to date with information on mining applications and related permits. We have also received an overwhelming response from stakeholders and interested and affected parties (I&APs) who have shared notifications, documents, videos and other relevant information on mining activities. The sharing of this information has enabled us to alert other users to what may be happening in their backyard using the entries on #MineAlert.


How the platform works:

During our training sessions we used the six steps below, to help users navigate the platform and to register for alerts and updates on mines:

  • Step 2: On the home page you will find two options:

(i) If your location services are active on your device, click on "Use my location" to find mining projects in your area. Then click on "Register for alerts in your area" in the top right-hand corner. 

(ii) If you do not want to use your location services, click on the "Register for alerts in your area" tag in the top right of the home page. Type in your details to register.

  • Step 3:  Click on the "map" tag at top left.
  • Step 4: Click on "create alert" on the right. Here you can subscribe to alerts by typing in an area, a mine, company, commodity, or type of mine.
  • Step 5: #MineAlert automatically sends you all updates and documentation for the area and fields you create.
  • Step 6: If you no longer want to receive alerts: once logged in, click on the "Alerts" tag at top right. Delete the alerts you no longer want.


Next steps:

#MineAlert is currently being tested and shared by users around South Africa. We are particularly excited that users are not only providing positive feedback but are also sharing mining-related information with us, such as notifications, videos, documents and mining-related activities taking place around the country.

We are still actively pursuing the DMR to join in the conversation by partnering with us to negotiate the future of mining transparency. This partnership would ideally give us access to further documents and perhaps over time access to the SAMRAD Application Programme Interface (API). An API would allow the Oxpeckers Centre to receive automatic updates on mining applications as they stream into the SAMRAD portal. This, we believe, is the best digital solution going forward-- modern, effective way accessing and sharing critical information on mining activities so that communities are informed and engaged.

#MineAlert is a project of Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism, supported by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.