Sustainable Innovation in Mine Site Rehabilitation

26 May 2023
26 May 2023

Written By: Lindsay Moses

Innovative solutions could allow a pivot away from degraded and abandoned land. Like many nations worldwide, South Africa is grappling with an issue of abandoned mines.   According to the Derelict and Ownerless Mines Project by the Council of Geoscience, about 6000 mines are estimated to have been abandoned across the country. Extractive activity often, once completed, leaves a state (or the landowner) with land irreparably harmed and surrounding environments and natural resources degraded, or drastically altered. Harm can be directly or indirectly incurred by humans, animals, and plants at any point in the mine life cycle. Blasts can disturb wildlife. Refinery and processing can create toxic runoff that enters streams, rivers, and waterbeds that serve as water source for both humans and animals.

As it stands mineral right holders must ensure sufficient funds exist to rehabilitate the mine once it has ran its lifecycle. In reality, accountability remains scant. Mineral right holders can abandon the mine should they not be able to close it properly. Bigger mining companies ‘pass the buck’ to smaller ones to avoid closing a mine and having to take responsibility for the associated socio-environmental effects of their a extractive activity. There is also a lack of enforcement capacity and funding by the South African government, which absorbs that responsibility indefinitely once a closure certificate is granted.[1] Where rehabilitation does occur, traditional rehabilitative solutions are not regenerative, in harmony with the natural world, or created with sustainable solutions in mind.

Rethinking Rehabilitation

Unfortunately, the concerns of the state are less geared toward actioning polluters to pay but attracting more potential extractive investors. Dethroning the problems of the natural environment by making environmental regulation less stringent for companies is touted as the path states must take to attract investors. Strict environmental obligations are one of many factors blamed for South Africa’s mining sector suffering from a historically low investment point. This neglects a real regenerative sustainable opportunity.

Instead of seeing environmental conservation as a mandatory tick box exercise, it should be seen as what they are: accessible and inventive natural solutions to the devastating manmade ills of mining activity. The mine’s lifecycle ending is the beginning of a sustainable opportunity for rehabilitation and innovation.

An arsenal of rehabilitative measures is at our/humanity’s disposal. Nature can be used throughout the restoration process, with industry playing a leading role and government playing a facilitative one. By incorporating the natural world into rehabilitative efforts, the clean-up cost also lessens. Though mine owners are responsible for funding rehabilitation, mines are routinely abandoned, and the state is left with the financially onerous burden of land restoration. An estimated R49 billion is required by the state’s mineral resources department to clean up the estimated 6000 abandoned mine sites across the country. One can only imagine the total cost of mine site restoration when considering that the Department of human settlements and the Water and Sanitation Department has a role to play.

Scientists note that it is impractical and often impossible to aim towards restoration to the land’s original ecosystem. Rather, novel hybrid ecosystems can be fostered, and land use reimagined through a restorative agricultural lens. In Australia, ants and similar invertebrates’ presence have been efficiently used in simplified land management, specifically as indicators of ecosystem health at mine restoration sites.[2] Earthworms, similarly, can be used as bioindicators of soil quality. At the beginning of rehabilitation, pillbugs can remove heavy metals like copper, zinc, lead, and cadmium from the soil. Similarly, to ants, they can be used as bioindicators of the land but specifically of heavy metal presence in soil. Continual land use on land with toxic levels of waste or pollution can be achieved with certain hardy, fibrous plants like bamboo or hemp which can be particularly useful for preventing land erosion and landslides, and has the potential to generate economic growth in surrounding communities as plant material can be used to produce textiles and furniture.[3] This could also provide an alternative long-term avenue for surrounding communities often negatively impacted by closures to actually benefit from mining activity instead of being harmed by it. An opportunity is also created for those who wish to go into high-risk artisanal mining instead to gain skills transferrable to other sectors like agriculture.

How does the law play a role in this regard?

Proactivity in law means consideration of interest and obligations, captured in regulation and policy.  Proactivity in legal framework design is always a necessity where opportunities (especially for sustainable development) are identified.[4] South Africa’s global commitments to ecological biodiversity and conservation provide so much guidance into genuine efforts the state can make to facilitate innovative restorative projects. While the political will for innovation and multi-stakeholder collaborations toward sustainable development exists, it is insufficient. More concerted efforts to integrate interdisciplinary policy recommendations and findings could create the space for innovative and sustainable solutions.

If space is created for innovative, regenerative land restoration and development projects, bureaucracy must not be a hindrance. Once the mine life cycle ends and a new project essentially begins, there can be a continued onboarding of new role players, departments, legislation, and policy to be followed. Legislation that is coordinated in objectives and bureaucratic procedures could also streamline and facilitate any potential projects.

Existing legislation could also be invoked to prevent land degradation and abandonment in the first place. For instance, this can be realised by using section 24 of the National Environmental Management Act which emphasises the polluter pays principle of environmental law. The proposed scope of financial provisioning can also be extended to include innovative interdisciplinary development projects post-closure. Sometimes the best and most innovative action that can be taken is using mechanism at hand and enforcing preventive measures that already exist.



[1] MPRDA, s 46.

[2] Andersen, Alan N., and Jonathan D. Majer. "Ants show the way down under: invertebrates as bioindicators in land management." Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2.6 (2004): 291-298.

[3] Towards Resilient Futures Community of Practice, Policy Briefs: Developing a Fibre Micro-industry to Generate Economic Growth from Degraded Land Post-Mining, DSI-NRF-UCT CoP/PBs1-4, University of Cape Town, 2019.

[4]  Ibid.