South Africa. Nonhle Mbuthuma and Sinegugu Zukulu.

Activists Nonhle Mbuthuma and Sinegugu Zukulu have stopped destructive seismic testing for oil and gas off South Africa’s Eastern Cape, in an area known as the Wild Coast.

Organizing their community, Nonhle and Sinegugu secured their victory by asserting the rights of the local community to protect their marine environment. By halting oil and gas exploration in a particularly biodiverse area, they protected migratory whales, dolphins, and other wildlife from the harmful effects of seismic testing.

The Wild Coast is unusually rich in marine biodiversity due to the Agulhas Current, which churns up nutrients. The area provides habitat for migratory humpback and southern right whales that calve offshore, and is a hub for many endemic and migratory fish species that have been depleted elsewhere in their range. The 360,000-acre Mpondoland marine protected area is a major sanctuary and boon to species survival.

In October 2021, media reported that Shell planned to launch seismic surveys in December off the Wild Coast to prospect for oil and gas reserves below the seabed. The South African government granted the company exploration rights in 2014 and renewed them in 2021. However, the process of conducting seismic surveys to map offshore oil and gas reserves can severely damage marine ecosystems.

The surveys include blasting the seafloor with high-powered sonic air guns that reach 250 decibels. The high-decibel blasts can be heard for miles and directly harm zooplankton, fish eggs and larvae, and, especially, marine mammals, which can suffer hearing loss and disrupted communication, struggle to locate prey during seismic surveys, and may be forced away from foraging and mating habitats. Scientists assert that establishing offshore gas and oil drilling platforms also increases the likelihood of a potentially devastating oil spill along the Wild Coast.

Nonhle Mbuthuma, 46, and Sinegugu Zukulu, 54, are Mpondo people from the Amadiba administrative area of Mpondoland, the traditional territory of the Mpondo people, located within the Wild Coast region. Amadiba is home to about 3,000 families. From 2007 to 2018, Nonhle and Sinegugu worked together on a campaign against a proposed titanium mine along the Amadiba shoreline.

Nonhle is the cofounder and spokesperson for the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), a community-based social movement that formed to fight the proposed mine. Her grandfather was a traditional healer and she learned early on that nature takes care of those who take care of it.

Sinegugu is a program manager for Sustaining the Wild Coast, an NGO that works with Indigenous communities to promote environmental sustainability, and earns income from ecotourism in the Wild Coast.
He grew up understanding that “natural life is intertwined with our lives,” and published a book documenting the traditional medicinal uses of plants by the Mpondo people, highlighting their deep relationship
with the natural world.

In November 2021, Sinegugu learned – via social media – about the imminent seismic testing. Within two weeks, he joined forces with Nonhle and the ACC to organize a meeting of the entire coastal community of Amadiba to decide how to proceed. Because Nonhle and Sinegugu had campaigned successfully against the proposed titanium mine, they were able to mobilize the community quickly and raise awareness about the threats posed by seismic testing.

Shell had consulted some commercial fishermen and predominantly white recreational fishing associations in the region. The company claimed to have consulted traditional Mpondo leaders as well, but none of the coastal communities in Amadiba and elsewhere on the Wild Coast had been consulted nor made aware of the plan.

To build their case, Nonhle and Sinegugu met with Amadiba community members and recorded affidavits of their objections to the seismic testing. Community members stated that, according to their traditional spiritual beliefs, their ancestors live in the sea.

Portals along the Wild Coast allow Mpondo healers and elders to communicate with their ancestors. The Mpondo people have a duty to protect these portals, which would be disturbed by the seismic blasts from Shell’s oil and gas exploration.
As Nonhle notes, there is no distinction between people and nature: “The ocean is a sacred place for us.”

As part of the campaign, Nonhle and Sinegugu organized a seven-kilometre “community walk” along the coast, summoning ancestors to support their legal case. They released videos and media statements urging other coastal communities to join in protest against the proposed seismic survey. In December 2021, the campaign submitted 400 pages of affidavits, including community and expert testimony that Nonhle
and Sinegugu had collected.
On December 28, 2021, the High Court ruled in their favour, mandating an immediate cessation of Shell’s seismic survey operations.

With a stop order in place, Nonhle and Sinegugu lodged a legal challenge to the environmental approval the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy had granted Shell. The duo partnered with Sustaining the Wild Coast, All Rise Law Firm, Greenpeace, Natural Justice, Amnesty International, and fishing communities along the coast to draw more attention to the campaign.
Nonhle organized rallies to assert the community’s right to say no to the offshore oil and gas exploration, and Sinegugu gave media interviews laying out their case. In May 2022, the High Court held hearings to determine the validity of Shell’s exploration permit.

On September 1, 2022, the High Court ruled that Shell’s permission to conduct seismic surveys on the Wild Coast had been granted unlawfully—and the permit was rescinded. The court found that Shell’s consultations with select leaders were inadequate and should have included the entire affected coastal communities. The court further ruled that, when granting approval to Shell, the government had failed to consider the potential harm to local fishermen’s livelihoods, the impact on Mpondo cultural and spiritual rights, and the contribution of gas and oil exploitation to climate change.

Nonhle and Sinegugu’s achievement also brought broader legal recognition of the cultural and spiritual rights of South African Indigenous communities that seek to protect their environments—the first time a successful environmental challenge was made based on ties to customary cultural, spiritual, and economic rights.

Last April, Nonhle Mbuthuma and Sinegugu Zukulu received the Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the “Green Nobel Prize”. (The Goldman Environment Report – Photo Goldman Environmental Prize)



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