A local government in one of South Africa's most promising premium wine regions, the Swartland, has granted permits for sand-mining on two properties, angering winemakers who worry the region's natural beauty will be ruined by mining equipment among the vines. They are appealing the decision.
The Swartland Municipality Tribunal granted permission for mining sand for use in the building industry at two farms on the slopes of the Paardeberg mountain on Feb. 10. The Swartland district is home to well-known wine names such as Sadie Family Wines, A.A. Badenhorst Family Wines and Lammershoek, all of whom own vineyards likely to be impacted by the decision.
According to Eben Sadie, winemaker and a member of the Protect the Paardeberg Coalition, the fight has been going on for two years as the government considered the application. "This area has always been agricultural, so it's not as if we started farming in a mining area," said Sadie. "We've invested in agriculture to keep it sustainable for future generations and it's terrible to think that all this might now be lost for some short-term gain."
The Swartland Municipality responded to the objections with a statement: "The Municipality Tribunal's decision is currently subject to an appeal process."
Adi Badenhorst from A.A. Badenhorst Family Wines says that there is plenty of sand available outside the agricultural zone, but mining on the Paardeberg reduces the distance between the mines and the sand's final destination dramatically, cutting costs. "It was quite a shock you know!" said Badenhorst.
Chris Mullineux from Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines, which sources many of its grapes from the Paardeberg, believes the authorities failed to consider the potential of the Swartland as a wine tourism destination before coming to their decision. "We've been investing a lot of money here and this makes us very nervous about the municipality's understanding of the region long-term," said Mullineux. "We're opening a tasting room this year and encouraging more people to visit, but people don't want to visit somewhere that's meant to be beautiful and find themselves next door to a dusty, noisy mine."
Both Sadie and Mullineux stress that their concerns are with the municipality and its handling of this dispute, not the neighbors who are applying for the mining rights on their farms.
Badenhorst agrees, but warns of turbulent times ahead. "We're not going to back down, but this has the potential to tear this community apart," he said. "I really feel for the guys involved. Obviously they need an income and this is what they've decided is part of their business plan. But ultimately, there's no reason why you should mine sand. You only mine sand when you're in a desperate situation."
One of the farmers who has been granted permission for mining activities, Nollie Smit, argues that the situation for many smaller farmers is, indeed, desperate. "We are getting the same price today for grapes as we did 13 years ago. It's just not worth it to farm."
If the sand mining goes forward, the biggest immediate threat to vineyards on the Paardeberg will be potential damage to the area's dirt roads by heavy trucks used to carry sand and machinery. Opponents are concerned about dust and noise too, but their biggest fear is the destruction of the calm beauty of the Swartland and the lack of sustainability for future generations. "Farming and mines just don't sit well together," said Badenhorst.
The Protect the Paardeberg Coalition has until March 3 to lodge objections to the municipality's decision. Members are urging people to sign an online petition at their website.
"It's as if you suddenly set up a mine in Oakville, Napa, or started drilling in Montrachet," said Sadie. "These soils and vineyards are beautiful and unique, and we can't replace them if you take half the mountain away."