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Hands off the wild coast

Activists hold a 'Hands Off the Wild Coast' banner and anti-Shell placards during a demonstration outside its London headquarters on December 4, 2021. (Photo: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

'Big Win' as Shell Ordered to Stop Seismic Blasting Along South African Coast

"The case is not just about Shell—it is about both protecting human rights and animal rights, which are both enshrined in the constitution."

Jessica Corbett

Conservationists and impacted communities celebrated Tuesday after a South African court blocked Shell's seismic exploration for oil and gas along the country's Wild Coast, which critics argued endangered marine life and the livelihoods of local fishers.

"The case has huge significance in that it shows that no matter how big a company is, it ignores local communities at its peril."

"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," declared Sinegugu Zukulu of Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC).

Nonhle Mbuthuma of Amadiba Crisis Committee said that "this case is about making sure that profit-making does not override human rights. It is about making sure that the voices of rural communities are as important as the voices of the elite."

"The case is not just about Shell—it is about both protecting human rights and animal rights, which are both enshrined in the constitution," Mbuthuma added. "As coastal communities, we have relied on the sea for centuries—and we are glad that the judge has recognized that our ocean livelihoods must not be sacrificed for short-term profit."

Judge Gerald Bloem of the Grahamstown High Court in Makhanda found that local communities were not properly consulted and ruled Shell was "hereby interdicted from undertaking seismic survey operations" in more than 2,300 square miles of waters off the Eastern Cape province.

As the BBC explained:

Seismic surveys are carried out as a means of mapping what lies beneath the seafloor.

Shockwaves fired from an air gun—like a very powerful speaker—are blasted down towards the seabed. The sound that returns reveals whether there is, for example, oil locked in the rock beneath.

While an earlier court decision had allowed Shell to move forward with the survey, Bloem accepted expert testimony about the harm that such activity would cause.

"Many sea creatures will be affected, from whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, to tiny plankton that will be blasted," said Janet Solomon of the environmental group Oceans Not Oil, according to Agence France-Presse.

AFP noted that a spokesperson for Shell, which can appeal the decision, said Tuesday that "we respect the court's decision and have paused the survey while we review the judgment."

Bloem ordered Shell and South African Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe—who made clear that he supported the fossil fuel giant's project and spoke out against its critics—to pay the costs of the application for the interim interdict.

Along with celebrating their victory, the applicants emphasized that their challenge to the coastal blasting was about more than Shell or its survey.

"A decision against Shell is a decision to protect the ocean—which is ourselves," said Siyabonga Ndovela of Amadiba Crisis Committee. "This judgment is a big win for all of us—citizens and government—the whole of South Africa. I am so happy."

SWC's Nobuntu Mazeka agreed that the judgment "marks one of the important milestones in our lifetime as people of not only Pondoland but South Africa, Africa, and the world at large."

Wilmien Wicomb of the Legal Resources Center said that "the case has huge significance in that it shows 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," she continued.

"The Amadiba and Dwesa-Cwebe communities fought for such recognition in earlier cases," the attorney added, "and the Makhanda High Court reminded the state and Shell today, once again, that the Indigenous rights of communities are protected by the constitution from interference, no matter how powerful the intruders are."

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